What Makes Stories Influential?

by Nan Toskey

We all love stories, everybody knows that … but why are stories such a powerful way to influence others?

“A powerful yet subtle shift occurs when you seek to influence people to make “wise” decisions rather than the “right” ones.” –Annette Simmons

Annette Simmons – Six Kinds of Stories

To date my favorite guru on the influential power of stories is Annette Simmons.  My favorite book titles are “The Story Factor” and “Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins“.  Her insightful breakdown of influential stories into six categories recommends that if you want to use story to influence others (and who doesn’t?) … ponder these Six Kinds of Stories:

Who-I-Am Stories

As a rule, we are not influenced by those we do not trust.  We need to know someone before we can really trust them … and earning our respect takes time.    Who-I-Am stories illustrate a personal experience or a true story that speaks to our personality, our character, and ultimately our likeability and trust worthiness.

Why-I-Am-Here Stories

Human beings have an innate sense of fairness and reciprocity.  Sure, our bottom line is “What’s in it for us?”, but we don’t bother asking until we understand ‘What’s in it for them?”.  Why-I-Am-Here stories illustrate a personal experience or a true story that conveys our motivations, which ultimately reveals if our intentions are genuinely good.

Vision Stories

In theory, we all understand that life is a never ending cycle of ups and downs.  But when we’re in the real world experiencing obstacles, or listening to why we should overcome for “the cause” … we are not on board unless we “SEE” the goodness of the pay back.  Vision stories connect struggle to the meaningful light at the end of the tunnel.

Teaching Stories

Any teachable moment  involves demonstrating various results arising from different actions.  Yet to truly influence behavior one must first ask the audience’s question “WHY should I CHANGE?”  Teaching stories use the power of human experience to communicate beyond end results to what makes certain actions more worthwhile.

I-Know-What-You’re-Thinking Stories

Skepticism is a natural first response to any proposed change.  Understandably, because to accept something new means to sacrifice something else.  I-Know-What-You’re-Thinking stories validate unspoken objections to soften fixed positions of resistance.

Values-In-Action Stories

Though “actions speak louder than words” … a story about those actions is the next best thing to being there.  Values-In-Action Stories use personal experience to communicate doing the right thing (when no one was looking) … or lessons learned when a different choice was made.

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Tragic Stories Wake Us Up

Sadness Breeds Gratitude: The Value of Tragedy | By Tom Jacobs
New research suggests watching a tragic movie or play leads us to reflect on our close relationships, which brings us pleasure.

Researchers present evidence that watching tragedy inspires self-reflection, which allows us to re-focus on the people in our lives we might otherwise take for granted.

Man and Woman Watching Movie

Care to catch a production of King Lear tonight? It’s about a vain, arrogant old man who loses everything of value to him. In the last scene, he cradles the body of the devoted daughter he foolishly disowned. You’ll love it!

OK, fine — you’d rather stay home and pop in a DVD of, say, Titanic. Either way, you’ll be watching a tragedy, a genre that has captivated audiences since the era of the ancient Greeks. In inflation-adjusted dollars, three of the top 10 movies of all time — Gone With the Wind, Doctor Zhivago, and Titanic — are tragedies. Why do we willingly subject ourselves, again and again, to these sad stories?

Researchers led by Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick of Ohio State University have tentatively propose some answers. In the journal Communication Research, they present evidence that watching tragedy inspires self-reflection, which allows us to re-focus on the people in our lives we might otherwise take for granted. The melancholy emotions these tales arouse ultimately provoke pleasant feelings of gratitude.  (more…)

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