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Do you remember the first time you heard Aesop's fable, The Boy Who Cried Wolf ? To this day, I remember the first time I heard the story in school. I remember the feelings it created, the storytelling prowess of my teacher, and how the story's moral instantly resonated: if I lied, I would become a person no one could trust, and become food for the wolves. That story stuck with me for life. When our teacher told us the story, she inflected in all the right places, prompting, “oohs, ahhs, and gasps” from those in my class. As an adult, I often wonder about the effectiveness of the messaging had it not included that story of the boy who tricked his townsfolk. What if the teacher simply said to the class, "Kids, don’t lie, it's bad and no one likes it." Do you think it would have achieved the same outcomes? The way our teacher relayed the story prompted fear, provoked thought, and created a solid foundation to teach an important life lesson. If she had just told us not to lie, we would have quickly forgotten the lesson and counted down the minutes until recess.
Storytelling is a skill with applications far outside the classroom. Effective storytelling is crucial in business. It is essential for teaching lessons, transferring knowledge, providing consultation, persuading others, and closing business.
Getting to know your audience is crucial to providing relevant stories. Storytellers love to talk. But before they open their mouths, they need to learn about their audience by asking questions, listening, and observing. Understanding how people make their decisions and form their perceptions is crucial for telling the most relevant and compelling stories.
The story does not need to be yours. At times, it does not even need to be factual! Do you think Aesop was relating undocumented historical events in his fables? What it needs to be is authentic. You must deliver the story in a way that feels real, even if it isn’t. It can’t be stiff and automated. You need to sell the story each time, every time.
Stories set context and promote feelings. Delivering a story monotone has the same effect as not telling the story at all. In order to create feeling, you need to display feeling. Storytellers need to share their stories in a way that shows they personally have felt the pain or the excitement. I like to think of this as the background music in a movie. It makes you feel, it gets your heart pumping, and you remember the events vividly.
A previous client of mine was almost duped by an applicant they almost hired. The applicant sold them on their experience and credentials in restaurant management. All their references checked out, and their experience seemed solid. On a whim (while the background check was being processed), the district manager decided to go to the restaurant the applicant was currently managing. It turned out the applicant had never worked there! He did not have the credentials he claimed, and his "references" were friends masquerading as supervisors. As you can imagine, that person did not get the job.
Years after I heard that story, I worked in a retail environment and led several days of classroom training for store managers. If you have ever been in retail, you know that store managers dislike lengthy hiring processes. Incorporating HR processing steps – like the time it takes to conduct a background check – is brutal for them. Three to five days can be all it takes for a candidate to accept an offer elsewhere. During our lesson, we would discuss all the tools in their recruiting toolkit, like the background check. The amount of pushback I would get on the “uselessness” of that step always amazed me. Like an unhelpful elementary school teacher, I would tell them: “you have to do it, it’s important.” I quickly learned I was a talking head, someone in “HR” who could not relate to them. I sounded like the teacher in Charlie Brown. Then one day it hit me. I would tell the story of the restaurant manager and make it relevant to them: I would speak their language. Immediately after incorporating that story into my lesson, the conversation shifted. Instead of immediate pushback, we talked about the likelihood of the same event in their environment, and about the importance of the background check. Lo and behold, they listened. By sharing that story, I got the store managers to think. It was compelling enough to make them feel, and make them consider what might happen in the absence of that necessary HR step.
I have spent the last 15 years touching HCM software in some capacity – as an internal user and as a vendor. No matter where I sit, the story is always the same. Some users will adopt the new product, happily going all in. Some users will do the opposite: they will resist and argue against the use of the product. We approach change management sessions with the expectation that users will not adopt and strategize how we can convince our users to see what is in it for them. These sessions are imperative and often create some amazing ideas and thought leadership. It is not enough to just simply explain the software to a new group of users, give them some blanket reasons why to use the software, and send them on their way. Internal champions (and vendors) need to make the end users compelled to use the new program. Using stories in our “why” messaging will create an emotional response that changes their perspective, that can make them feel differently and see the value.
Colleen Perry is a Professional Services Consultant at HireVue. With over 10 years of employment experience in HR/HCM technology she supports the change management efforts of HireVue customers in Banking, Healthcare, Hospitality, Retail, and Security. Find her on LinkedIn.