Friday, July 9, 2010


Influencing People through Stories

For my entire life, I have been a person that puts huge value in data. I have always been a believer that information is critical to making good decisions. However, recently I have been doing a lot of reading related to how neuroscience impacts human behavior. Over the last decade, there has been a lot of research on how the brain impacts behavior. Some of this research has been applied to business especially in the area of leadership.

There is one part of this research that I believe can be very valuable to understand and apply to business. That value piece is understanding how stories are a powerful and effective way to impact thinking and behavior. In reality, new studies in both neuroscience and cognitive science show that “stories” are integral to how the human brain thinks and learns. Author and consultant Charles S. Jacobs noted in his book Management Rewired that “most cognitive scientists now believe the mind works through stories. So we’re going to be far more successful in influencing the way people think and then behave if we use stories as opposed to reason”. This is a profound shift in thinking in the area of leadership because so much of traditional business models evolve around data and logic.

Part of the science behind these findings revolves around “Mirror Neurons”. I won’t try to explain mirror neurons but it is important to understand what they do in the brain. Mirror neurons mimic activities of other individuals. More importantly, they also mimic the “intentions behind those activities”. In essence, that means we are all hard-wired to empathize with people. There are two key factors when it comes to telling stories (1) having the ability and (2) changing the way that people think. Stories inspire others to mimic the actions and also the mindset of the story teller. If a person believes that the story teller’s story is more attractive than their own, then they are more apt to “pick it up and go with it”. The studies also support the importance of how well you tell the story and how “energy, enthusiasm and optimism” are necessary to maximize the value of the story.

The Key Components of a Story

Clearly there is value in utilizing stories to impact behavior in others. It helps create decisions and change thinking. Below are some key points that I think are important in order to better utilize stories to impact others.

1. Character Component. Remember, character is a measurement of selfishness. Therefore a good story can show that you are a person who is more focused on serving the needs of others than fulfilling your own needs. Stories are delivered by people, so judging those delivering the story is a natural part of the process. I have always believed that relationships are the foundation of all business. Therefore, make sure your story leaves people with the conclusion that you are the type of relationship they want in their life.

2. Value Component. If your goal is to spur people on to making decisions, it is useful to understand WHY people make decisions. People make decisions in order to serve a need (finances, relationships, fun, love, contribution, growth, health, etc). By better serving one’s needs, a decision can enhance pleasure or diminish pain. Since value is the ability to fulfill the needs of another, your stories need to demonstrate that you can “better fulfill the needs of another”. If the story does not indicate that you, your business, your product, your service, etc. can have some positive impact on someone’s life, then the story will lose its effectiveness.

3. Emotional Component. One of the key concepts in personal development is that people will not care what you say unless they know you care first. Caring is expressed more in HOW you deliver communication than WHAT is contained in the information. Your story needs the fuel of optimism, excitement, enthusiasm, confidence and empathy in order to have a real impact.

4. The Curiosity Component. The brain’s innate sense of curiosity plays a vital role in helping us make sense of our reality. As George Loewerstein, a behavioral economist at Carnegie Mellon wrote, “we feel curiosity when we feel a gap between what we know and what we don’t know”. If the story creates curiosity for “what they don’t know” then often that triggers an interest in finding out “what you have to teach them”. The research on behavior clearly shows that we get the most out of people if we “ignite and feed their sense of curiosity.”

5. The Time Component. One of the most precious assets to people and also one of the most tough to manage is time. Knowing that fact points out an important aspect of utilizing stories – the ability to do it effectively. Often, the longer the story the less effective it is on impacting behavior. One of the basic sales principles is to tell less to more people. To be effective, you have to be able to get your point across in a short period of time.

6. The Timing Component. Often the impact of a story directly correlates to when you tell it. What happens when you try to tell someone a story and their mind is occupied by something else? What happens when you try to tell a story and someone is in a bad mental state? What happens when you try to tell a story when someone is in a chaotic environment? Remember, the timing of a story matters. If you can determine WHEN and WHERE are the most effective places to tell a story, you will probably find the impact of the story is much greater.

In the end, there is certainly value in mastering the stories we use to influence behavior. You will know you have mastered it when the story produces the results you are looking for. Additionally, let’s not forget another important takeaway from the value of stories – the value of collecting stories. Often it is not your story that impacts behavior but sharing the stories of others.

With that being said, if you are in a leadership role it is critical to understand the power that stories can play in impacting behavior, and to do your best to mto master the skills of (1) building a story and (2) communicating a story.

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