by Louise Worsley

Engaging through storytelling

PM Pointers

Engaging through storytelling.
Engaging through story telling

Over dinner with friends I had one of those infuriating episodes when my husband related a great story about something he had been up to. Why infuriating? Because it was the story I told him last week – my story – my experiences – not his! And yet this is quite normal and happens all the time. Have you never had that embarrassing moment when a friend tells you a story and a week later, you relate the same story back, as if it was your idea?

A team of scientists at Princeton University in the United States, led by Uri Hasson, had a woman tell a story while in an magnetic resonance imaging or MRI scanner. Functional MRI scans detect brain activity by monitoring blood flow; when a brain region is active it needs more blood to provide oxygen and nutrients. The active regions light up on a computer screen. They recorded her story on a computer and monitored her brain activity as she spoke. 

She did this twice, once in English and once in Russian; she was fluent in both languages. They then had a group of volunteers listen to the stories through headphones while they had their brains scanned. All of the volunteers spoke English, but none understood Russian. After the volunteers heard the story, Hasson asked them some questions to see how much of each story they understood. When the woman spoke English, the volunteers understood her story, and their brains synchronised. When she had activity in her insula (a region of the brain deep in the cerebral cortex), an emotional brain region, the listeners did too. 

When her frontal cortex (The frontal lobe is an area in the brain of mammals, located at the front of each cerebral hemisphere and positioned anterior to (in front of) the parietal lobe and superior and anterior to the temporal lobes.) lit up, so did theirs.

Story telling is not just communication – its influencing at its most compelling. Story telling is not new in business. A number of companies have attempted to exploit the approach to improve the way staff communicate and report – often with mixed results in terms of real change in communication success. Ultimately, storytelling in business is not just about communicating – it is an influencing approach.

Possibly one of the most powerful ways we have available to us to change the way others view the world – a genuine “hearts and minds” process. When you tell a story to a colleague, you can transfer experiences directly to their brain. They feel what you feel. They empathise. As you relate someone's desires through a story, they become the desires of the audience.

When you hear a good story, you develop empathy with the teller because you experience the events for yourself. Ever had that experience when you have been in a meeting with your boss, or better still, your project sponsor and you have poured out your well thought through ideas about how to take the project forward? You then sit horror struck in the next project meeting when they ‘story-steal’ and relate your ideas and your vision as through it’s theirs.

Be calm. Take a deep breath and reflect on your success.  After all – what better evidence can you get to their commitment to your cause? Perhaps, by telling them, you transferred the story to their brain. They felt as if they could see the plan – could execute the plan, if only vicariously through you. 

Take it as a tribute to your gift as a good storyteller and a great influencer! nfluencing is just one of the ‘critical discussions’ on the Stakeholder Engagement workshop launched by PiCubed in June. For further information and join-up details, contact Sally at spike@pi3.co.za or +27 21 7955 103.

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