Influence Change through Storytelling

Storytelling in an organization is most often talked and thought about in the context of what stories tell external audiences such as customers, clients, or donors. Indeed, storytelling is a major factor in conveying and attracting outside audiences to your company’s brand, mission, and products and services.

Storytelling within a company or organization is often neglected despite the fact that leaders who are able to share compelling stories have a much greater ability to influence changes in behavior among team members and colleagues.

In Influencer: The Power to Change Anything, authors Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, David Maxfield, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler point out that master change agents are master storytellers because they recognize that concrete, vivid stories exert extraordinary influence. Effective storytelling transports people out of the role of critic and into the role of participant. The more poignant, vibrant, and relevant the story, the more the listener becomes involved in experiencing the story rather than analyzing it or looking for flaws.

One story the authors of Influencers share brings the power of storytelling into sharp focus.

A hospital manager, facing the low compliance with hand washing requirements that plague many hospitals, attempted to change this behavior among her staff. Storytelling proved to be a vital component of her success by helping employees reflect on the moral implications of their decision to wash their hands—or not.

Recognizing that people are willing to do difficult, boring, routine, or even painful things if they believe those tasks are consistent with their deepest values, the manager began tracking the consequences of every unnecessary infection in her hospital. Each time an infection occurred, she gathered her team and told them the story, describing the additional pain, cost, and injury that resulted.

Over time, as people began to think more carefully about the consequences of their actions, hand-washing compliance soared.

Why is storytelling so much more effective than straightforward directives?

Effective storytelling creates empathy, buy-in, and a sense of connection. Rather than handing down rules or mission statements that may be perceived as arbitrary or imposed, leaders who tell stories to influence their teams and employees are able to help team members forge their own connections between their values and those of the company. They become willing to change ingrained behaviors because they feel invested in the end result.

The next time you find yourself in an uphill battle to influence change in your organization, consider using the most portable map-changing tool around—the poignant, compelling story.

Annette Simmons, author of Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins: How to Use your Own Stories To Communicate with Power and Impact, says this:

“Story is a re-imagined experience narrated with enough detail and feeling to cause your listeners’ imaginations to experience it as real.”

Bonus Storytelling Tips

Here are some tips on boosting your storytelling skills:

  1. Define your intention. What change do you want to inspire?

  2. Be personal. Choose a story that you experienced first hand.

  3. Keep it short. 3–5 minutes.

  4. Access Your Emotions. Get in touch with and express the emotions you felt.

  5. End with Impact and Call to Action.