Persuading through stories

I have never been overly impressed with my own persuasive capabilities, but recently I experienced a political success that I attribute to storytelling.

Some background: On five separate occasions, I had recently had five near encounters with bicycles while I was walking on the sidewalk that loops through our condo development (there are several blind spots where bikers can’t see pedestrians as they enter the sidewalk). The sidewalk is only 30 feet away from a wide driveway with good sight lines that would be much better and safer for bikers to use.

I had twice asked our homeowners association to ban bicycles on the sidewalks, but they had resisted, citing the large number of rules that we already have. I finally decided to ask them once more and to tell them some stories to prove my point.

As I spoke, briefly describing each near-miss, I showed them the corresponding blind spot on the large map of our grounds. Then I told them of my most recent close call; it was with Julian, an otherwise very pleasant 10-year-old boy. After Julian nearly hit me with his bicycle, I stopped him and asked why he was riding on the sidewalk and not the driveway. “It saves me time!” he had said. The board members laughed.

As I closed my presentation, I painted a verbal picture of what a lawsuit against the association would look like if a resident were to be hit by a biker. And then the board voted to ban bicycles on the sidewalk.

I think it was the stories that won this victory, and here’s how I prepared those stories:

  • I rehearsed them out loud many times, cutting each story to the bone (only the most relevant points).
  • I kept each story factual and removed all emotion.
  • I used the map to locate each story visually.
  • I let Julian’s story provide its own humor (a 10-year-old on summer vacation needing to save seconds of time?)

You, too, can use stories to persuade your business and technical audiences. Obviously, your stories must be relevant, personal, honest, and timely. They must connect people to people: One of my client companies lines the walls of their entryways and lobbies with photos and stories of people who have had the company’s devices implanted. Every time I walk those halls, I feel connected to those people in the photos and the devices that have saved their lives, and I work harder for that company!

Your story must “push buttons” in your audience’s mind. Here are the buttons that I used in persuading our association board: Five incidents in eight months; silly reasons bikers offer to ride on the sidewalks; a much safer driveway nearby; lawsuits not only possible, but probable. You must think strategically about what would affect your audience the most.

And you must practice your stories so much that they sound natural when you finally tell them, as if you had just suddenly remembered them and decided to share them to make your point.

Here’s another example of persuasive storytelling: A student of mine proposed to her boss that she should have her own private printer rather than use the network printer located in a very public place. She told her boss exactly how far she had to walk every time she needed to pick up a document. She also explained how her confidential documents ended up lying out in public whenever she was interrupted in her journey to the printer. She laid out her stories calmly and methodically, and she got her printer!

And of course, storytelling works in all forms of communication, not just persuasion. Please tell us about your most successful stories!

One Response to Persuading through stories

  1. Nicely written and clearly explained, thank you for taking the time to post this. I have an internal presentation coming up at work and your article reminded me I must, must rehearse and think about including more anecdotes.

Leave a reply