Some years back I was invited to give a speech to a large group of superintendents. As I am prone to do, I laced my speech with many stories and anecdotes to illustrate the ideas I was presenting. For whatever reason, there seemed to be a special chemistry between the audience and me, and at the end of the speech I received a standing ovation that lasted an embarrassingly long time. Needless to say, I was honored, pleased, and gratified.
Later on I went to a cocktail party with a group of superintendents who had attended the conference and heard my speech. Many made very flattering remarks and recalled points they found especially telling. I noticed, however, one young man whose body language suggested to me that he was not in tune with his colleagues. (Given some of his comments and the fact that he had placed a large “Dr.” in front of his name on his nametag, I suspected that he was a freshly minted PhD—and wanted to display to others that he deserved the title.) In any case, either because he had had all of me he could stand or because he simply needed to be center stage, he finally blurted out, “Hell, if you cut out all the stories, you could say in five minutes everything you said in an hour, and most of what you said anyone with common sense would know anyway. Where is the research? Anecdotes are fine, but I want facts, not stories.”
Well, I couldn’t resist. I turned to him and said (as coldly as I knew how), “Young man, you are probably right. I would only add a little bit to what you said. I’ll bet you whatever you care to wager that most of my audience will remember much that I said for a considerable length of time, but they will not remember for five minutes what you say if you have no stories to tell.” I am still not sure I should have said what I said to this young man, but I am sure that what I said about the power of stories is so.
Stories provide sails in which the energy of ideas can be captured. Stories also provide rudders to maintain direction. Without stories, ideas do not produce action. Without stories, ideas are like so many leaves blowing in the wind—they go no place in particular, and they need a lot of wind to keep them in the air.
Metaphors, too, are powerful ways of communicating vaguely understood notions. I recall that many years ago when I was first starting what is now called “the Schlechty Center,” I was trying to find some way to convey to the staff I was recruiting the nature of the culture I wanted to build. More than anything I wanted our organization to be classy and businesslike, but at the same time I wanted it to be a warm and supportive place to work. We prepared a document entitled “The Schlechty Center Way” which provides a list of organizational expectations such as the following: A promise made by one of us is binding on all of us; Our clients are our friends; Promise only half of what you think you can deliver. This document, while useful, still did not catch the tone I hoped to convey.
Then it happened. At a company Christmas party, each staff member (and others as well) were invited to express their view of the Center and speak about what working for the Center meant for them. One person in the group offered the following metaphor: “The way I see the Center is that it is a mixture between IBM and the Brady bunch. On the one hand you try to run a world-class business operation and provide nothing but quality service; on the other hand you often behave like a family that is a bit out of control and who love and enjoy each other very much.” Sounded like a good story to me and we tell it often around our place. Every place needs to have a story about what it is.
Why is this so? I think the Heath brothers—the authors of the book Made to Stick, which I referred to in my last several blogs—have it about right. They contend that memory operates more like Velcro than like a filing cabinet. Once a person has learned something new, the question of whether or not it will be remembered depends on how many hooks have been attached to the idea. Remembering occurs when these hooks become attached to and enmeshed in the existing “loops” that have been created by past experience and past associations. The more hooks there are, the greater the memory will be and the longer the memory will last.
When a member of an audience asks for an example, he or she is simply seeking a story or a metaphor that has some hooks on it. Moreover, what the audience member wants are hooks that will respond to the loops he or she already has woven into his or her mental fabric. The key to making ideas concrete, therefore, is knowing the audience and what the audience is prepared to see and hear. By knowing the audience, the speaker, the teacher, or the leader begins to get a feel for the “loops” audience members have in their memory banks to which the hooks on the other side of the Velcro fastener can be attached.
Abstractions have few hooks. Indeed, most of the hooks have been stripped away from abstractions so that the idea can be expressed in the most uncluttered way. Stories, metaphors, and analogies, on the other hand, have many hooks. Unlike the abstraction, the concreteness of the story makes generalization more difficult. At the same time, the story can give heft and texture to a proposition so that will have meaning in the concrete world in which most of us live most of the time.
Learning to tell stories is essential to being a leader. Equally important, however, is to ensure that the stories told really convey something important about the idea you want to convey. Too often, writers and speakers tell stories that are not relevant to anything other than the titillation and entertainment of their audience and the gratification of the ego of the storyteller. We all like to get positive feedback from our audiences, and laughter and standing ovations can be seductive. However, stories should inform rather than simply entertain. And remember there are those who just want the facts and are prone to see storytellers as nothing more or less than shallow entertainers.