Podcast: The Power of Persuasive Storytelling
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Leadership Operations Careers Economics Oct 12, 2015

Pod­cast: The Pow­er of Per­sua­sive Storytelling

Sto­ries hook your busi­ness audi­ence and get them to take action.

Business leaders learn how to tell a great story.

Yevgenia Nayberg

Listening: Kellogg Insight Persuasive Storytelling

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The art of sto­ry­telling may con­jure up images of telling tall tales around a camp­fire or art­sy live lit events. But sto­ry­telling is also a key busi­ness skill worth cul­ti­vat­ing. It can serve as an essen­tial tool for clos­ing a deal, impress­ing your boss, or mak­ing your brand more relat­able to consumers.

Sto­ries let you con­nect with your audi­ence on an emo­tion­al lev­el. They help you con­vey key infor­ma­tion in a way that will be remem­bered and help you per­suade your audi­ence to take action. This holds true for both spo­ken and writ­ten sto­ries as well as the sto­ries you want to tell with data.

In this month’s Insight In Per­son pod­cast, you’ll hear from two Kel­logg School pro­fes­sors and a lec­tur­er about the pow­er of sto­ry­telling, as well as their tips to become a bet­ter storyteller.

POD­CAST TRANSCRIPT

[Music pre­lude]

Emi­ly STONEHere’s a lit­tle exer­cise: Think of all the ways that we com­pare our lives to sto­ries: We want to start a new chap­ter in life,” or turn the page” on some­thing, or won­der, What’s her story?”

As humans, we are hard­wired to orga­nize our thoughts through sto­ries. They com­prise every­thing from our cre­ation myths to the anec­dotes politi­cians use to pep­per their speech­es. Sto­ries make us relat­able to each oth­er and con­nect to people’s emotions.

They’re also a pow­er­ful busi­ness tool. If you have key infor­ma­tion you want oth­ers to remem­ber, tell them a sto­ry. If you want to use data to per­suade peo­ple to take action, build visu­al­iza­tions to con­vey that data as a story.

In this month’s Insight In Per­son pod­cast, we’ll hear from two Kel­logg pro­fes­sors and a Kel­logg lec­tur­er about the best ways to tell sto­ries. I’m your host, Emi­ly Stone. So stay tuned.

[Music inter­lude]

Michelle BUCKWhat’s your sto­ry?” The ques­tion, What’s your sto­ry?” is like ask­ing, What do you have to say? Real­ly, at the end of the day, What do you stand for? How do you want to be known?”

STONEThat’s Michelle Buck, a clin­i­cal pro­fes­sor of man­age­ment and orga­ni­za­tions at the Kel­logg School. She believes that in order to lead effec­tive­ly, it is para­mount that lead­ers first clar­i­fy who they are and what they stand for. In oth­er words, they need to mas­ter their own story.

Buck calls this a cap­i­tal S sto­ry. A cap­i­tal S sto­ry is dif­fer­ent from what she calls lit­tle S sto­ries, the anec­dotes that are usu­al­ly what we expect when we hear, Let me tell you a story.”

A cap­i­tal S sto­ry hones a leader’s vision and pur­pose. It is the nar­ra­tive that acts as a com­pass, steer­ing lead­ers in the right direc­tion. It can also drum up sup­port for a leader’s ini­tia­tives. And that is espe­cial­ly impor­tant, giv­en that stud­ies show that only about 20 per­cent of work­ers glob­al­ly feel a sense of mean­ing in their work.

BUCKThere­fore, when lead­ers have that sense of pur­pose in their sto­ry, that trans­mits or trans­lates to the peo­ple whom they’re lead­ing as well and makes the work much more engag­ing, there­fore more pro­duc­tive, pos­si­bly more inno­v­a­tive, and ulti­mate­ly, more prof­itable as well.

STONEA cap­i­tal S sto­ry also pro­vides lead­ers with a sense of agility.

BUCKBecause when deci­sions are required in a very quick man­ner, we’re liv­ing in a con­stant­ly chang­ing envi­ron­ment. You have to be able to access what mat­ters most very, very quickly.

STONESo what can lead­ers do to get their cap­i­tal S sto­ry straight? In her exec­u­tive edu­ca­tion cours­es, Buck guides her stu­dents through a vari­ety of exercises.

One asks peo­ple to think of their life as a book and to title the dif­fer­ent chap­ters. What chap­ters have already hap­pened? What chap­ter are they in now?

BUCKMore impor­tant­ly, in terms of iden­ti­fy­ing an under­ly­ing sense of iden­ti­ty or pur­pose or sto­ry, we ask peo­ple to think about, Is there some theme that con­nects the dots of the oth­er­wise total­ly dif­fer­ent expe­ri­ences of your life?”

STONEAn exer­cise like this, as sim­ple as it sounds, can take you to some pro­found places. Buck describes an instance where an exec­u­tive in one of her cours­es was reflect­ing on who he was, and what expe­ri­ences had shaped him.

He start­ed talk­ing about his moth­er — art­sy, a dream­er — and his father — a stal­wart for log­ic. And then, he had an epiphany.

BUCKHis whole life was work­ing as a bridge builder. In his job, he was the per­son who was always bring­ing peo­ple from dif­fer­ent func­tions and dif­fer­ent depart­ments togeth­er who oth­er­wise may not talk. He came from a part of the world that had great racial and socioe­co­nom­ic ten­sions, and he was always the per­son who was con­nect­ing the dots. He saw a theme that he had nev­er thought about before because of one of these reflec­tive exer­cis­es. He said that it com­plete­ly changed the way he thought about the work ahead of him, and the con­tri­bu­tion that he could make, and refram­ing what he was offering.

STONECap­i­tal S sto­ries aren’t just use­ful for lead­ers. Peo­ple across orga­ni­za­tions — and even orga­ni­za­tions them­selves — can use sto­ries to help peo­ple make sense of change.

BUCKMany lead­ers, dur­ing times of change will invoke the sto­ry metaphor and the idea of chap­ters in the book and say, What do we want our next chap­ter to be? What is the chap­ter that we are going to write togeth­er that builds upon the sto­ry that we’ve been liv­ing for 10 years, 100 years?” That then serves as an invi­ta­tion to cur­rent employ­ees to be part of writ­ing the nar­ra­tive, which is incred­i­bly com­pelling as well.

[Music inter­lude]

STONESo cap­i­tal S sto­ry­telling helps you shape the path ahead. But what about those lit­tle S stories?

Esther CHOYSto­ry­telling is impor­tant because it is the most fun­da­men­tal and shared human intel­li­gence. It is the real fun­da­men­tal way of how we learn, how we share, how we for­mu­late our expe­ri­ence and how we tell oth­ers about it.

STONEThat’s Esther Choy. She’s a Kel­logg alum and lec­tur­er, who is also the founder of the Lead­er­ship Sto­ry Lab, where she teach­es peo­ple how to per­fect telling those lit­tle S sto­ries. She stress­es that sto­ry­telling isn’t only about get­ting up in front of a crowd and telling a sto­ry — though that’s part of the craft.

CHOYSto­ry­telling doesn’t have to always take a long time. You can have a two-lined, brief sen­tence of a story.

STONEThink about how we use sto­ry­telling when we run into a friend who asks how work is, or when a man­ag­er demands to know why an impor­tant project isn’t ready yet. More broad­ly, Choy says to think about sto­ry­telling as an orga­niz­ing prin­ci­ple for busi­ness communication.

The goal of all these sto­ry­telling moments is to make you relat­able to the oth­er per­son, make the infor­ma­tion you’re pre­sent­ing per­sua­sive, and get your audi­ence to take a desired action.

CHOYAssume they’re not inter­est­ed, assume they have bet­ter things to do than lis­ten to you, assume they don’t under­stand what you’re say­ing — and sto­ry­telling is the most acces­si­ble way to build that bridge.

STONESo how do you build that bridge? What are the best ways to tell your story?

To start with, don’t just del­uge your audi­ence with all the facts that you think are impor­tant. First, you want to get your audi­ence engaged, be it the cor­po­rate board that you hope adopts your restruc­tur­ing plan or the per­son at a cock­tail par­ty you’re try­ing to net­work with.

Think of sto­ry­telling as the strate­gic order­ing of facts and emotions.

CHOYThere is a time to data dump, there is a time to intrigue and delight. I always encour­age peo­ple to cre­ate that thirst first. Why should they pay atten­tion? Why should they put down their phone? Why should they stop look­ing out the window?

STONEChoy teach­es whole work­shops on how to craft a good sto­ry, but she offers up a few quick tips to get you started.

CHOYFocus on the begin­ning and the end. Make sure the mid­dle is sol­id, but focus on the begin­ning and the end. The begin­ning is how you get their atten­tion, how you moti­vate them to keep pay­ing atten­tion. The end is what they most like­ly will remem­ber, an hour, a day, a week, a month, a year after you tell the story.

STONENext, Choy sug­gests tak­ing your sto­ry out for a test-dri­ve. Tell it to a few trust­ed friends or col­leagues to get their reac­tion. And be spe­cif­ic about what sort of feed­back you want.

She says to ask your test audi­ence three ques­tions: First, does the sto­ry get their imag­i­na­tion going? Sec­ond, do they find it relat­able? Third, and this is key, what is the lis­ten­er going to do after hear­ing your sto­ry. Because, in the end, the sto­ries you tell in a busi­ness con­text are all about get­ting peo­ple to take action.

CHOYSo the way to gauge how effec­tive your sto­ry is is to get that feed­back. Do you want to do any­thing about it? Would you hit Send”? Would you click to the next page? Would you ask me more ques­tions about this prod­uct? So on and so forth.

[Music inter­lude]

STONELet’s say you want to get peo­ple to act by show­ing them the amaz­ing data you’ve gath­ered. Won’t the num­bers alone per­suade your audi­ence and get them to take action?

Nope. You need to get that data to tell a sto­ry. Remem­ber, don’t just data dump.” The best way to do that is to cre­ate a data visu­al­iza­tion. That’s accord­ing to Steven Fran­coneri, a North­west­ern psy­chol­o­gy pro­fes­sor who also teach­es man­age­ment and orga­ni­za­tion cours­es at Kellogg.

If you’re shak­ing your head and think that just hand­ing out a spread­sheet is all you need to do, here’s what Fran­coneri has to say.

Steven FRAN­CONERIIf you real­ly feel that you’re able to com­mu­ni­cate with just num­bers, that could be true, but give it a test. So actu­al­ly try to have peo­ple repeat back to you what they think the impor­tant aspects of your sto­ry, of your pre­scrip­tion, are. And see what comes back. Often you’ll be sur­prised. If you are not using visu­al­iza­tions and you feel like it’s suf­fi­cient, it might be overconfidence.

STONEData visu­al­iza­tions are a key tool for busi­ness lead­ers, Fran­coneri says, in part because of the way our brains are hard­wired. Forty per­cent of our brains are devot­ed to visu­al pro­cess­ing. Once upon a time, that helped us spot a lion lurk­ing behind a bush. Now it can be har­nessed to get your boss to approve your mar­ket­ing plan, or your employ­ees to buy into a new incen­tive program.

FRAN­CONERIIt can be far supe­ri­or to com­mu­ni­cate pat­terns and data to people’s visu­al sys­tem rather than their ver­bal sys­tem. So the visu­al sys­tem lets you take in a pat­tern of infor­ma­tion more deeply and more broad­ly, and it makes you process it more deeply. When you want peo­ple to pay atten­tion to data — not just anec­dotes or gut instincts, but data, hard num­bers — it’s help­ful to con­vey them in this visu­al form so that they sink in better.

STONEOkay, so you’re ready to use a visu­al­iza­tion to daz­zle your audi­ence. How do you go about cre­at­ing it?

The first thing, Fran­coneri says, is to make sure that you’re telling the sto­ry you want to tell. Because when faced with data, your audi­ence is auto­mat­i­cal­ly going to con­vert it into a story.

FRAN­CONERIIf you just let peo­ple stare at a com­plex visu­al­iza­tion, they will make their own sto­ry, and they’ll pick dif­fer­ent views, and they’ll pick them in an order that their brain designs, and it won’t be your sto­ry. You need to pick a set of views and put them in order that tells the nar­ra­tive that you want peo­ple to fol­low to under­stand the prob­lem that you have and the solu­tion that you’re propos­ing, so that they think about that sequence in the same way that you do in your brain.

STONETo ensure that your sto­ry gets told, Fran­coneri echoes some of Choy’s advice: Take your visu­al­iza­tion out for a test-dri­ve. Cre­ate a few dif­fer­ent types of visu­al­iza­tions — say, a bar graph, a line graph, and a scat­ter chart — and then do a few iter­a­tions with­in those styles, test­ing dif­fer­ent ways of order­ing and arrang­ing the data points with­in each graph.

FRAN­CONERIShow those dif­fer­ent pos­si­bil­i­ties to a few col­leagues or friends and ask them what sto­ry they see in the data. You’ll be amazed at the differences.

Just imag­ine a sim­ple line graph gen­er­al­ly going up but with a few bumps in it. Just when you show some­thing like that, there are sev­er­al sto­ries that peo­ple could be see­ing in that: the fact that there are two bumps, the fact that it’s going up in gen­er­al, the fact that the accel­er­a­tion goes down a lit­tle bit, that the growth seems to be dimin­ish­ing. You need to be able to under­stand what oth­er peo­ple see in those pat­terns. Because once you’ve been star­ing at the data for many hours with your ana­lyst hat on, you can get locked into a state where you see cer­tain pat­terns, but you don’t real­ize that oth­er peo­ple don’t.

STONEThere are oth­er key rules for mak­ing a good data visu­al­iza­tion. Make sure you give it a nice, crisp title that high­lights the sto­ry you want to tell, keep the look min­i­mal­ist so you aren’t pro­vid­ing dis­tract­ing visu­al clut­ter, and be sure to guide your view­er through the data so you don’t lose any­one along the way.

FRAN­CONERIThen when you take a series of those and put them in sequence — so you should see this aspect of the data, and now, let’s switch to this aspect of the data, and this aspect of the data” — and you guide peo­ple through that sequence in a log­i­cal way, that’s a data story.

STONEFran­coneri also stress­es that these visu­al­iza­tion rules are impor­tant for busi­ness lead­ers, even if they have a staff that can pret­ty up the slides.

FRAN­CONERIYour art depart­ment can make the visu­al­iza­tion look good, but they can’t make it tell the sto­ry that you want. As the leader or as the ana­lyst, you are the per­son who knows what’s impor­tant in the data. You are the per­son who knows what every­one else in the room needs to know and what actions they should take. Know­ing just these sim­ple rules about how to make your visu­al­iza­tion effec­tive, com­bined with the knowl­edge that’s in only your head, can make it an incred­i­bly effec­tive tool.

[Music inter­lude]

STONEThis pro­gram was pro­duced by Jes­si­ca Love, Kate Pro­to, Fred Schmalz, Emi­ly Stone, and Michael Spikes.

Spe­cial thanks to Kel­logg pro­fes­sors Michelle Buck and Steven Fran­coneri, as well as lec­tur­er Esther Choy.

You can stream or down­load our month­ly pod­cast from iTunes, or from our web­site, where you can read more about lead­er­ship and data visu­al­iza­tion. Vis­it us at insight​.kel​logg​.north​west​ern​.edu. We’ll be back next month with anoth­er Insight In Per­son podcast.

Featured Faculty

Michelle L. Buck

Clinical Professor of Management & Organizations

Esther Choy

Executive Education Lecturer

Steven Franconeri

Professor of Psychology, Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences; Professor of Leadership (Courtesy)

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