As a PM, I always see storytelling as one of the most important communication tools. Whether I am trying to get buy-in, build alignment, explain a strategy or share my learning, stories are usually a powerful way to retain attention and elicit empathy. But as I keep practicing storytelling, I am gradually realizing that as a communication tool, storytelling has a limitation.
Let me begin by looking at some of the strengths of stories. Stories are powerful because they speak to the natural, even primitive instincts and emotions of humans: the need to know what happened. Compared to straightforward lecturing with facts and figures, stories have a more intimate touch and are more immersive, so they are more memorable even down to some of the finest details. Besides, stories are not boring: as Margaret Atwood puts it, stories are “a break in a pattern”, which catches eyes; when an established pattern simply continues, there is nothing to pay attention to.
However, one corollary of these strengths is a weakness: stories can make circumstances, practices and technicalities stand out to grab attention, and overshadow principles and philosophies. Because stories are powerful in depicting details of events, they can make the specifics more impressive than the principles that the storyteller is trying to demonstrate.
Not intending to create irony, let me share a story to illustrate this. As you may know, I have a strong personal interest in entrepreneurship, and it is a subject I am constantly learning about. Once I was talking to one of my mentors, who suggested that I begin learning how to create business plans. He shared stories with me of entrepreneurs who did or did not take their times to create well-thought-out business plans and how things panned out for them. One particular detail I remember was how a new startup owner was able to answer a potential investor’s question by turning to a specific sentence in the business plan and say “here it is”, and how that of course led to a successful pitch. I was impressed with the story, so I began working on a hypothetical business and trying to carve out a detailed business plan. It was such a difficult thing to do, especially since I was not familiarized with the business nor was I actually planning to create a startup. How would I know if the bulk price for a product should be $12.15 or $12.30, for example?
After trying painstakingly, I reconnected with this mentor and asked him how could I possibly create a business plan that detailed. His response was: “You got it wrong! The point of creating a business plan is to force you to think through what you may come across in your journey, not to have all the details carved in stone.” By focusing on the story, I missed the true power of the tool of business plan.
I have only hazily realized this drawback of stories in my journey, until two books I was simultaneously reading happened to both call it out to me within a few days. One of these was Eric Ries in his The Lean Startup:
“Every time I teach the story, students have an overwhelming temptation to focus on the tactics it illustrates… [but] the only way to make sense of [the stories] is to understand the underlying principles that make them work.”
Another was Stephen Covey in his Living The Seven Principles:
“I have not always been big on the value of stories. My main concern has been that the reader or listener might think I was prescribing the practice rather than seeing the practice as an illustration of a principle.”
Both the words of these great teachers and my own realization made me explore a fix for this problem: how to overcome this drawback that stems from the nature of stories and transcend storytelling? There are 2 methods that I have been developing:
- Illustrate the principles with multiple stories with varying details. This method focuses on canceling out the noise generated by details. When there are multiple angles from which the moral of the story is demonstrated, the audience can intuitively filter out the details that are merely vehicles to deliver the principles.
- Provide a clear summary of the key takeaways. This method focuses on making the underlying principles more prominent. I believe that by calling out the principles, which form the atmosphere where the details of the story live and breathe, the audience can constantly live through the details while being mindful of the vision and direction of their ‘character’.
I have had an experience where I used a combination of both to transcend storytelling communication. I was trying to help someone close to me develop empathetic communication skills, specifically I was trying to teach her to genuinely listen before preparing to react. I shared a story of how I was able to communicate with a colleague who was once getting defensive, by spending time constantly checking in to make sure I understood them. The technique I gave as an example was that I paraphrased almost everything that my colleague was saying until both they and I were absolutely sure I understood them, which helped bridge the communication gap. A few days later, she came back to me and told me, “but Ellery, I repeated everything the other people said, yet they still found me insincere!” At this point, I realized that she took away the technique of repetition but not the principle of genuine listening. So I told her a completely different story where I did not use repetition at all in communication, and explicitly called out: “The key is to genuinely understand them first. Please don’t focus on what you need to do, but rather focus on what is on their mind!” It worked like a charm: I can tell from our own communication that she is a better listener now!
In summary, although storytelling may make the audience focus on the technique rather than the principle, I believe with the 2 methods I discussed above, we can transcend storytelling to become an even more powerful tool of communication.