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Story Power

Don't underestimate the strength of a good one to persuade people and move them to action.

I wasn't going to contribute to National Public Radio this year. Yes, I love its jazz and classical music, and I appreciate the news stories I can't get anywhere else, but it was just one check too many. Our daughter will be married soon, we're committed to several other wonderful causes (all of which are hurting because of the recession), and NPR would have to wait until next year.

Then I heard this story during NPR's annual fall fund drive. A woman talked about her own decision not to contribute to NPR one year, but every time she heard the appeal for money during the fund drive, she felt guilty. So she'd turn off the radio and play her favorite song, which happens to be "You Ain't Nothin' but a Hound Dog," sung by Big Mama Thornton. After a while, she'd turn NPR back on to hear the news or music.

Today's column by Russ Linden provides maybe the most important practical advice provided in any of these columns over the years. What good is the best policy if the audience doesn't connect? What good is the best solution if it cannot rally the necessary support? I wish I would have read this column when I was a young mayor.

- Stephen Goldsmith

She tried to remember when she first heard that recording of "Hound Dog," and suddenly it occurred to her: on NPR! As you can guess, she took out her checkbook that evening and sent a contribution. And after hearing her story, I did the same thing.

I didn't write my check this year out of guilt; rather, a story was told by someone like me, and it reminded me how much I value the news and music on NPR. There's something about a well-told story that grabs us. We can relate to a story. We remember stories far longer than we retain figures and facts (example: I can't remember the percentage of income my NPR station receives from the feds, state government or corporate underwriters, even though it's often mentioned during the fund drive, but I will long remember the story about Big Mama Thornton).

Stories are a powerful form of communication. Think about your favorite president. Most Republicans cite Reagan, most Democrats point to JFK or Obama. All three were/are great communicators, and all made excellent use of stories. When Kennedy faced the press a few days after the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, he began by recalling an old saying: "Success has a hundred fathers, and failure is an orphan." He went on to take responsibility for the "orphan" (the military failure), something most presidents have difficulty doing. And his poll numbers went up!

When Ronald Reagan wanted to make a point during a talk to the nation early in his first term about the size of the federal budget, he held the entire budget document in his hands, dropped it on the desk, and talked about his concern over the size of government. It was very effective, a "visual" story if you will.

Stories also connect to people with a wide variety of learning styles. Big-picture thinkers and those who love to get into the weeds can all relate to a story. And, as Annette Simmons points out in her wonderful book The Story Factor , the more detailed the story, the more generalizable. That is, the story's specifics help us relate it to our own lives. As the woman who felt guilty about not giving to NPR described her favorite song (and then that song was played briefly), it reminded me of some wonderful music I have only heard on NPR.

Finally, stories are powerful ways to influence others. Attorneys sometimes say that the lawyer with the best story usually wins in court. A story helps us frame an argument, and it puts a point into a compelling context. Of course, you need to have your facts straight when trying to persuade others, but that's only the price of admission. Generally speaking, when both (all) sides have facts to support their point, a compelling story makes the difference.

How can you use stories in your own work? Here are a few thoughts:

o Start a meeting with a story that conveys the purpose of the meeting/project. I'm on the board of a college scholarship fund and we spend most of our time trying to raise money. Recently, our meeting began with the story of one of our recipients who had just graduated from college and had found a great job. That story totally changed the dynamics in the group, and we had one of our best meetings.

o Use a story to underline your most important point when giving a talk or briefing senior officials. Because stories lodge in our long-term memories, because most people relate better to stories than numbers, your audience is more likely to recall your key point when you use a powerful story.

o Use a personal story when you want to move people to action. A member of Congress was discussing the need to reform our health care system, and an interviewer challenged him on the costs, citing several dollar figures. The member paused, looked the interviewer right in the eye and said, "Look, this is personal for me. Years ago I lost a parent who was suffering from a disease that was treatable, but the insurance company wouldn't cover the surgery costs. This isn't about a bunch of numbers. ..."

o Talk about your organization's mission and direction by using a short story. An anti-poverty organization in my town was doing some strategic planning, and I asked why they wanted a new direction. The senior manager said, "For years, we've been going down to the river and retrieving kids out of baskets as they float by, heading for a very bad ending. We finally decided it's time to walk upstream and figure out how to prevent them from getting dropped into the river in the first place."

Stories connect. They persuade people. They emphasize your main point. And they move people. What stories can you tell?

A management consultant, educator and author
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