A boy was walking down the road and a car slowed down beside him to match his pace.  The window slid open and the man inside said “hop in and I’ll give you $10”.  The boy didn’t even acknowledge him; looking straight ahead, he kept walking.  A few minutes later the car again pulled alongside him, the window still open and the man inside said “come on, jump in and I’ll buy you all the chocolate you can eat”.  Still the boy moved resolutely forward, ignoring the offer.  As the boy walked around the next corner he saw the car waiting for him.  The driver called out “alright, get in the car and you can have $10 AND all the chocolate you can eat”.   The boy stopped, turned towards the car and walked up to the door.  “Listen Dad”, he said “you bought the Volvo, you live with the consequences.(1)

A Better Way to Get Buy-in:

You know, if people don’t immediately and enthusiastically embrace the ideas you propose, maybe you have to stop trying to motivate them to act based on money and treats.  Maybe there’s a better way - a way that gives your work, and theirs meaning and connects with their humanity.

We might all like to think we make decisions based on a rational basis, but in truth much of our decision making is emotionally driven.  Then we use rationality to justify the emotional choice we’ve made (2). That means as a leader responsible for change you need to get good at speaking to the part of the brain that processes emotion if you want to convince others to take up your great idea.

And that means you need to get good at storytelling.  Not aimless yarning or laugh-out-loud raconteuring but purposeful, practiced business storytelling.

Storytelling and the Brain

Neuroeconomist Paul Zak‘s research indicates that Storytelling evokes a strong neurological response (3).  Our brains produce the stress hormone cortisol during the tense moments in a story, and this allows us to focus.  Introducing the cute factor of say, a child releases oxytocin, the feel-good chemical that promotes connection and empathy.  Other neurological research tells us that a resolution or happy ending to a story triggers the limbic system to release dopamine which makes us feel more hopeful and optimistic.

Attentive, empathic and optimistic listeners – wouldn’t you like them as the audience of your change initiative?

More with Less

The added benefit of Storytelling is that the evocative nature of a story can convey more in just one sentence than you could with an hour of data.  Leading New York trial lawyer Moe Levine taught me that.

Moe was about to sum up in his compensation case for a man who had lost both arms in an industrial accident.  Rather than a long recap of all the facts of the case or a lengthy explanation of the likely costs that would be borne by his client he stood up and said simply…

“As you know, about an hour ago we broke for lunch. I saw the bailiff come and take you all as a group to have lunch in the jury room.  Then I saw the defence attorney, Mr. Horowitz.  He and his client decided to go to lunch together.  The judge and court clerk went to lunch.  So, I turned to my client, Harold, and said “Why don’t you and I go to lunch together?”  We went across the street to that little restaurant and had lunch. (Significant pause.) Ladies and gentlemen, I just had lunch with my client.  He has no arms.  He has to eat like a dog.  Thank you very much.”

I’m told Levine won one of the largest settlements in the history of the state of New York.

Story has such power to move people in the direction of your desires, and isn’t that at the heart of leadership?

  1. This story was adapted from Dolan G and Naidu Y; “Eliminate Death By PowerPoint: How To Develop And Deliver Engaging Presentations” e-book One Thousand and One
  2. Martin J & Power ME; “Organizational Stories; More Vivid and Persuasive Than Quantitative Data” in BM Straw (ed) Psychological Foundations of Organizational Behaviour
  3. Zak, P. J. (2015). "Why Inspiring Stories Make Us React: The Neuroscience of Narrative". Cerebrum: The Dana Forum on Brain Science2015, 2.

Cameron Houston, Principal, Batley Evans & Co

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