PowerPoint presentations, bar graphs and pie charts may be the conventional way of presenting an argument in a business environment, but do they actually help convince people? In his recent book, Tell to Win, University of California, Los Angeles, professor and Hollywood producer Peter Guber looks at hundreds of examples to show that the best way to form an emotional connect with your audience and truly convince it is by substantiating those numbers with stories. Stories are what really help people make connections between point 1 and point 2, and you know your argument is selling when those stories start getting circulated. Edited excerpts from the chapter on “You’ve Got It”.
The missing link in business
At one of the narrative gatherings I hosted in 2009, our guest speaker was Michael Wesch, a cultural anthropologist at Kansas State University and expert on information technology, from indigenous cultures to new media. It was Wesch who clinched my suspicion that telling to win actually is the missing link in business.
Tell to Win—Connect, Persuade, and Triumph with the Hidden Power of Story: By Peter Guber, Profile Books, 255 pages, Rs 295.
In addition to sparking mirror neurons, Wesch said, telling and listening to stories ignites the regions of the brain that process meaning. Why is this important? “Because humans are meaning-seeking creatures. It’s not just about taking in information. We can’t remember anything without giving meaning to it.”
Wesch described the significance of story in a verbal equation: meaning + memory = knowledgeability. Meaning, he said, emerges when we make connections between bits of information. Why did we lose $200,000 in the last quarter? How does the new CEO differ from the last one? How come we made $12 million more on this product than on that one? Those sorts of connection are the cargo hidden inside purposeful narratives. Stories package these connections and, when told, propel them to listeners through state-of-the-heart technology. The emotional reward of the story makes the connections easy to remember, and every time we do remember, we also experience why the information tucked inside of the story matters. By contrast, what’s the meaning you attach to a list of numbers in a PowerPoint? Zilch! And that’s why lists of numbers or facts are not memorable. “If you’re going to pass on ideas and influence people,” Wesch concluded, “you have to be able to tell a story.”
But is a story told orally person-to-person any more persuasive within organizations than its print or screen equivalent? At another of our conclaves, Steve Denning recalled how he’d asked that same question back when he was knowledge director at the World Bank. To find the answer, he had his team deliver 25 well-crafted stories of innovation to staffers at the World Bank through a variety of media. The people who read the stories in booklets or newsletters or watched them on video hardly mentioned them to their colleagues. They said they didn’t trust these packaged presentations from “the system” because the presentations didn’t feel genuine or authentic. However, when the same stories were told person-to-person, audiences listened closely and repeated them to others. The more the audience trusted the speaker, the more they trusted the authenticity of the telling and the greater its power to influence them. “It wasn’t the story that was having the impact,” Denning realized, “but oral storytelling.”
Why, then, I asked Denning, do so many businesspeople discount or completely ignore this potent, organizational tool? Denning pointed out that our educational system puts a premium on intellectual reasoning at the expense of emotion. Learning becomes increasingly conceptual and impersonal as you move into graduate degrees. And because the professional world is dominated by university graduates, businesspeople now take it for granted that theoretical and statistical models are worth more than stories.
But that does not mean that stories go away! “Whenever we relax with our friends outside of school or the office,” Denning said, “we lapse right back into storytelling. We are at home with it. So why not communicate with people in their native language?”
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