In this week’s marketing Guru speech, leadership expert Karen Eber explains the importance of storytelling and how leaders can use it to create empathy and inspire action. Eber says she has found leaders generally want to focus on data and feel there is no time for telling stories. This, she says, is a big mistake, joining other gurus in noting that neuroscience illuminates the power of storytelling.
When we listen to a lecture, Wernicke and Broca’s areas of the brain are active, processing verbal information. Parts of your brain that process sensory information will also become active, as you imagine processing sensory information in the verbal description. The emotional processing center of your brain will also become active. Your brain will be doing some of the same activities as the speaker, which we call “neural coupling” in the process, creating an artificial internal reality in both the speaker and the listener.
Listening to stories automatically produces at least some degree of empathy for the speaker. Storytelling results in the measurable release of oxytocin – a hormone associated with love and trust – in the listener. Telling stories produces trust in a predictable, chemically measurable way.
Listening to people describe data is quite different. We think knowing about data will change behavior, but that is not really very likely. Neuroscientists have discovered that decision-making starts in the emotional processing center, the amygdala. This happens at a subconscious level. Our decision is already often made by the time our rational conscious mind begins to try to explain it. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio showed that patients who had suffered damage to the amygdala were unable to make decisions. They were paralyzed by the lack of an unconscious emotional impulse to explain.
The key to leadership is to combine storytelling with data effectively. Data storytelling has to answer three questions. What is the context and why should I care? What is the conflict? And what is the outcome? The story should also have three attributes. It should create tension, expand on an idea, and communicate value. Research conducted by Stanford University shows that storytelling is a very effective way to shape organizational culture because the classic form of the parable illustrates in an emotionally resonant way the values that we should embrace and the attitudes and actions that we should avoid.
Eber illustrates by telling a story. She was working with a CEO who had 45 slides of data for a 45-minute presentation and no story to go with it. Essentially, the presentation was an extremely boring story about data. Ebere advised the executive to forget about the data for a minute and ask herself “what is the problem you are trying to solve?” Eber and the CEO then came up with a story about the CEO’s daughter, a competitive gymnast, to explain her goal for the company to become more competitive in an emotionally relatable way. Having hooked her audience with the story and got them committed to the goal of expansion, she illuminated the details with the data.
In her final story, Eber shows the power of a surprise ending to bring a message home. Eber was helping Briana, a college adviser, explain problems facing students with autism that were preventing them from graduating. Her supervisors wanted her to focus on presenting data, but Briana felt that the university leaders already knew about the data. Instead, she decided to focus on the experience of one student to provide a more personal understanding of the issue. Briana related the personal experience of an autistic student, Michelle, who got a phone call from her adviser where he asked her questions about her aspirations and future plans. For Michelle, responding to questions like that over the phone was not just impossible, it was so demoralizing and intimidating that she wanted to drop out. But her parents intervened and helped her write an email to her adviser explaining that she was autistic and expressing a preference for communicating via email. Now Michelle is thriving as a straight-A student.
Having captured the emotional attention of the leaders with her story, Briana went on to share data. Only 20% of students with autism were graduating. And not because they cannot handle the coursework. As the story reveals, they are dropping out because they can’t figure out how to operate in the university, and their advisors are not adequately helpful. Briana concluded by urging the leaders to focus on improving advisor-student relationships for autistic students. Having put a personal face on the issue, Briana added a surprise twist: Michelle is her daughter. So when you want to convince someone with data, remember storytelling is one of your most important leadership skills. Humanize your message with a story to maximize the persuasive impact of your data.