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"There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories." -Ursula K. Le Guin

Something happens when we tell stories. We understand one another. Stories are the glue of a tribe: they pass wisdom from generation, or from expert to expert; they celebrate experiences, mourn defeats, plot future triumphs. But something else happens: we synchronize. Lest you worry that it's getting too touchy-feely here, rest assured: stories have power - and if you harness it, you have one of the most effective covert persuasion techniques at the tip of your tongue.

The Power of Stories

Let's start with the science: a team of researchers from Princeton had a woman tell a story while undergoing an MRI. She did so, telling her tale in English and then again in Russian. Volunteers (English-speakers only) listened to the stories and had their own brains scanned.

As she told the story, the woman's insula (emotional region of the brain) lit up, as did her frontal cortex. When the volunteers heard the story in Russian: nothing. But when they heard it in English, the same areas of the brain activated. "By simply telling a story, the woman could plant ideas, thoughts and emotions into the listeners' brains."

And the more they understood, the more their brain activity mirrored that of the storyteller. We knew intuitively that stories connect us on a primal level; now it appears that they do so on a sophisticated neurological level as well.

Other studies have shown that it is far easier to change someone's beliefs through storytelling than through logic. In a conversation with HBR, world-renowned screenwriting lecturer and author Robert McKee says:

Trying to convince people with logic is tough for two reasons. One is they are arguing with you in their heads while you are making your argument. Second, if you do succeed in persuading them, you've done so only on an intellectual basis. That's not good enough, because people are not inspired to act by reason alone.

So, what does this mean for you? If you're not telling stories, you're missing out. And, if you're not telling them well, you're missing opportunity after opportunity to persuade people to buy your product, adopt your point of view, embrace your mission, or invest in your company. Can you afford that?

Leveraging Covert Persuasion in Stories

In Covert Persuasion: Psychological Tactics and Tricks to Win the Game, Kevin Hogan and James Speakman write that "most stories fail at persuasion because they lack focus and thus tend to be rambling and pointless." The point of your story is to make a point! Here are some tips to help you do just that:

  • Clarify your intention before you start talking. Why are you telling this story? Do you want to make your targets laugh? Commiserate? Take action? Knowing your purpose will help you craft tales that make an impact. You must also know your audience: what do you want them to think or feel?
  • Identify your purpose. Why are you with particular targets? How do you plan to persuade them that you're authoritative, interested, and concerned for their success? Your "intention" is the point of your story; your "purpose" is the point of your entire engagement.
  • Reveal glimpses of yourself. Self-revelations help you convey your beliefs and values and establish rapport with listeners. Pepper stories with your own experiences and/or those of past clients. Be sure that these characters and plot twists are highly relevant to the listeners.
  • Discuss subjects of agreement. Get passion on your side. Can you create stories around cutting costs? Investing in a brighter future? Recruiting new customers/clients? Retaining employees? Grab their attention, and secure their agreement by talking about subjects that matter to your targets.
  • Discuss how your product/service/idea affects their business or life. How does it save time? Money? Improve quality of life?
  • Be humbly incredible. Your story must convey the message that you are great; your product or service is stellar, and you are the only solution to the targets' problems. At the same time, don't tell them that you're the best/smartest/more considerate. Let other clients say it for you. For example, "After the client put this system into action, he said, 'I've never had service like this before. This has been an excellent experience."
  • Tell how other clients have benefited from your solutions. Now is not the time for fiction. Use verifiable facts to demonstrate how clients have saved money, increased productivity, reduced waste, etc.

Stories have incredible power; leverage it to persuade people and to meet your goals. What you cannot do with reason or logic, you can certainly do with emotion and connection.

A bonus tip from yours truly: Poet Lady Mary Wortley Montagu once said, "Life is too short for long stories." Get in, make your point, and get out! Don't make the mistake of rambling. And with that, I'm getting out.


Larry Hart

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