I’ve written about the science of persuasion, how important it is know your audience and really understand their pressure points, and how important emotions are compared with logic.
The ability to persuade people to do something different is literally a make it or break it skill for me in my business. As a result, I’ve been an avid student of persuasion for a long time.
Regardless of whether you are a consultant, a top leader, an entrepreneur, or a project team member, the ability to persuade others and do so in a way that doesn’t damage the relationship is so important these days.
There’s a lot out there about the power of story telling in the influencing game. Is this just a bunch of fluffy stuff? Or does a good story work better than facts and figures?
As much as we are data driven, the answer may surprise you.
The surprising persuasive power of a story
Based on some recent research by the Harvard Business Review, Nick Morgan, author of Power Cues tells us that:
“In our information-saturated age, business leaders won’t be heard unless they’re telling stories. Facts and figures and all the rational things that we think are important in the business world actually don’t stick in our minds at all. Stories create ‘sticky’ memories by attaching emotions to things that happen.
That means leaders who can create and share good stories have a powerful advantage over others.”
In some ways, we are almost hard wired to respond emotionally to a story in a way that makes data, facts, and figures more credible.
One empirical study was done with experienced judges and attorneys that showed that stories evoked emotional responses that actually created more credibility in the legal claims being made and that further actually created empathy from them in their judicial thinking and decision making. In other words, the stories, beyond the facts of the case, impacted their rulings and decisions.
A real example in action
One of my coaching clients is a Director of Operations. She leads manufacturing plant operations across multiple plants.
One of her responsibilities is to create consistent protocols to get in front of high risk situations across all plants. In other words, if they had a bad situation at one plant where someone got hurt, her job is to make sure they have all of the right things in place to prevent this from happening elsewhere.
Her job is hard because all of the plants roll up to decentralized Business Unit CEOs, who are fiercely independent, competitive with each other, often don’t collaborate, and describe themselves as highly unique from one another.
Persuading them all to do things the same way is a steep uphill battle.
She recently had the opportunity to present to all of the Business Unit CEOs about her approach for standard protocols to prevent adverse events. She got up and expertly presented her case. It was well done with data, facts and statistics.
Then the predictable rumbling began from the CEOs:
“We would never have this problem in our plant. We don’t need this.”
“That might have happened over there, but we’ve got our own protocols in place and we’re in good shape.”
And so on and so forth. So she decided to go “off script.” She told a story. And her story was emotional and authentic.
She described a case she had worked years ago at a plant where she had worked earlier in her career. A fire had broken out at another plant a few months earlier, but she and her peers had concluded that they weren’t at risk because things were under control at her plant.
But they weren’t.
Their plant had the exact same situation occur with the same root causes, except this time the fire was big and an employee got badly burned. She talked about her relationship with that employee, how he had been incredibly gracious and wanted his story told so that people wouldn’t forget about what happens to people when these bad things happen.
She talked about how that still haunted her even today years later because of how preventable it was and how it had a lasting impact on another person’s life. Then she stopped.
After a brief silence, all of the CEOs concluded almost in unison that they needed the programs she had just presented to them (that five minutes earlier they had rebuffed) and that they actually needed this as soon as possible.
Two leaders even followed her out after her presentation to tell her that she was exactly what this company needed right now and offered her whatever help and leadership sponsorship she needed to move quickly.
It was the story that did it. Her story was the persuasive tool she needed.