Accidental Storyteller

Julianne Schwietz MA, CPCC - September 2011

My Storytelling Beginning

One day, many years ago, I accidentally became a professional storyteller. It all happened when I naively volunteered to read to my son's preschool class. I picked out a couple of books and showed up at the front of a room of about 18 squirming 3 and 4 year olds and I began to read. As you might imagine, they didn't all.

Not to be outdone, I returned the next week with a large picture book that I could read upside down as I held the book open to their curious little eyes. It was at that point that complete pandemonium broke out as every child wanted to sit closest to the book. I had piles of children sitting on me, on one another, and eventually on the book! Failure again.

The third time I had decided to memorize a book and simply tell the story with animated gestures while keeping my eyes glued to them in powerful eye contact. It worked like magic! Suddenly these tykes looked like freeze frame statues. Their little mouths hung open and they were completely mesmerized by the story. I could see the pictures unfold inside their young minds.

Parents and the teachers were stunned. They had never seen these 18 moving bodies sit still all at once. And immediately I was invited to attend their birthday parties, church socials and scout groups as the "storyteller."

Applying Storytelling

After years of traveling near and far to tell tall and small tales, and of teaching children and adults to do the same, (and applying a BA in Oral Communication and a MA in Human Development to this work) I learned the depth of value stories hold for the human race.

And guess what else? I discovered that the attention span of an adult is about the same as a three-year-old when we are forced to listen to dull presentations, anguish through boring meetings, and tolerate worthless speeches. The only difference is that children do not mask their discomfort. Adults do. You've been there; you know the pain I refer to.

The truth is there is a high cost to pay for ineffective communication.

Leveraging the use of story has become key in organizations who want to impact their bottom-line.

  • Employee motivation is heightened
  • Leaders are respected for their speaking and listening skills
  • Attempts to persuade are successful because of the communication mode of delivery

The Power of Story

I've worked for a number of years with organizations interested in using story as a method of persuasive communication. Greater Twin Cities United Way invested in helping their employees convey stories that tell the impact that comes from public giving. Take a look at the following examples of the difference between a fact and a story. Notice how each makes you feel.

Fact: In 2009, over 150,000 people received food through local food banks and your generous giving.

Story: In 2009, Carlota lost her husband in a car accident. She was a stay at home mom with 3 young children. In order to make ends meet until she could get a job, she visited a local food shelf where they were able to provide enough food to sustain her family. Carlota was one of 150,000 people who were helped because of your generosity.

Story as defined by Wikipedia is "a narrative or tale of real or fictitious events." Storytelling is the "conveying of events in words, images and sounds." While these definitions are true enough, they lack the most important aspect that makes them powerful beyond what facts alone can do in communication. Stories get to the heart of the matter because they matter to us at a deeper level of human-relations. Engaging an audience or even one other person in the experience of a story creates an emotional/human connection between us.

Facts, by themselves, speak to our cognitive brain. It takes emotional value to persuade any of us of anything at all. In fact, we end up persuading ourselves as we listen to a story. Listeners convince themselves by how they feel while hearing another person speak.

Take a look at the example below. Which instruction would you rather receive?

Training instruction (fact): Answer the phone before the third ring. Smile while you speak on the phone. Never transfer a call before doing what you can to help the caller.

Training instruction (story): In deciding how best to help new learners, we spoke with Joe who worked here for 27 years before his retirement last year. He said his success in customer service came from doing the following: Answer the phone before the third ring. Smile while you speak on the phone. Never transfer a call before doing what you can to help the caller. Joe said he hopes his suggestions help make your job as fun as his was.

The current trend in Organizational Development is to invest in the human development of those investing themselves in their work. We are our stories. Narratives are lived experiences that draw lines of connection between people who may otherwise think they are so very different. The greater the gaps in cultural ways of living, the greater the appreciation we have of one another's stories.

A Lost Art

The Oral Tradition of storytelling dates back to times and places in which traditions, beliefs, expectations, instructions and the retelling of important events were taught by parents and grandparents handing down stories to the children. The adults handed down entire cultural ways of being and knowing from one generation to the next.

Overtime, reading and writing took the place of oral tradition and the use of narrative in communication. We've taken this intellectual shortcut and managed to cut ourselves short, especially in the work place. How can the use of story enhance your environment and bottom-line?

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