Story shorthands make it easy to think along

Howard Tullman wrote a wonderful piece for Inc magazine recently —Communication: Why the Story Is Everything. 

At the risk of being a little provocative, I’m going to ask people who believe they really  understand that storytelling matters.

How do you use or act upon your knowledge that storytelling matters?

I ask because I’m guilty of not making use of what I’ve come to understand about story telling, and the more subtle value created by the process.  Gaps separating ability and knowledge explain a great deal of execution failures.  It’s often difficult to build on our capabilities by incorporating new information into our actions.  It’s not the ability I’ve mastered but a conceptual knowledge of story telling –the messages a story can create, the engagement in a message that a story makes possible—how a story helps more people understand the message and then share both.

Becoming able, to use what we know to do anything takes work, hard work.  It takes practice,  confidence and persistence!

When I don’t use all that I know, I’m less effective.  Every time I fail to use story in a conversation or meeting, I have chosen to distance myself from what I know to be an effective communication tool.  That gap also undermines my confidence and makes me pull back a bit, stay aloof and stop be from being all in.   “I’m not a storyteller, I’m no good at that.” This common cultural belief puts story on a pedestal and makes use of the structural elements in my everyday conversation daring and risky.

We are the stories we tell

For years, I frustrated many people with whom I worked. Why?  Because  in listening to what they had to say, I would  stop them mid-thought to ask a question.  Rarely could I hold my question until they had finished explaining a situation, a problem or completing their thoughts.  Often, they would answer my first question, which you probably guessed would make me ask another question and before long I’d hear “wait a minute, let me finish.”  Sometimes, my question made them lose track of what they were trying to say. Anger and frustration soon followed and both of us would have to collect our thoughts and try not to storm off, or one of us would completely give-in and allow us to move on.  In other words, when the emotions of not being heard or understood  was too much I found it easier to retreat.  

The book of Mormon has a great song about this–Turn it off

Did you notice what I just did?  I explained my point by telling you a story. I tried to involve you too by assuring you that your guess was correct.  I then included another metaphor and reference to further help you understand my point.

I also tried to use a familiar recognizable form or unconscious reference frame, and left the underlying example reference ambiguous.

Take a moment and think of the dynamics of your own recent conversations with staff, other members of your team, friends etc.   How natural do these conversations feel?  What emotions or anxieties crop-up in the course of the exchange?  What story telling techniques do you use to invite curiosity, excitement or build anticipation?

Ability begins with intention

Look at the green text again, did you understand the last note and illusion? Of course if you did the next text block should have created one of those double take experiences–where the reminder intentionally contradicts the focal point.  That’s the role of a devil’s advocate and if you want to encourage critical thinking in your meetings you need to enable people.  Giving them the tools and space to practice.  Personally, I often use the power of allusion and wonder what you know or remember about Goldilocks*.

What does this little innocent girl do? How quickly does the listener learn to expect what comes next? What lesson does the story-teller really offer–is the message in the story or in the telling?  Once you think through the answers you will begin to understand how  the story of Goldilocks works. Now you’ll understand the risks and begin to understand why it takes more than knowledge to get results.  How exactly  can you use Goldilocks, or any other story reminder to improve communications in your next team meeting?

One method presumes your instructions are fully understandable.  If you merely instruct people to prepare their next progress report Goldilocks style you may not get the same results as if you demonstrate what Goldilocks style sounds, looks and feels like.  Similarly, if you merely instruct team members to create presentations that actively engage others to think along will you get the full benefits of their experience?  Their empathy and attention?

OH, at the meeting insist that no one interrupt the presentations.  Ask attendees to write out their questions and invite them to raise them after each short presentation. Once everyone is through, leave time for a debrief. Check in with people’s emotions, which way did they go?  What level and nature of engagement did you get?  Did listeners feel and respond differently than in usual meetings?  What was the overall presentation quality, what was the overall learning?  Any great understanding emerge?  what about beliefs?

Try it, and let me know how it goes, I’m not trying to be the Cheshire cat here, honest.  Do share what you learn for everyone’s benefit, including my own!


*Don’t know or remember the story of Goldilocks?

Many modest variations of the story exists  and so I’ve included a modest version with some additional links to background and commentary that explains why this story has endured.

Here is a simple bare bones version

 Once upon a time three bears lived in a little cottage in the woods, Papa, mama and Baby  bear.  Every morning, Mama bear made porridge but this morning it was too hot when served.  So the bears went for a walk while their porridge cooled.

Goldilocks was a playful little girl, whose name matched her lovely golden hair.  She lived near the forest.

One day, while roaming the woods, she saw a pretty cottage. she found the front door unlocked and went inside where she smelled and then saw three bowls of porridge and realized she was very hungry.   First she tried the porridge in Papa Bears big bowl and said, “This porridge is too hot!” She tasted some porridge from the second bowl, Mama Bear’s,  and said, “This porridge is too cold!” Then tasting some porridge from the third bow Baby bear’s,  she said, “This porridge is just right!” and she it all up.

Goldilocks feet hurt from walking in the forest and decided she should sit and rest.  She Sat down in Papa’s chair and said “This chair is too hard.” Then she tried Mama Bear’s chair and said “this chair is too soft.” Finally she tried Baby Bear’s chair and said “This chair is just right.” But the chair broke and she fell to the floor.

Soon Goldilocks felt sleepy, so she went upstairs where she saw three beds. She tried Papa Bear’s great big bed and said, “This bed is too high!” Then she tried Mama Bear’s medium-sized bed and said, “This bed is too low!” Finally, she lay on Baby Bear’s  bed and said, “This bed is just right!” And so, Goldilocks curled up and went to sleep.

When the bears came home, they saw that someone had been there.

They saw spoons in their porridge, and were very surprised. “Who’s been eating my porridge?” asked Papa Bear.

“Who’s been eating my porridge?” asked Mama Bear.

“Who’s been eating my porridge and eaten it all up?” cried Baby Bear.

Then, the three bears saw that someone had sat in their chairs. “Who’s been sitting in my chair?” Papa Bear howled.

“Who’s been sitting in my chair?” wondered Mama Bear.

“Who’s been sitting in my chair and BROKEN it?” squeaked Baby Bear.

The three Bears ran upstairs to check their bedrooms. “Who’s been sleeping in my bed?” Papa Bear roared.

“Who’s been sleeping in my bed?” growled Mama Bear. She was a little angry and a little worried.

“Someone is still sleeping in my bed!” Baby Bear screamed. He said it so loudly that he woke Goldilocks up. Upon seeing the bears, she jumped up and ran out the door, never to be seen in the woods ever again!


Background history of Goldilocks and the three bears as found in Wikipedia

Another reference on the psychological underpinning of a story by Bruno Bettleheim






Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.