The power of story in communication

The power of story in communication

John R. Ward

The Power of Story in Communication

If the job of communicators is to take people from where they are to places they have not been, to help them see things they have not seen and to provide understanding in matters previously not understood, the task is indeed a great one. It is no accident that the most successful organizations are the ones that communicate the best. I would hazard the speculation that those people who communicate the best are likewise the most successful.

Through the story on the opposite page (paraphrased by Appolonaire), we learn a more drastic approach to helping people reach new heights with a clear metaphor. There is an art to communication whether it is in our speech or our writing. The tools available to us are numerous and I would like to introduce one solution for better communication–the use of story. Whether your interest is directed toward internal or external communication, story can serve as a resourceful tool.

Stories have always been a means of communication–myths, legends, epics, parables, folk tales, fairy tales, ballads, sagas–they are all substance of life. In business, the stories take a slightly different form: extraordinary service, exceptional performance, invention, quality, creation, failure and success. The stories you share bring your words and your work to life.

A dynamic example of the use of story appears in the book, “Passion for Excellence,” by Tom Peters and Nancy Austin.

A squadron leader (World War II Flying Tigers) asked squadron leader mechanics to volunteer to test fly in the aircraft they had just repaired. This meant the pilot would sit on the crew chief’s lap to identify engine problems.

Quality of improvement was dramatic…

That night, way past dinner time, the airfield looked like it was invaded by glow worms–mechanics with flashlights rechecking connections in case they had to “volunteer” to ride their planes.

Does that story get your attention? Does it have more power than simply laying down the law? Don’t you have real stories about real people? If you haven’t kept track of the stories in your business, set about the task at once. Stories have a great many advantages for communicating with people.

And, if you think stories are just for kids, you’d better think again. It is even possible to borrow stories from you children. Let me give you a specific example.

Some years ago I was asked to design a film for a professional association on the subject of developing excellence in their area of expertise. I had researched for several months but was totally displeased with the manner in which it was coming together. It has the ring of an academic thesis filled with substance, but was lacking in punch and especially heart. The deadline for the film concept was fast approaching. I desperately needed an idea–a theme to carry the data and statistics along.

On the morning I was to present the film outline, I still lacked an idea to sell the project. Before I left home, my four-year-old daughter handed me a picture she had drawn. It was her concept of a bouquet of flowers–a rambling splattering of colors as only a child can create. It was the kind of picture you see stuck on the refrigerator door at your friend’s house. It even had, “To Dad” written on it. As she handed it to me, she hesitated, “Wait! Let me put my name on it.” And with a grand scribble, put her name on it.

Driving to my meeting all I could think about was the image of Julie handing me the picture and her words–“Wait, let me put my name on it.” Suddenly, the idea I had so diligently sought came to life. All the great paintings, works of art, famous documents of history, the most innovative and revolutionary devices carried someone’s name–a personal statement of pride in the accomplishment. That was it!

The film began with a child offering a drawing to her dad, followed by representations of signatures on the great documents of history and a voiceover, “To develop excellence, all you need to do is to care deeply about what you do and don’t do anything that you would not put your name on…” As the film ended, a child was seen signing her drawing, the association director was signing her credit and as producer, I signed my name to the film. All this from the wisdom of a four year old.

In spite of high technology, you must still communicate one-to-one. People listen to stories at a much higher level than the standard 25 percent reported by most studies on listening. Aren’t you more influenced by a story than a ream of data? Facts and technology are not enough. You might want to remember that stories travel faster than any other form of communication within an organization. The grapevine is not extinct.

Recently, while moderating a discussion panel, I listened to three elderly people tell stories in response to questions from several high school students. One 99-year-old man had us spellbound with his youthful recollections of New Mexico. He finished by singing the 10-verse ballad of New Mexico Statehood with tears trickling down his cheeks. Do you think there was a dry eye in the hall? That’s communicating!

John R. Ward, Albuquerque, N.M., is editor of three organizational newsletter, and also contributes to several local and US national publications.

COPYRIGHT 1989 International Association of Business Communicators

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group