The Power of Storytelling
The art of powerful storytelling is a powerful and necessary skill set for HR and L&D professionals. The key to the power of storytelling is the ability to familiarize yourself with a compelling narrative that establishes a profound connection with anyone and acquire the skill of crafting captivating stories by uncovering the thought-provoking questions that effortlessly encourage others to open up to you, fostering an atmosphere of comfort and trust.
Stories to Drive Change
As HR or L&D partners, your job is to help communicate the story of the organization to the employees, which often includes creating change and ensuring employees feel they have a role in that process. Often the change requires employees to learn new skills and use them on the job.
Storytelling is a great vehicle for change because it helps create an emotional connection. Stories can illustrate the need for and impact of a change and can even help overcome resistance to that change. Finally, stories create a shared vision, and that is a core component of your job as a people leader.
Get More Comfortable with Small Talk and Storytelling
What’s Wrong with Small Talk?
When forced to make small talk, such as at the beginning of a meeting, most of us struggle to move beyond the standard, “how are you?”, “crazy weather we’ve been having, huh?” or “any exciting plans for the weekend?”
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with small talk. However, you are missing out on an opportunity to take your relationship with the other person to the next level. By sharing something relatable, you can then solicit something similar from the person you are speaking with. Now you’ve formed a real connection.
For learning and development or human resources professionals, you need that connection to build trust, which is foundational for any change initiative. Connections show that you understand your audience and care about what makes them tick while also conveying that you can be trusted to help guide them through the change.
The Power of Storytelling: a 3 Step Formula to Connect with Anyone
Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum of storytelling ease or small talk comfort, this technique will empower you to chat with anyone without ever having to fall back on the weather, traffic, or weekend plans. The more you practice this new skill, the less awkward and uncomfortable it will become over time.
Connection stories are simply short, relatable stories that tell something about you as a human before inviting the other person to share something similar. These stories can be shared by offering a more authentic response to a question like, “How are you?” Often you are taking a small vulnerability risk, which is necessary for a connection to be established. But the purpose is to unite you and your conversation partner as two people sharing the human experience.
The great thing about a solid connection story is that it often doesn’t rely on commonalities, such as living in the same place, being in a similar life stage, or doing similar work. When a connection isn’t obvious, the key is relying on common human emotions.
Most people can relate to feeling pressed for time or stressed about work, or the chaos of life with others, or the joy of having a new experience or going somewhere new. Even if the other person seems to have nothing in common with you, your common humanity provides the bridge.
Step 1: Transition in
The transition in is simply the short hook to transition into the story. You share one or two sentences to get the listener curious or excited about your story. Remember to keep this brief.
- “You know what, I’m really good. This morning I had a kind of odd experience . . .”
- “I’m doing great. I just read this really interesting article that made me think about . . .”
- “Good. I just had a perfect morning . . .”
The goal is to prick up the ears of the listener and quickly prepare them to hear something interesting or positive.
Step 2: Share your story
This step is the easiest part–just tell your story. You want to keep it brief, about three to four sentences.
- . . . I bought a seasonal assortment of hand soaps that were on sale. Even though it is summer, yesterday my partner put the evergreen-scented one in the bathroom and now every time I wash my hands it feels weird to be wearing shorts and a tank top with the windows open and smelling Christmas . . .
- . . . the easy road rather than the hard one. The author was saying how all the old ideas we have about gardening, like digging down into the earth, manually adding compost, and things like that are less effective and worse for the environment than lazier techniques like laying down cardboard, putting compost on top and simply planting into the compost . . .
- . . . my spouse brought me a donut from this new shop around the corner, I got the Wordle right away, and somehow I got to work early . . .
While executing this step is straightforward, coming up with the story itself takes some more practice. To generate some stories for yourself, consider the following prompts:
- What is something interesting that happened to you recently?
- Have you picked up any new skills?
- Have you read/watched/listened to something that reminded you of something in your own life?
- Have you been on any trips or had any new experiences lately?
- What is a little thing that has annoyed you? What is your pet peeve?
The story should be quick. Less is more because you want to get to the connection part, which begins with the next step…
Step 3: Transition out
Ask a question that will get a story in return. If you’ve ever tried asking a kid about their day at school or asked a teenager what’s new, you know many questions take you to the verbal equivalent of a dead end. “Fine.” “Nothing.” “I don’t know.” You want to avoid questions that can be answered with a simple yes or no.
Questions beginning with “when” or “what” create opportunities for them to think about their connection to your story and share it. Try to avoid “tell me about a time when . . .” as it sounds more like a behavioral job interview question than one human connecting to another.
- . . . When was the last time you encountered something that is ordinary in one time of the year, but seems strangely out of context in a different season?
- . . . What is something where you discovered the lazy way is actually the better way?
- . . . When was the last time you had a great morning and why was it great?
The goal of this step is to hand the conversational reins over to your conversation partner and listen attentively to their response.
Connection Story Examples
We’ve looked at some examples for each step already. Now let’s put it all together and see all three steps in action. Below are a few connection story examples in response to, “How are you?”:
- “Good. I had an interesting experience this morning. I got on a sales call with a guy I knew in college and haven’t seen in a decade. Just as the call was starting, I realized I felt super nervous. I think it was because I was thinking of the me I was the last time I spoke to this person—an insecure college student. When was the last time you felt really nervous in front of someone?”
- “Great. I just took up horseback riding so my daughter and I would have something to do together. She’s been riding for years and years, but it always looked so easy. It wasn’t until I actually got on the horse that I realized it is so much harder than it looks! What was the last new thing you tried and was it as easy as you thought or not?”
- “So much better now that I am here. I ended up getting stuck in terrible traffic this morning and was so frustrated because I really wanted to be in person for my first meeting. I guess traffic is one of those things that just pushes my patience to the limit. What is the ordinary life hassle that makes you feel frazzled and how do you recover your equilibrium?”
In a nutshell, connection stories are simply taking something specific that has happened recently and using that to establish rapport with anyone.
Homework for Life
While selecting the right question designed to connect with someone else is not easy, once you have a story in mind, question creation gets significantly easier. So, if everything starts with a story, how can you get good at identifying story-worthy moments?
I have an exercise called Homework for Life by Matthew Dicks. It is one of the things I do consistently every day. This practice will help you create a pool of stories ready to go at any point in time. The practice is simple: every day, ask yourself, “If I had to tell a story from today—something from work or outside of work—what would it be?” Then simply write down the date and one or two sentences for the story and the lesson learned. Below is an example from my Homework for Life log.
As you can see from my log, Homework for Life doesn’t have to be complicated or super time-consuming. If you already journal regularly, think of this exercise as the one-to-two sentences that capture the most interesting thing of the day. If you like to brain dump before bed, add this brief practice to your journaling routine. If you are a morning person, start your day by reflecting on any story fodder from the day before. The key is doing this consistently and forming a habit.
Benefits Beyond Storytelling
Aside from exercising your storytelling muscles and connecting with more people, thinking about Homework for Life gets you used to looking for stories. This focus on the present moment, on what is happening here and now, will help you to be more in the present rather than thinking about what has already happened or what might happen next. Homework for Life is a tool to change your perspective and get you into the present moment.
Learn More about the Power of Storytelling
The goal of storytelling is to get people to feel comfortable with you, trust you, and feel connected to you. It all starts with telling a simple story. What may begin as a slightly awkward exercise will become more natural and organic over time with practice.
There are a wealth of resources to help you on your storytelling journey. Podcast host Matthew Dicks of The Moth has written a book called Storyworthy: Engage, Teach, Persuade, and Change Your Life Through the Power of Storytelling, which is a great starting place for anyone interested in this topic.
I have written a book called The StorySelling Method: Master the Art of Storytelling to Build Trust, Stand Out, and Boost Sales. While it is oriented toward sales professionals, 90% of the ideas and concepts in the book are applicable beyond the world of sales. Though sales aren’t your main role, as human resources and learning and development professionals, you are essentially selling employees on a vision of your organization, their role in it, and the intertwined future success of both.
My organization offers storytelling courses, workshops, and coaching. Try out an open mic night storytelling opportunity modeled on The Moth, or put together a workshop at your company to help make storytelling a part of your organization’s culture. There are many ways to start your storytelling journey, but the most important one is to dive in!