Why “The Story Factor” is one of our favorite books

Dec 16, 2015

Why “The Story Factor” is one of our favorite books

Dec 16, 2015

We all know storytelling is the most compelling way to move people.

Parents persuade children to eat by telling them stories about how spoons are airplanes and broccoli is dinosaur food. Religious leaders inspire followers through stories in the form of parables and proverbs. Presidents influence nations with stories about struggling families and soldiers returning home.

But business people hardly tell stories at all. Weird, right?

When you think about it in those terms, books like “The Story Factor” by Annette Simmons don’t seem like they need to be written. It should go without saying that stories are powerful tools of communication. And yet, the majority of businesses default to predictable rhetoric, rational argument and rushing people into decisions. Many never even think about storytelling, and most seem to be uncomfortable with the idea.

That’s why this book is a classic in our office. It was first published in 2001, and in the time since, storytelling became something of a fad in marketing circles, although there has always been a lot more talk about it than actually doing it. So much of this text is still as fresh and relevant today as it was almost 15 years ago, especially as more businesses today launch their own publishing platforms.

Our agency’s focus on storytelling isn’t a neat gimmick – it’s borne from infinite examples and actual scientific evidence that human brains are simply wired to understand stories, not disconnected facts and figures. Simmons provides ample evidence of her own, and tells a number of stories from business leaders using stories to disarm hostile audiences and connect with others. She also offers tips and strategies for improving your storytelling skills.

Here’s what our team found most insightful, and still reference in our work on a regular basis.

Hugh Braithwaite, President and CEO

This was one of the first stand-out story books to apply the “oldest tool of influence” to the skeptical world of business. I still keep it front and center on our agency bookshelves. But, tucked in among the many poignant and practical lessons on how to deliver an effective story, is a small tangent that I found the most compelling – storylistening.

In my experience, the ability to pull a real story out of an audience, client, prospect or customer, is the yang to storytelling’s yin. Borrowing from her extensive psychological research, Simmons explains the behavioral benefit of storylistening this way:

“Genuine listening is much more powerful than pretend listing if you want to influence someone to change his or her mind about something. Genuine listening has a deep transformative power. Try to remember a time when someone truly listened to you and you will probably also remember experiencing your mental defenses slowly cracking open and falling away.”

Her suggested storylistening prompts feel almost foreign in a corporate setting where bullet points and top-line messaging prevail: What made you think that?  Then what happened? Tell me about that? Who else was there? How did that come about?

I’ve used these exact prompts with our clients hundreds of times. And they work equally well in branding and crisis situations. With just a few turns, this tool can often yield an entirely new perspective on a business or product that produces a fresh set of new ideas, opportunities and messages.

As Simmons points out, “A car salesman trying to sell a lease option to a person who says ‘I hate leases’ will probably find listening much more effective than persuasion. Listening is a great way to earn your turn to talk.”

Joe McIntyre, Account Executive

We hear often about the numerous ways to get an audience to buy into a product or service to the point that they can recite its key points. From compelling statistics to startling facts, many of us have likely used these methods of persuasion in presentations or in conversations with friends. But as Simmons explains, people are “up to their eyeballs in information.” All they’re really looking for is to believe in something.

What “The Story Factor” does extremely well is emphasize the value and success of something we’ve all been doing since we developed the ability to speak (and something we do at Braithwaite every single day) – using storytelling as a way to effectively communicate, share information, and make an audience believe in that “something.” In the book, Simmons may seem to be pushing the common self-help idea that “we all have this hidden ability in ourselves that we need to unleash,” but in this case, she couldn’t be more right. Through her own personal stories and examples she’s taken from others, she explains so well why the stories we share, more so than anything else, can have such a profound impact on people.

Like the story she shared of a manager who uses his experiences with failure and his own self-importance to show how he’s gained the ability to become a more effective leader, we cannot simply say “I’m a good leader” and hope people buy into it. We need to show through past experiences and personal tales how we’ve learned that leading is more than just telling others what to do.

We all have an innate ability to share experiences and stories with friends in the hope that they tell our audience something about who we are, where we are, and how we are. And if we can develop the skills to share them in a way that elicits emotion, whether we’re a business or a person, we will be more effective in inspiring and achieving those communications goals.

Lee Procida, Lead Content Strategist

I first read this book two years ago and still constantly think of two particular sections. One is titled “The Human Condition,” in which she points out that people want to connect with other people. Here’s her example:

“A rational statement like, ‘I give 100 percent to my company,’ is flat. It rings false without the human element of duality. I am much more trusting of someone who says, ‘I give 100 percent to my company … about 80 percent of the time.’ Now that touches me and makes me smile. I recognize a fellow human being in that statement. An over-dependence on logical, rational-sounding ‘reasons why’ leaves the most important part – the human part – of your listeners untouched and unswayed by your requests.”

There’s another section called “The Physics of Story” that I seriously think about on a weekly basis. In it, she writes that the power to influence is often associated with force, or a push strategy. But that sets up a confrontation, where someone could push back, or be pushed in a different direction.

Storytelling, however, is a pull strategy. She compares it to aikido, a martial art in which you use your attacker’s momentum against them, pulling them toward you to destabilize and move them in the direction you want them to go. There are plenty other real-world examples of when pulling provides better leverage and control than pushing.

Simmons sums it up this way: “The physics of story may run counter to your instincts when faced with a situation where you want to influence so much that every fiber of your being tells you to ‘do something!’ If you push, you activate resistance. The pull strategy of story taps into the momentum living in your listeners rather than providing momentum for them.”

This article is part of our B On The Books series, in which Braithwaite staff explain their favorite ideas from the best business and marketing books. Read more in this series.

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