No matter what your job, you likely spend a good amount of time trying to persuade people of certain things. Whether you’re a CEO trying to get your employees to really engage with your mission statement, a sales person trying to get clients to buy your products or in customer service trying to reassure or educate consumers, there’s always someone you’re trying to reach and persuade. Someone who you hope will be saying, “I want to do that!” instead of, “I have to do that,” or worse, “No.”
In order to be persuasive, we often fall into our most “professional” mode, using facts and figures, studies and numbers that make our case for us. Why? Because you can’t argue with facts, right?
Well, wrong. It turns out that when people hear dry and factual arguments, they hear “with their dukes up,” and immediately become critical and skeptical of both the facts and the speaker. Instead of truly hearing what the speaker has to say, the listener falls back on his own experiences, knowledge and authorities. As soon as that happens, the person speaking gets tuned out. Not very persuasive.
In an environment in which people are twice as likely to trust people “just like them” than “experts,” creating trust, rapport and common experience is more important than ever. The best way to do it? Through storytelling. Though conventional wisdom has held that storytelling is less professional, research repeatedly tell a very different story.
Hearing stories alters how we process information, leaves us more open to different views, makes us less defensive and is far more effective at inspiring us to act.
So if we’re going to use stories in our work when we need to persuade our clients and coworkers, what are the keys to making sure we’re doing it both professionally and well?
One of the primary differences between the stories you’re using in a professional manner and the ones you’re telling your friend is how — and why — you frame the narrative. All stories have a beginning, a middle and an end, but the ones you tell at home may take meandering detours, be told simply for the sake of amusement or might have no point at all. In a work setting, you’re using stories to inspire and persuade, so you need to know what message you’re trying to convey, what purpose that message will serve and how to get there quickly.
This may mean the difference between “what happened” and “what is true.” What happened can be a litany of events, many of which may distract or be off topic from “what is true.” Stick more closely to the truth of your story than the every single detail of what happened.
Stories that are self-centered — all about you, or your achievement, agendas or experience — create distance rather than empathy. Relating experience without emotion doesn’t work because not all of us share the same experiences. We do, however, share the same emotions. So, don’t be afraid of emotion. Stories that persuade use emotion to bridge the gap between the listener and the teller. By opening up about a time when you were vulnerable or when reality and expectation were divergent, you create an opening for someone else to relate to you.
Not every story has to be about something that irrevocably changed your life, it can be a minor embarrassing or silly moment that changed your outlook. But those moments are vital. When we hear “tense” moments in a story, our brains release chemicals that cause us to focus more intently and, at the resolution of the story, release different chemicals that cause us to feel hopeful.
Most importantly, whatever stories you’re telling need to be true. If you’re trying to “sell” a journey or story that you’ve made up, it’s manipulation, not inspiration, and the lack of emotional resonance is going to be obvious to the listener. It’s why people can tell the same story more than once and still have it be effective — because every time they tell it, they’re reliving that transformative journey.
In an age of innovation, storytelling can seem a bit old-fashioned. And maybe that’s why it works. When we talk about constantly changing technology that companies and individuals have to keep up with, much of what we’re referring to is, ultimately, storytelling: new ways to tell stories, creating platforms for stories to be told, ways to create community around stories — and these are all important. No matter which way you plan on telling your story, sometimes it’s good to go back to basics and remember that a good old-fashioned story might be your best bet.
Matt Nagler is managing partner at BANK W Holdings, The Nagler Group, KBW Financial Staffing & Recruiting, Alexander Technology Group and Sales Search Partners.
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