By Graham Vanbergen: When I was rising up through the ranks of one of the biggest financial institutions in the world, I noticed that members of the main board very commonly used stories to make their point, to persuade people or at the very least influence the outcome of decision making.
I was the type that used statistics, facts, figures or evidence to do the same. But somehow, they seemed to get better results than I did. At the time, I thought it was more about their position of seniority but as it turns out, senior executives use various strategies to get results – and one of the most successful is storytelling.
The trouble with facts and figures is that although you can throw evidence by the bucket load to change the mind of someone – they are very often hard-wired to think in a certain way. In fact, most people are. By pushing more facts or evidence, there is the strong possibility that you either turn them off completely and sometimes enable them to entrench their mindset, no matter how wrong they may be. And there’s nothing worse than knowing you’ve won the debate then get the response – “well, I’m not sure about that” and then they change the subject. You know, you’ve wasted your time.
Storytelling doesn’t change anyone’s mind per se but it does very often spark the listener’s attention and challenges their thinking. It’s really about getting inside their mind and once there, you need to get your strategy right.
Humans are hard-wired to think in stories. Memories are far more often wrapped around an experience than a statistic. We developed this to ensure we could impart our life-saving experience to others when we lived in more dangerous times. For instance, think about the children’s rhyme – ‘Ring-a-ring o’ roses, A pocket full of posies, A-tishoo! A-tishoo! We all fall down.’
This story is often believed to date back to the Great Plague. A rosy rash, they allege, was a symptom of the plague, and posies of herbs were carried as protection and to ward off the smell of the disease. Sneezing or coughing was a final fatal symptom, and “all fall down” was exactly what happened. You can imagine stories like this emanating in small communities in far-flung corners of our world during this recent pandemic. The story is short, concise, has a message and is easily stored in our memories.
In reality, it is not known if this rhyme has anything at all to do with disease or death (source) but this is what we learned and these stories stick in the mind and are therefore very hard to dislodge.
The thing about stories is that they increase our understanding of the world in a short, memorable and understandable format. We can live each story even if we were not actually there, but we can imagine it and therefore, we can feel it. Our entire lives are made up of these short stories.
Brian Boyd – the distinguished scholar offers a comprehensive account of the evolutionary origins of art and storytelling in his book – “On The Origin of Stories” (source). Art is a specifically human adaptation, Boyd argues -it offers tangible advantages for human survival, and it derives from play, itself an adaptation widespread among more intelligent animals. More particularly, “our fondness for storytelling has sharpened social cognition, encouraged cooperation, and fostered creativity”. Boyd concludes that:
“Humans are hyper-intelligent and hyper-social animals. By lining up key elements of intelligence, cooperation, pattern-seeking, alliance-making, and the understanding that other beings have beliefs and knowledge of their own, stories make us stronger and more effective as a species.”
To change someone’s mind is often more about replacing one story for another or placing one there that did not exist in the first place.
With a strategy, we can create change-inducing stories. And, in my experience, it makes little difference if the listener is a colleague, the team, your boss, your partner or a friend.
There is a format to the story though for it to be absorbed and it may take a little practice to get the flow of information right.
First – you must connect a lived experience with someone you might think your listener can identify with. This way, they can hear what you are saying, relate to it, absorb and interpret the story and then imagine it. It’s the imagining bit that sticks. Although horror films are not designed to change your mind, they do this to a T, which is why you don’t easily forget them. They can make you wary of an imagined foe that might be lurking in a dark corner as you walk in the dark for years.
Second – this change-inducing story must of course solve the very problem at the heart of the topic and not be blown off course. It is important to keep the story concise and to the point. If it is too long with too much detail – important points may well be quickly discarded.
The outcome of the problem within the story must have been solved – even if the result is inaction. For instance, elections can be won with effective strategies of ‘voter suppression.’
This means, that you should steer clear of actually telling the listener of a future outcome – they should imagine it. This way, the story of an actual event is accepted as authentic as it taps directly into how our belief system works.
Next – it is time to condense the story into salient points. By doing so with belief, with passion and with conviction – the listener gets a chance to ‘feel’ the story and connects the right points to the story.
It is true to say that the storyteller should be, on balance, trusted by the listener. Told like this, the story often becomes compelling and overwhelms what existed before it.
Of course, no strategy works all the time – but this is how successful executives, politicians and influencers get people to change their minds about something.
Of course, it is extremely difficult to change people’s entire belief system. Ideologies like religion, Marxism, neoliberalism, individualism and so on, are very deeply embedded. Not only that, quite often, they are embedded by real-world experience. Elderly people grew up in an age so far removed from their grand-children that what the generations believe – are mostly at odds with each other. Young people tend to be idealistic and therefore more socialist – people over the age of 45 are more often than not more conservative (with a small c) and over the age of 65 Conservative (politically).
Half of the electorate vote for their tribe and that’s it – about one-quarter of the electorate for the left and one-quarter for the right. The other half are swing voters – so-called ‘centrists’ or more accurately ‘moderates.’ These people in the centre-ground are not particularly loyal and usually make up their minds towards the end of campaigning. These are the people that decide who gets into power.
In areas such as ideology, the likelihood of you changing someone’s belief system is pretty low but the storytelling swings the mind of those who are undecided. Facts and figures don’t do it – but warnings and images of what might happen based on what has happened in the past is a powerful tool.
Brexit is a case in point. One week before the referendum, one-third of the electorate had not made up their mind which way to vote. The ‘Leave’ campaign largely focused on warnings over immigration and sovereignty. Campaigning warned of too many ‘foreigners’ who were changing our way of life – and the meddling of a ‘foreign’ political entity like the EU that was threatening our power to decide our own future. It was a campaign that strategically tapped into storytelling. It created doubt and then fear of what might happen if we didn’t act. It was – they warned, our last chance. It was a propaganda campaign that used techniques developed by military strategists for winning over ‘hearts and minds’ in modern-day war-torn territories. It was a system developed by American and British tacticians, backed by the CIA and MI6. This same system was then used by private companies to swing elections – hence the huge scandals of SCL Elections, Cambridge Analytica, Facebook and Palantir – who conspired to get Trump into power and drag Brexit over the line (source).
They also used social media to great effect – but the one strand that tied the whole thing together was the uniformity of the storytelling.
Storytelling was how elders and those with experience passed information to younger generations for learning. They imparted warnings or gave a ‘heads-up’ to communities. Mostly, these people were trusted pillars of society or maybe simply had a tangible experience that everyone would benefit from.
Today, that art has been lost and the general public no longer trust people or organisations as they used to. In fact, trust in leaders, both political and corporate has completely collapsed – and the empty space is filled with false information that only exacerbates the problem.
So lost is the art of storytelling that the biggest corporations in the world now resort to basic slogans – Just Do It, Think Different, Because you’re Worth It, It Gives You Wings and so on. But they use images and stories to connect and that’s what they hope connects you with them. Think about why it is that like a particular brand. It is really the quality or design or is it how it makes you feel? And when you feel it – are you conjuring up the images of a short story. As they say – a picture paints a thousand words.
In recent decades, corporate leaders have dramatically failed to galvanise employees and have focused their attention on profit. Look how Amazon, Facebook and Google used to be THE companies to work for, but are now considered little more than exploitative, tax-avoiding, profit factories. They have lost the art of persuading their teams to perform better by belief. The result is that employees are now ‘human resources’ and customers are ‘consumers’ – and everyone views them with a degree of suspicion.
Throughout this period, consumerism became the story – and it’s made billions of people miserable, even those that have the material assets that were supposed to delight them. In the end, as many studies have shown – it doesn’t.
Forty years ago, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher brought about a revolution in thinking and policy in both economics and foreign affairs. But don’t forget that Thatcher’s inimitable Churchillian persona was the result of careful coaching by political professionals. But to get into power in the first place she needed a powerful story.
“There is no alternative” was her campaigning slogan. She pushed the idea that free markets and free trade were the best ways to build wealth, distribute services and grow a society’s economy and constantly told stories about the failures of previous governments’ and successes of others to persuade not just her own party but a country.
Tony Blair successfully used ‘New Labour, New Britain.’ David Cameron’s stuttering campaign in 2010 started with – “We can’t go on like this” then “Vote for Change”, which did not resonate – and so led to a coalition government. The following election in 2015 saw the Tories change tactics. Here, Jonny Dymond, the BBC’s political correspondent, explains what they did –
“People might say they want an uplifting and forward-looking campaign. But we are hard-wired to be more concerned about losing something we have than we are enthused about gaining something in the future. Behavioural psychologists call it the “endowment effect” or “status quo bias”. And campaign strategists exploited it to the full.”
The message they conveyed was a story. The economy was now in good shape and the recovery was threatened by Labour. People relate to this type of messaging, this is why we get negative campaigning – stories that are warning of difficult times if you make the wrong decision. The result surprised not just the Tory party but all the pollsters too.
Boris Johnson’s “Get Brexit Done” was simple and clever. But what that did more than anything was to tap into the mood of national exhaustion – more like, ‘let’s get it over and done with’.
Kier Starmer is suffering from a lack of good storytelling skills. He has conveyed very little to make people warm to his vision at all in his first year. Granted, political campaigning in the midst of a pandemic is not a good look, and there’s a long way to go before the next election – but what does the public think he and therefore the Labour party he represents stands for today? If there’s no story with Starmer – you’ll struggle to connect.
In the end, what you are looking for is a sustained change in behaviour. And having delivered your message guess what happens next? Human nature is such, that your story is then told over and over again – as a story by the office coffee machine, water-cooler or in the cafe. Those same stories are then moved to the social scenery of bars and restaurants and then to the living room where you have gathered the reactions of others and announce your allegiance to this new idea to a loved one.
Steve Denning a contributor to Forbes leadership strategy says that – “The most successful storytellers apply themselves to the listeners’ dilemmas—not just to amuse, but to make them fitter to triumph in the contests of life.” Laura Dietz, at the Times Literary Supplement, says – “Why storytelling?” Simple: nothing else works” (source).
Getting as many arrows pointing in the same direction is an art. And so is the art of storytelling – and when done properly, the results can be truly amazing.
Imagine having the position to transform a sterile working environment that most employees are ambivalent about at best and turning it into a place that inspires creativity, generates enthusiasm which translates into energy. Storytelling can do that.