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Story Telling With a Purpose

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For a brief time, I tried to sell life insurance. And, the operative word was 'tried' I can assure you. Although I thought I did a good job on the presentations and scripts provided by trainers, I did not make a single sale.

On the other hand, the veteran who trained me didn't spend much time with presentations or scripts. He simply told stories about clients who spared their loved ones great pain by getting proper coverage. Just as importantly, he talked about the troubles suffered by people who did not have coverage. And, he sold a lot.

Which takes us to the subject of purpose-driven story telling. I've bumped up against the idea of it as a strategic communication skill several times recently, so maybe it's time to discuss it here.

For starters, let's distinguish between stories by talkers who believe the world wants to know what they think about everything under the sun, and stories told with the express purpose of advancing an objective. Let's call the latter 'strategic stories' (and you know what we call the other kind).

You can use strategic stories to help your cause or project by figuring out, in advance, what you'll say and why you'll say it. In other words, before you make your speech or presentation, identify the stories you'll use, and know why you'll use them.

Leaders frequently use stories to add emotion to their communication. Adding emotion allows listeners to buy in with their hearts, as well as accept with their minds. One specific type of emotional charging evokes shared values or memories. For example, "I know you'll keep providing great customer service because you all did such a great job when the product recall was announced. Do you remember how the calls started coming in right after the first announcement?"

Stories can also be used to add context or background information, "I know you'd like to launch the new product line, but when I was at the industry conference a couple of weeks ago, I heard banks want to get into our business, which means...." Very often, information by itself has little meaning or impact without context. Stories buttress our arguments by explaining the rationale we used, and not just the conclusions we reached.

You can use stories as a type of proof. My life insurance experience is a pointed example. The most effective stories, of course, talk about the good and bad things that happen to survivors after an unexpected death.

Sometimes, a story can be used for self-deprecation. By making fun of myself, I can further illustrate the point I'm trying to make. For example "Did I ever tell you about the time I spilled coffee on a client while he was sitting at our boardroom table? As it turned out, it broke the ice between us and we ended up talking serious business. Now, I'm not suggesting you spill coffee on clients, too, but I would suggest that you look for ways to connect with them on a personal level."

Where can we find stories? The best ones come from our own experience, from things that happened to us and things we've done. But, don't overlook magazines, television, and other mass media. For example, you might warn against doing something by explaining what happened to characters in TV sitcoms when they did something similar. Remember, most sitcoms are morality plays in modern garb.

Which reminds me of the time when....

In summary, strategically-used stories can help us communicate more effectively by adding emotion or context, providing proof, or giving us a chance to poke fun at ourselves.

Robert F. Abbott writes and publishes Abbott's Communication Letter. Learn how you can use communication to help achieve your goals, by reading articles or subscribing to this ad-supported newsletter. An excellent resource for leaders and managers, at:

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