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Big Data is the Driver of Change, Storytelling is the Vehicle

Big Data Storytelling for Change Leadership and Data-Driven ChangeWhite Paper

Download the white paper now.

Big Data and Stubborn Minds

Numbers don’t change minds. If they did, then I would never drink from another plastic bottle again after hearing how many disposed water bottles could wrap around the Earth each year. Except, I can’t remember the exact number, because it didn’t stick in my mind. Also, the imagery wasn’t sufficiently scary enough to make me modify my habits. Data didn’t do the trick.

Yet, leaders falsely believe it will. Too many times, they present the logical case and expect everyone to fall into line. And every time, they’re surprised when their great idea, backed by data, boosted by leadership’s enthusiasm, and grounded in sound business sense, doesn’t live up to expectations.

Data-Driven Change Leadership

Leaders who are awash in data that will optimize their business in unprecedented ways will only be successful if they effectively communicate the data-driven solution. Once the big data strategy is set, it’s time to turn to big data storytelling.

The data-driven change you seek must be wrapped in a story that compels people to believe and act. Last year a suburban hospital analyzed their data to determine the three factors that would most increase their operating room utilization and turnover time, thus decreasing costs and ensuring maximized revenue. Roberta, the head of OR operations, digested the data, and together with Toni, the head nursing operations, set the numbers aside and devised a communications strategy for leading the change initiative.

Smartly, they took the step of assembling the likely anti-stories that would arise from staff. These are the stories that people tell themselves that run counter to the story you are trying to tell. This is an important step in change leadership, and all to often, it is skipped. In this case, Toni and Roberta uncovered sentiments that included: “we’ve always done it this way” and “this sounds like more work for the same amount of pay”.

In the process of crafting their own story, they systematically addressed each anti-story. This is essential because the only way to combat an anti-story is with a better story. Data alone will never take the place of the story people hold in their hearts. No matter how perfect your data is and how flawed their stories are, you must be ready with a better story.

Storytelling for Data Strategy

To help data-driven change leaders prepare to win the hearts of those they lead, this new white paper offers a series of workplace-ready communications strategies that will take your big data strategy from testing environment to the real world.

Data speak won’t help you, but storytelling techniques will. Download the white paper now.



Business Storytelling Training to Lead Change

engaging leader podcast

Podcast: Business Storytelling Training

I returned to Jesse Lahey’s show Engaging Leader, to continue our discussion about strategic storytelling. In our first discussion, we talked about how leaders can harness the power of storytelling to improve their ability to influence, inspire and engage.

In this training, we get more into the nuts and bolts of business storytelling.  During the 25-minute podcast interview, I share with listeners how four storytelling frameworks will improve your ability to lead change. We get into the specifics of the story types and their role in change.


Change the Way You Lead Change

The podcast content is designed to provide practical and actionable information. Anyone who needs to be persuasive in the workplace will find tips that they can use right away.

You can listen from the website, download the podcast to your computer, or download it in iTunes. All the options are on the Engaging Leader website.


Brian Williams is Safe from the Saber-toothed Tiger

This article was first published on LinkedIn.

saber-toothed tiger

In Defense of Brian Williams’ Brain

Just what we need right now: another post about Brian Williams.

But I can’t help myself because I’m amazed and shocked to see the very people who use storytelling in their work and who advocate and coach others to use it are also so loudly and strongly against him.

The case of Brian Williams’ mis-memory regarding a war zone helicopter ride demonstrates the dark side of neuroscience. The negative backlash is a fear-based reaction because it makes each of us question our own memories.

Storytelling Works. Duh.

My LinkedIn feed is often populated with of junior associates rattling off the same seven storytelling tips we’ve all heard. We get it already. Stories work.

No one has bought in to the new-found discipline of storytelling more than the marketing communications and public relations fields. If your job as a journalist is to tell stories, if your responsibility as a content marketer is to write stories, if your role as a PR practitioner is to convince your leaders that they should tell more stories, then you are a story-vangelist. You sing the praises and preach the advantages of storytelling, including:

  • enhanced recall
  • improved ability to teach a new skill or form a new habit
  • increased connections between people

Using Stories for Good and Evil

These are just some of the reasons communicators love stories so much, but the most powerful reason of all is that packaging information in story-form makes the transfer of ideas easier. Princeton University researchers have found that stories activate parts of the brain that convert the information contained in the story into the listeners’ own ideas and story.

Did you hear that?

Stories transfer ownership of ideas and information.

Marketers and journalists love this powerful aspect of storytelling when they’re using it to their advantage. They love it when you repeat an idea that they’ve been spoon-feeding you. It’s even better when you feel as if you just thought of it yourself.

In the car one day while passing Cleveland’s industrial smoke stacks, my husband scrunched up his nose and said, “Pee-eww.” I took a deep breath and said, “Mmm, smells like jobs.” I related this experience to a reporter friend of mine. Months later, a version of my story was the lead of the reporter’s story, only he was the one in the car in another part of the state. It was an honest mistake, but clearly my observation had planted an idea in his head that resurfaced at another time and place and while traveling the roads of Ohio past some smokestacks, he remembered the comment, “smells like jobs.” What he didn’t remember was that someone else had said it first.

As we’ve seen with Brian Williams, reporters are just as human as consumers and just as susceptible to the power of storytelling.

Therefore, professional communicators shouldn’t celebrate, harness, and advance the use of storytelling on one hand without also acknowledging the potentially negative aspects of the power of storytelling, which includes mis-remembering high-stakes information and events.

Stories are the Reason We Survived the Stone Ages

Our brains are designed to remember traumatic and emotional events from a first person perspective. This is an embedded survival tactic to ensure that if your friend from the cave next door told you about his close encounter with a saber-toothed tiger, you would put yourself in his loincloth, learn the lesson, and avoid the danger yourself.

We are wired for survival.

Our brains evolved to make sure that important information, whether gained through first-hand experience or through a story, was memorable. The more emotional the story, the more dopamine is released. Dopamine is associated with memory, so it stands to reason that highly emotional events create the most vivid and the most easily recalled events. It’s also a fact that memories are unreliable.

Neuroscience Wins Again

We are both saved and held hostage by the same set of chemical reactions.

On a winter day my friends I were on slowly driving along a snowy highway on our way to a ski resort. In front of our Jeep Wrangler, a vehicle suddenly slipped and started spinning. We were following far enough behind that we were able to stop and avoid an accident. The car in front of us also came to a stop, but it was facing the wrong way on the highway. We were eye-to-eye with the other driver. It was scary and you could bet that we talked about that close call the rest of the ski trip and for a long time afterwards.

A year later, I overheard my friend Lesley who was with us on the trip retelling the story at a bar. Only in her version of the story, we were in the car that spun around. When I corrected the story, Lesley looked stunned. Not caught-in-a-lie-embarrassed, but seriously confused. I didn’t understand at the time why these wired had crossed in her brain, but now I do. The other thing I realize now is that my version of the story might not be completely accurate either.

Doesn’t this Jeep ride sound something like a certain helicopter ride we’ve been hearing so much about?

Brian Williams said in his apology, “In fact, I spent much of the weekend thinking I’d gone crazy. I feel terrible about making this mistake, especially since I found my OWN WRITING about the incident from back in ’08, and I was indeed on the Chinook behind the bird that took the RPG in the tail housing just above the ramp.”

So it appears that he remembered the story correctly for a while, and then sometime between 2008 and today, his neurons reconnected and transferred ownership of the events from the people he was with to himself. Knowing the reason stories work is the reason I can be forgiving of Brian Williams.

Being a public figure who shared a story that could be verified is the reason Brian Williams was “caught in a lie.” In reality, he is a victim of neuroscience and biochemistry that has been present since our ancient brains first took shape.

An Rx for Influence: The Two Story Solution for Change Management

two pills

photo by Dean Hochman / BY CC

This article was first published on

The problem with a negative story

Being negative is an easy trap to fall into.

When trying to prove a point or change someone’s mind, the natural tendency is to use a story that has a negative point-of-view to warn against an outcome and perhaps shock the listener a little.

The problem with a negative story is that it is only a warning and it is only attention-grabbing. Using a stand-alone cautionary tale tells your audience how not to behave, but fails to fill the void with a better idea.

A powerful anecdote I recently heard could effectively be used in many settings. For instance, if you were coaching a young professional about how to handle questions regarding their level of expertise.

Sometimes the wrong explanation can hamper your ability to move ahead in your career. Anna visited a doctor to discuss an elective procedure. She asked the surgeon the very obvious question, “How many times have you done this operation?” The doctor’s response was, “Five.” With that answer, Anna resolved that she would not be his sixth.

Certainly every doctor – or any type of professional – needs to gain experience and practice, but there has to be a better answer to that question because no one wants to be the guinea pig.

This story is instructive, but only to a point. If the coaching ends here, many questions are left unanswered. Therefore, to truly change a mind, you also need to exemplify the desired behavior.

The perfect complement to a negative story

A second story that demonstrates the positive perspective is the perfect complement to the negative story.

A helpful secondary story could be:

A young surgeon was asked in clinic by a patient “How many times have you done this operation?”

She told the patient who was in need of a major surgery: “Never. I haven’t done this exact procedure before because every patient is different. I approach each surgery knowing that no two patients have the exact same anatomy, pre-existing conditions, or medical history. That being said, I’ve spent years training at some of the best medical institutions with world-renowned teachers and this has prepared me to take on any case, including yours.”

The patient responded favorably and was comfortable signing the consent forms because the answer was honest and it instilled confidence. That’s what you want to achieve when responding to a question about your capabilities so that lack of experience never hinder your career growth.

A prescription for success – the two story solution

For a young person preparing for a job interview, you can see how a revelation might occur after hearing these two stories. That’s because taken together, the negative example followed by a positive one is both a diagnosis of a problem and a prescription for success.

An example that serves as a warning certainly will catch the attention of your audience, but alone it probably isn’t enough to achieve your preferred result. Consider using the negative and positive story technique the next time you are leading change because influence isn’t authoritarian, nor is it restrictive. True influence is education with a dose of inspiration.


Business Storytelling Essentials for Leading Change

Engaging Leadership Podcast about Storytelling for Business Leaders Who Lead Change

Jesse Lahey hosted me on his Engaging Leader podcast to discuss why storytelling works in business when change is afoot.



During this 30-minute exchange we cover business storytelling essentials for leading change, including:

  • the impact of change fatigue on change initiatives
  • the art and science of business storytelling
  • how to convince skeptical business leaders that storytelling is effective
  • how facts change minds versus how stories change minds
  • the role of facts in business storytelling
  • how to construct a business story
  • the power of story to transfer idea ownership
  • the role of empathy in changing minds


The episode is available for free and immediate download here and on iTunes.


The Dotted Line: Calling All Change Agents

The October 2014 issue of The Dotted Line features news + resources for leading change. Subscribe to receive future issues of The Dotted Line delivered to your inbox.



Be the Change By Telling the Story

The last Storytelling for Leaders public workshop of 2014 will be held on Monday, November 17 in Washington, D.C. at the Le Méridien Arlington. Get details and register or take your chances trying to win a seat at the training by heading over to Facebook.

If you can’t make it to D.C., bring Storytelling for Leaders to your team, company, or corporate training academy. 2015 dates are already being booked. Find out more.


Resources for Change Agents (Like You)

How to Make Yourself Memorable
from Business Insider

Whenever you meet someone new, you can be sure that they want to know two things about you. No, it’s not where you’re from and what you do for a living. Those superficial questions are actually trying to ascertain what you’re about and what you want.

Your employees also seek the same information from their leaders, especially during times of change. Until you provide answers, they are going to resist change because they doubt your sincerity, ability, and motive. Find a way to connect with everyone you meet by using these four steps for creating your own connection story that will improve your effectiveness as a leader.

The Cure for Micromanaging
from Simply Hired

Leading change is a stress-filled endeavor, so don’t make it worse by breathing down the necks of everyone on your team. Micromanaging won’t make you a better leader (unless being annoying is your goal). This cure for micromanaging results in the need for less direct oversight and fewer rules, while encouraging more engagement. It’s sort of like a magic pill, but it’s not bitter at all.

No One’s Favorite: Flavor of the Month Leadership
from LinkedIn

Humans are hardwired to seek consistency. That’s the reason we hate hypocrites and are justified in demanding some degree of certainty at work. Leaders violate that trust when they roll out a new initative or switch the strategy too often. As a result, employees revolt by refusing to participate, their reason being that “it’s just the next flavor of the month”. Put an end to this complaint by taking a hard look at your organization and identifying which of the five root causes apply to you.


 Executive Coaching
*  One Opening  *

One-on-one coaching works for busy executives who want to learn communications and influence skills that will enhance their effectiveness in the boardroom, behind the podium, or across the desk. You’ll be led through a proven program that’s customize to your specific needs and current workplace challenges.

Just last week a client in Atlanta used these skills to deliver a presentation to a skeptical executive team and he was elated to report that he ultimately won their support for his initiative.

I have opened only one new spot for an executive who is ready to improve his or her communications and leadership skills. Inquire today.


Upcoming Events

Storytelling for Leaders public workshop
in Washington, D.C.on Monday, November, 17.
Reserve your spot.

Make Your Strategy Stick: Storytelling Roles of Management and Communications in Cincinnati, Ohio, on Thursday, November 20. Sponsored by the International Association of Business Communicators. Sign up.

Little Stories that Pave the Way for Big Change podcast interview with Jesse Lahey of Engaging Leader to air in early 2015. Learn more.

Request a speaker on the topics of change communications,
corporate culture, employee engagement, or business strategy.


Connected Strategy Group was founded by Amanda Marko, president and chief connection officer, to help leaders increase their influence through deeper connections that enhance the effectiveness of business strategy, change management, employee engagement, and corporate culture initiatives. Amanda recently became one of only a handful of people globally – and the first in the U.S. – to partner with Australia-based Anecdote to deliver their Storytelling for Leaders program. Storytelling complements her consulting work to help leaders better influence, engage, and inspire others.


Strategic Storytelling Workshop for Corporate Executives Who Want Training in Using Stories to Improve Their Leadership



The last public Storytelling for Leaders workshop in the U.S. is on Monday, November 17. Learn more and register.

Additional public training sessions in strategic storytelling will be scheduled in 2015.

Go here for details about bringing oral business storytelling to your workplace, attending a public workshop, or receiving executive coaching in storytelling techniques.





Be Memorable by Creating Your Own Personal Connection Story

John Corcoran of the Smart Business Revolution originally published this post in Business Insider.

If you were at a cocktail party and you had just met Amanda Marko, the conversation might go something like this.

At Christmas time last year, Amanda was talking to her sister at her family’s home in Cincinnati when her six-year-old niece, Evelyn, came walking up. “My sister told me that Evelyn had recently become pen pals with our cousin’s daughter,” says Marko. “I thought that was so cool.”

Amanda’s sister then reminded her that Amanda had also exchanged correspondence with numerous pen pals throughout their childhood. “The funny thing was, she was right,” says Marko. “But I had totally forgotten about it. I had pen pals from all over the world that I picked up from different places or trips.”

Today, Marko is a strategic communications executive and the founder of Connected Strategy Group, a consulting firm which trains high-level executives on how to use the power of connections and stories in business.

After the experience with her niece, Amanda realized “I’ve always been someone who finds connections and stays in touch. It really is true I’ve always been a person who likes meeting people.”

Connection Stories Reveal the True You

There’s a reason why Marko tells this story — which she calls her “connection story” — when she meets someone new. “Your connection story gives somebody a true glimpse into you,” says Marko. “You don’t just say ‘Hi, I’m very trustworthy, hardworking and diligent.’ But you can tell a story that gives the person you are talking to the impression that Amanda Marko is trustworthy, hardworking and diligent. “

In fact, stories are a great tool for making yourself memorable when you meet someone new. The problem with meeting someone new is the process is so routine — we’ve all done it so frequently — that it is very easy to fall in a rut.

Almost every time you meet someone new, it is very easy to get in a habit of explaining who you are and what you do in the same way, over and over again, without thinking.

You get bored with your own answers, so you don’t put energy and effort into thinking your answers through, even though how you respond may cement the first impression people have of you. In other words, rather than using a connection story, you tell people: Hi, I’m Joe, I’m trustworthy, hardworking and diligent.

In this post, however, I’m going to share the 4-step process for creating your own personal “connection story” which will enable you to be much more memorable when you meet new people.

Why How You Explain Who You Are and What You Do Matters

You may be wondering why it matters how you explain who you are and what you do.

Anytime you meet someone, it is an opportunity. It’s an opportunity for you to make a good first impression. It’s an opportunity to create a solid foundation for a new relationship.

If you sleepwalk through your answers, you’ve just missed an opportunity. Either you miss an opportunity to make a good first impression, you miss an opportunity to be memorable, or you risk being seen as boring or disinterested.

 Continue reading for my four steps to creating your own connection story

When Managing Change, Don’t Just Defer to Data

photo by MissyH / CC BY

Surprise With a Story
Long-serving employees of the European division of a global tech company were getting restless. They felt career opportunities were lacking and that outside hires were taking the best open positions. The career discontentment was leading to disengagement. Management wanted to reverse the trend.

The first response of the head of human resources was to inundate employees with facts. Lena directed her team to collect factoids like the percentage of openings that were filled with current employees versus outside hires, as well as a list of industry awards that recognized the employer as a top workplace.

Establishing that management was in the right was a smart step, but it wasn’t enough to change employees’ opinions.

The fuel for overhauling the perception came from the stories we collected. There was Carlos who was able to stay with the company when his wife’s promotion required the family to relocate from Spain to Portugal; Gabby, who made a lateral move into a different division to take on a new challenge; and Ella who stepped into a management role after her third promotion in two years. Sharing stories like these of co-workers and colleagues highlighted the opportunities available to all employees and shifted opinions.

The reason the campaign worked is that facts don’t change minds as well as stories.

Stories serve to open minds to new ideas. When people hear facts, they dig in their heels. Their resolve becomes stronger and their grip on their version of the situation grows firmer. This is the famous confirmation bias. It’s also the reason no one has over “won” an argument on Facebook or the comments section of a website.

To loosen a person’s grip on their current worldview, you have to catch them off guard. You have to surprise them.

Stories Soften the Heart
An unexpected fact – perhaps a shockingly high figure like the number of times plastic water bottles used last year would wrap around the earth – might get the audiences’ attention, but will it change their beliefs and behaviors? I defer to science, which says: no.

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman explains a set of experiments that showed how psychology students learned new concepts. When students were told a surprising statistical fact, they might find it remarkable and memorable enough to share the fact with a friend, but this wasn’t the same as changing the way they looked at the world.

The test of true learning is whether your understanding of the world and the way you interact with it has been altered, not whether you can repeat a factoid. Kahneman summarizes the study results stating that even overwhelmingly compelling data points are incapable of changing long-held personal beliefs. “On the other hand, surprising individual cases have a powerful impact and are a more effective tool for teaching [new ideas] because the incongruity must be resolved and embedded in a causal story.”

People hold stories in their hearts. The reason they clasp too long to the old way of processing orders or replenishing inventory is because they have developed an emotional attachment to those methods that is explained by a story they tell themselves.

If you are going to take away someone’s old story, you have to give them a new one. Reason, even when it’s backed by infallible facts, doesn’t hold a place in the heart.

The Role of Facts
Logical, data-driven decision makers aren’t going to be comfortable with this idea. However, the serious-minded can rest assured that facts play an important role, even when a story is the vehicle for your communication.

Your story must be grounded in fact to be effective. In the early years of eBay, many people heard the anecdote that the founder, Pierre Omidyar, had started the site to help his fiancé add to her Pez dispenser collection. It was later revealed that this account was fabricated by the public relations department to generate buzz for the new company.

Storytelling is not permission to abandon facts. Instead, it’s a better method for delivering facts.

Richard Maxwell and Robert Dickman, authors of The Elements of Persuasion state, “Stories are facts wrapped in context and delivered with emotion.”

Facts alone don’t possess emotion. Facts just are facts. The emotion from facts comes from whatever feeling we assign to them – perhaps outrage or disgust.

However, as the experiments described in Thinking, Fast and Slow prove, those emotions that arise from facts are fleeting and therefore are not powerful enough to shift anyone’s worldview, nor are they capable of inspiring action.

Stories, on the other hand, are the total package of fact and emotion rolled into one. Stories are also memorable. They won’t be retold just once like a surprising fact; they will be shared and take on a life of their own.

How to Surprise with a Story
Instead of deferring to data when you need to change a mind, try surprising with a story. An anecdote or colorful example opens minds to your facts and helps to ease the way for the change you’re suggesting.

Five methods for using stories to introduce surprise into your change management initiatives are:

  • Tackle the anti-story
    For whatever change you’re trying to make, there will be counter arguments and competing stories. Identify and acknowledge them; don’t hide from them.If the prevailing story you’re trying to rebut is that your organization is bureaucratic, then recognize the slow responses and convoluted processes of the past. Ignoring the negative and only focusing on the positive will sink your initiative. However, startling the skeptics by making their argument before they have a chance will give you a substantial advantage.
  • Hit them with the one-two combo
    Demonstrating the the negative impact of failing to act is an obvious choice for communicating the need for change. When advising an executive who was reluctant to use storytelling in his communications, telling him about a time that one of his non-story communications wasn’t effective might get his attention, but it was not enough to change his mind. When I followed the failure story with a success story, the combination of the negative and positive examples was surprising enough to work – he started using stories.
  • Tell a story with a twist
    The story itself can contain a surprise. Tell a story that ends in an unexpected way and it will be memorable and emotional enough to stick with the audience and carry your point.
  • Make a connection
    We’re naturally skeptical of the messenger. Overcome this barrier by letting your audience know through a story that you are like them.The young new COO who arrived at a company in desperate need of a turnaround had an intimidating reputation of working for top-performing companies. The employees assumed his successes had been easy, but when he shared that in fact the companies he had worked for started off worse than theirs, the employees suddenly felt reassured that he understood what it took to transform an under-performing company. No longer were they working with an unapproachable superstar; now they had someone on their team who been where they were and could help them improve.
  • Trigger a story
    Doing something remarkable gets other people talking. Use this phenomenon to your advantage by signaling change without saying a word. A leader who wants to overhaul a lax corporate culture where meetings never start on time will trigger stories – and a change in behaviors – if she strictly abides by start times and bars late arrivals from entering the conference room.

Pull, Don’t Push
Stories are a pull strategy – they pull at the heart strings. Meanwhile, facts just push against the established belief system and don’t make a dent.

Anyone leading change needs an awareness of the best and worst of human nature. Because storytelling is deeply rooted in our DNA, embrace this truth rather than deny it. Incorporate story techniques into your change projects and your new ideas and processes will spread faster.

What stories have helped you pull change initiatives to completion?


Storytelling is an effective change management tool that can be taught to leaders. Fall workshops are being held in New York, Boston and DC; in-house training for teams or one-on-one executive coaching in leadership communications techniques are also available.

For more storytelling resources, download the free 30-minute audio training, Making the Business Case for Storytelling.

Workshop details:

How to Uncover the Secrets Your Employees Hold

photo by Simon James/ CC BY

photo by Simon James/ CC BY

Open Your Ears and Mind

Your employees are keeping something from you. They voice it to each other at the lunch table, they articulate it in the form of inside jokes, and they express it over beers with friends and family.

In all of these instances, employees are sharing stories about your culture, leadership, and operating practices, and you’re not hearing them. And even when you hear them, sometimes you’re not listening.

When a couple of finance managers from a small-town water treatment company traded stories about the difficulties they had working with their bureaucratic IT department, they thought they were speaking to each other in confidence. However, the next booth contained three members of the IT support staff who were so appalled at what they heard that they immediately reported the complaints to their managers. Instead of investigating the legitimacy of the claims contained in the stories, the IT department head chose a response that was defensive in nature and punitive in action. For months, the finance department was essentially persona non grata to IT.

Managers who want an engaged workforce, effective leadership, and optimized processes should start at the source. It’s likely that the answers you seek are in front of you if you’d only open your ears and your mind to stories.

Stories Hold the Truth

Human beings have always revealed their greatest fears and biggest triumphs through stories. Cautionary tales kept our ancestors from death-by-wooly-mammoth, while the modern day equivalent is urban legends that prevent death-by-tanning-bed. Meanwhile, parables and fables taught us values and morals during childhood, forming our character and sticking with us through adulthood.

We all love a good story, but somewhere along the way we grew up and dismissed them as child’s play, embellished versions of reality, or oversimplifications of the truth. As adults, we find it acceptable to look for the secrets hidden in our data; and, in the process, we let data drown out the stories.

As serious professionals, we stopped looking for the truths in stories, but this goes against our nature. Stories have divulged the truth of every civilization or culture for all ages and through all times. They can do the same within your business culture.

For a moment, forget the surveys, engagement studies, and other forms of data. If you want to know what’s really happening within your company, pay attention to the stories being told.

It’s a Fact: The Public Likes Stories

Do you know who likes stories? The public. The public revels in stories. Their appetite is insatiable for gory, private, and embarrassing details. They love a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the lives of powerful people and organizations.

In the worst case, a leader who dismisses the stories being told within her organization could find herself on the front page of the newspaper, like in these recent headline-grabbing instances:

  • A culture of indifference and ineptitude was revealed when a former Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officer wrote a book that disclosed incidents of theft, passenger harassment, and irregular attention to security details.
  • The tweets by an ex-employee of GitHub about the company’s alpha-male culture resulted in the CEO’s resignation.
  • The legacy of CYA (cover your a#*) at General Motors caused dozens of deaths and injuries before finally being exposed during Congressional hearings.

There’s a reason stories like these capture the public’s attention: they are vivid examples of the good or bad aspects of the situation.

The emotional impact of statistics is fleeting – if present at all – while stories contain enough specificity and imagery to produce a lasting emotional response that reappears every time the story is retold. And because stories are easier to remember than numbers, they are also repeated more often.

Stories Trump Facts

Smart leaders don’t favor facts over stories. They listen to both. Yet the common first response in business is to start with the facts.

The truth is, neither facts nor stories are perfect. Data can be manipulated. Statistics can be skewed. Stories can be exaggerated.

Where stories come out ahead is their ability to evoke emotions, which in turn motivates a response and prompts action. Meanwhile, dry, boring, stand-alone data struggles to change minds.

When an Australian Air Force general sought to revolutionize his command, he implemented Lean Six Sigma methodology. The desired cost savings and efficiency achievements were followed by a noticeable decline in personnel retention rates.

To understand the reason for the sudden increase in military retirements in this division, the command conducted employee focus groups and surveys. The results of both provided the statistical proof that service members were being driven out of service by the burdens and stress of the aggressive new operating philosophy.

Despite the facts, the general remained steadfastly committed to his pet project, instead blaming the mid-level officers for incompletely communicating the program. But where the facts failed to be persuasive, two stories changed his mind.

The first was from a chief warrant officer with 30 years of service who said she would “kill her grandchild first” before allowing him to join the Air Force. Then there was the mid-career officer who complained of having to dig ditches on a new base to use as latrines because paperwork had delayed the delivery of bathroom facilities.

It was these two pieces of empirical data that finally gave the general pause to reconsider – and slow down – the aggressive implementation of his extreme efficiency measures.

Listen Up

If you’re ready to acquire a better understanding of your culture and believe that employees’ secrets are revealed by stories, you need to learn the skill of story-listening.

Set the right tone
Employees have kept their stories from you for a reason. Start by establishing a zone of trust. You could do this by promising confidentiality, protection, anonymity, or acceptance. Those are good thoughts, but they are all abstractions that take on different meanings for each individual. Instead, you should demonstrate those promises by sharing your own story. Because stories beget other stories, starting with one yourself will automatically set the tone and will help others recall their own stories to share.

Select the right time
Perhaps the story sharing takes place at a designated time weekly or monthly, or it could be daily. Employees of Apple start each shift with a team huddle. An associate who demonstrated exceptional customer service in their last shift is asked to explain what happened. Starting each shift this way is inspirational for the team members and it serves to carry them through the next shift.

Choose the right place
It’s proven that our memories are improved when we return to the scene of the occurrence. Walk into your aunt’s house for the first time in years and a flood of long-forgotten childhood memories undoubtedly will return.

photo by Tim Pierce / CC BY

Use this trick of the mind to your advantage. Your field representatives who rarely come into the office might have a difficult time recalling their stories inside a bland conference room. A colleague of mine was working with production line workers and found their stories were blocked until he conducted the interviews on the shop floor rather than in the manager’s meeting room.

Ask the right questions
Story-eliciting questions help your employees move from opinions to facts and from generalities to specific examples. If you ask, “Are you providing the best customer service possible?” the response you are likely to get is something like, “Yes, most of the time.”

However, if you say, “Tell me about a recent encounter with another department where you could have done a better job,” a story will follow. If it doesn’t, then ask follow-up questions that help take the person to a specific moment. Follow-up questions could include: “When was a time this week someone expressed dissatisfaction with the recruiting department?” or “What policy or action often precipitates complaints?” or “What type of situation is most likely to be difficult?” The more specific you are in your line of questioning, the sooner you will jar a specific memory that prompts a story.

Practice, Practice

Story-listening is a new skill, so allow time to practice. The good news is that sharing stories is as informative as it is fun.

The stories your organization tells are available to any leader who wants to listen. What have you learned by listening to stories?



Story-listening, along with storytelling and story triggering are effective change management tools that can be taught to leaders. Learn more.

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