How Storytelling Improves Team Building
by Richard M. Highsmith, MS
When I first graduated from college, I was hired full-time at a children’s home. I had been working there part-time as a relief childcare worker. With my degree I was promoted to a management position, Assistant Superintendent, over my former co-workers. I saw my situation as advocate for the childcare workers. Unfortunately my boss, Larry, had a different vision of my role. He insisted I represent management’s position to the childcare workers.
Struggling with this new position in middle management I was given disciplinary counseling three times during my first couple of months. The really interesting part of this is that I wasn’t aware I was being “counseled.” Larry would call me in his office, come out from behind his desk, sit beside me and tell a very funny story about something he had done when he was the Assistant Superintendent. He would describe in detail how he messed up and the problems it caused. Larry would end his story by asking me what I thought he should have done differently. These stories Larry told always bore a striking resemblance to something I had just done. But he never came across as accusatory or “bossy.”
Therein lies the power of stories. Karin Evans and Dennis Metzger wrote a white paper for the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD), entitled Leadership Through Story Telling. The following is a brief excerpt:
“Storytelling is an interesting, proven, and inexpensive way of communicating memorable messages. People like to hear stories, and they tend to repeat them. In business as well as in other settings, storytelling works as a useful technique to:
- Capture people’s attention
- Send a message people will remember
- Establish rapport
- Build credibility
- Bring a team closer together.”
Let’s look at each of the benefits individually to clearly appreciate the value stories can play in team building.
1. Capture attention
Everyone loves a good story. I have given hundreds of public presentations. Almost without fail when I move from lecture mode to storytelling, there is a dramatic change in the audience. The ambient noise drops, eye contact increases, multitasking ceases and I sense I have their full attention. As a side benefit, any anxiety I might be experiencing falls away.
2. People will remember
Without looking back to the first paragraph of this article, can you remember my boss’ name. How about title of my new job? What was the difference between how I saw my job and what my boss thought? How many times was I given disciplinary counseling? Perhaps a couple of these answers come readily to mind. If I had just given you this information in prose format, would you have remembered any of it? Stories have the power of transmitting information in a way that makes it memorable. The use of stories to convey data points is highly effective. Placing data in the context of a story dramatically increases your audience’s retention of the material.
3. Establish rapport
Two years ago I was in a motorcycle accident and received serious injuries. When you read the previous sentence, what were you thinking? I suspect you were thinking about someone you know who was injured in a vehicular accident. When we hear a story with emotional content, our mind goes through a process I call Emotional Leveling. Your brain will search through all the experiences of your past and locate the most similar one to what you just heard. We unconsciously do this to give what you are listening to emotional context. In team building sharing your own experiences with teammates builds rapport with them.
4. Build credibility
When I am teaching a public speaking class, I tell many stories about my experiences. As the class participants hear about all the types of public speaking I have done, they begin to believe I may know something about the topic. I do this intentionally… not to brag or exaggerate my accomplishments, but to put the participants at ease. If I am viewed as an expert on the subject of public speaking, it makes it more likely they will listen to my coaching. Their increased willingness to accept my teaching leads them to more success in the class. In a sales presentation you talk about your experience with similar clients. In a management position, when discussing change, you share your insights gained from similar situations in the past.
5. Bring a team closer
I conduct approximately seventy-five two-day workshops a year. Over those two days the participants share stories about themselves. At the conclusion of the class, there is always a swapping of business cards. A couple of years ago I was teaching a class in Washington, D.C.. I noticed on the class roster I had someone from the Sierra Club and another from the EPA. You don’t often find these two groups sharing warm fuzzies with each other. Some EPA folks think of the Sierra Club as a bunch of “tree huggers.” And some Sierra Club members look at the EPA as a tool of big business. At the end of the class these two people were sitting in the back of the room quietly talking. I was packing up and ready to leave, so I walked back and asked if either had any questions. They told me they was brainstorming ways to open up a back channel of communication to dial down the rhetoric between the two organizations. The people who enrolled in the class didn’t know each other at the beginning of the class, but after hearing each other’s stories they wanted to continue the relationship.
Now that you understand how powerful personal experience stories can be, it is important to look at ways to use storytelling more strategically in your organization. Here are the questions that need to be asked to accomplish this goal.
1. What message do you want to send?
2. Which stories will reinforce your message?
3. What are the important details of the story?
4. Where and when do you tell your stories?
Once these questions are answered, tell your story / stories. Then solicit feedback on the message that your teammates received. The feedback allows you to improve the process. As you get better at using examples, you serve as a model for others to follow. The power of stories will insure their use becomes part of your corporate culture.