Help others tell your story

Every time we open our mouths words come out. But people listen and naturally attend to stories. Really,  they do, they are far more effective, persuasive and enjoyable. let me explain. There is a pattern and a sequence that is far more subtle than merely having a beginning, middle and end. A story is a summary of an experience.

If you are lucky enough to spend time with three-year old children, you will notice that they typically don’t bother with  pretense, they go straight for the action.  They don’t care who as much as what someone else is doing, and then they pretty quickly want to do it themselves. We begin to mimic others as babies and by the time we push past toddling, we have enough language and ability to connect our movements to get what we want or more specifically compels us to do, to take, to grab and engage.

Direct experience in my mind remains  the best way to learn; but it’s also what gives voice to the stories we share. It’s exactly why if you’re not telling stories that your customers, clients and friends can repeat about you, then you are missing opportunities.

I know, because my story is malleable, liquid. It took me a long time to suppress my enthusiasm and obsession with detail to notice that I was losing my audience. Then again, we often are quick to qualify if not underestimate our audience as well by not giving them a clear handle on our interests, capabilities.  A one word label isn’t a story, but a simple gesture generates responses that put you on a path to a shared story.

Map of Chicago's community areas, grouped by c...

Map of Chicago's community areas, grouped by color by "side" (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A neutral simple question such as where do you live can open or close the conversation.  When people ask me, I try to honor their knowledge by asking a question that helps me formulate a meaningful response.  I could simply answer with the name of my neighborhood, or even the town where I grew up, but very few people find them familiar.  I offer them a couple of larger landmarks or reference points and then lead them to my place.  But I don’t stop there.  Because I want to share a little of how it feels to live with south and east facing windows a mile or so from the center and magnificent skyline that characterizes Chicago,  I paint that picture.  Then I add in something about the diverse ethnicity and history of my neighborhood.  How the first time I stepped out on my balcony, the building was still under construction missing interior walls, and I discovered it was my destiny to live here.  That day in February was typically cold and overcast.  My eyes took in the panorama and tracked past the major intersection, gravitating east and focusing on the storefronts until in the middle of my frame, a billboard separated the street and the dramatic skyline.  For me an iconic image came into focus on this west-facing wall.  The bold black letters read Kaplan’s against a fading wash of yellow.  I suspected it was my great-uncle Dave’s store , which I instantly confirmed with a phone call to one of my older brothers.  I looked to live in this neighborhood because it was near where my mother had grown up, and the coincident discovery that I was between my parents childhood travels I realized I found my new home.

Were you listening? or was your mind painting some pictures?  The brain, cognitive psychologists explain, backed up by work in neuroscience, psychology and economic research, loves stories.  Rather than demanding attention or confronting people with facts and figures to present your case, tell a story.

Help your customers, clients feel at home with you, your products and services by taking them there.  Are you telling them the what, or the hows without the why?  In an era of information and sensory overload, consumers are finding it simpler to control, filter or ignore your message.  The brain’s two systems–the limbic and neo-cortex (or the sensory and thought processors) naturally filter input based on prior experience and novelty .

Think of the limbic system as the bouncer, it only allows the sensory data that passes muster to get through tho the neocortex for further processing.  In those moments where you can’t think straight?  Paradoxically, you must be pretty “safe” or the limbic system‘s antennae would shut down access.  Conversely, our multitasking abilities  support several functions at once, and make it possible for us to daydream while driving, walking, reading , cooking etc.  Data is instantly routed and cues up behavior that after the first experience quickly  reverts to routine processing. Uncannily, we can simultaneously breathe, walk with great coordination, even whistle, listen to birds, notice the flyers and traffic as we gently negotiate our surroundings, think about a novel we are reading,  or dinner scheduled later with friends while half listening to the chatter of a child who is holding our hand.  That is until you’re confronted, disrupted or challenged.  “Are you listening to me?”

The challenges are ever-present. Each of us want our own messages to be heard, our presence known, fully considered; yet we also want some natural escape and respite from the omnipresent sensory assault on our bearings. Story, regardless of the subject or language, our brain finds them comforting.  We relax and naturally attenuate to stories.

More often it’s the emotions not the facts and figures that sway our conscious brain to check in. Few stories in our lives begin with once upon a time or end in happily ever after sentiments.  They don’t need a formula, yet there is a pattern.

This week, Northwestern University’s Kellogg school of Business and Segal Institute of Design hosted a conference.  Academics and business minded professional came to hear about the ROI of Design.  The accomplished presenters demonstrated how their focus on bettering experiential elements created comfortable contexts and reference points of customers and the financial performance gains that followed.  Each presenter shared stories of the transformations in their respective businesses, from the perspective of their customers.

Sure, there is much more to storytelling than discerning a beginning, middle and end. The more we appreciate and acknowledge the value of the experiential elements on our customer and audience, the more stories become the byproduct.  Your customers will be telling and sharing stories about you–what are you doing to help them tell good, if not great ones?

I promise I won’t leave you hanging wondering how to be better at story making, but in the interim go test this hypothesis.  Take some time to be a better listener and surprisingly you’ll discover how you will naturally find a story that matches what you are hearing, but the story will be yours, authentic to you…not because you lived it but you own it.

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