Why stories help you on your way to success (by Gaby S. Graupner)

“Why are you telling me this?”

“Because I realized that the only way I can help you is to tell you what helped me find my way in society many years ago. The story of my teacher, how he found his way.”

This is what the dialogue between a workshop foreman and a young apprentice sounded like when the apprentice was late again and threats and consequences had not brought about any change in behavior.

Would you like to know now what happened next? What the workshop foreman experienced? Whether the trainee was punctual from then on? Then you’ll be right in the middle of the excitement that stories trigger in our interviewees.

Are you rather skeptical? What’s one story going to change? “We’re not here for a storytelling session. What counts here are data, facts and figures. I don’t have time for stories. We are here to work. Yes, I’ll be so stupid and tell you a story about me so that you can then use it against me. Nobody cares about my stories.”

Did you nod inwardly at any of these statements? Then you are on the right track. You still keep reading despite your skepticism or bad experience. Thank you and congratulations.

Let’s use these statements as a common thread to understand why stories make you even more successful, whether you’re talking to customers, to employees, to colleagues, to your partner at home, or to your children. Stories are an important part of successful communication with people, especially when we want those people to do something we would like them to do.

We are not in a fairy tale lesson after all

Right, because it’s not about fairy tales, it’s about making sure your message is remembered and that your personal story gives you a more loyal connection to the person you’re talking to.

Let’s say one of your employees doesn’t react or act the way you want them to. Perhaps he is not motivated enough in his efforts. Perhaps not brave enough to tackle a new task. Well, with rules, instructions or even threats you will rarely move or even change anything here. But if you tell her or him a story from your personal life, that it also took you longer to understand what matters in the working world or how you failed the first time you jumped over your usual shadow in a task, then that gives courage and shows your employee that she or he can also do it. Especially if the story is just not a fairy tale, but a part of your humanity. Your counterpart senses this.

What counts for us are numbers, data and facts

… and no stories. Particularly in industries involving high-value products or services, there is often a prejudice that only the facts count. A few years ago, I was invited to a customer event at a major bank. There were several hundred customers present. After some presentations a get-together with buffet should take place. The first three speakers talked a lot about numbers, data and returns. My glance around the large group showed me that most of them were just hanging in their chairs and that some of them kept furtively closing their eyes. You have probably experienced such situations as well. The soporific approach is successfully supported by semi-dark rooms and small-described PowerPoint slides. Everyone hoped that we would soon get over it.

Then the fourth speaker stepped up to the lectern – after a few seconds of just standing there silently, eyeing the audience – he began in the broadest Viennese dialect with a story from his family on the subject of “investing money”. That was the first time I experienced what it means when an audible jolt goes through the audience. Suddenly, everyone was sitting there again, bent forward, and despite the advanced hour, they were completely spellbound by his lips.

It may be that you are talking to your customers about important numbers and data. But in the end, it’s always people you’re presenting to. And people react like people.

I don’t have time for stories …

… I’m here at work and our meetings take too long anyway. I can well understand you there. There are days when you go from one meeting to another while your email box fills up and your to-do list gets longer and longer. In the evening you are totally exhausted and yet you have the feeling that you have done nothing. Actually, according to the task schedule, the workday would only really start now. And now you are also supposed to tell stories.

Hand on heart, how often do you feel like you’re telling the same thing over and over again? Either because your employees say they listen, but never actually implement it, or because you have the impression that the goals of a project are clearly defined, but everyone is pulling in different directions and many things are done twice and three times. Because no one understands what their counterpart really needs.

Understanding the other person and acting according to the real needs of the situation is not easy. When I once had to master this situation in my own company, because my employees did not understand what our customer’s expectations were for the commissioned project and that service according to specifications was not the solution here, because emotional intelligence was required instead, I told my employees the following story.

When my children were at the age where they regularly received pocket money, it always happened that the agreed amount was spent before the end of the month or week. Then the children came and asked for more. Stupidly, I gave the dumbest answer you can give children, “I don’t have any more money.” And promptly came the retort: “All you have to do is go to the ATM and get more.” They had observed this often enough. As a parent in this situation, you can save yourself the trouble of saying, “You have to earn money before you can get anything out of the vending machine. That’s as meaningless as saying, “I don’t have any money.” So all three of them got an allowance (6, 8 and 10 years old). With a series of sensible reminders and an account card, the adventure of “getting pocket money from the EC machine” began. Which worked well two or three times, until the moment when the machine gave no more money, because just the pocket money was spent, but the month was not yet over. Now they understood what it meant when the ATM ran out of money and the next first had to wait.

I asked my staff what I needed to do so they could feel for what our client needed, regardless of what the rules were for solving the task. It was a very fruitful meeting with many implementable suggestions from the staff, which were subsequently actually applied. Our meetings reduced measurably. What history do you need to make your meetings more efficient?

One becomes vulnerable through personal stories

Honestly? Yes, the danger exists. That’s why you decide wisely which story suits which occasion. It is important that you have already processed the effects of what you have experienced. For example, in the story we mentioned above. When you tell how you failed at the beginning of your professional life because you courageously tackled something. If the thought of this still makes you feel quite nauseous or breaks out in a sweat, this story is not yet suitable. Then look for a story that you’ve already reconciled yourself to internally, that might even make you smile a little in retrospect. In doing so, don’t be more papal than the pope. That is, you have the right to shape your story. It is enough to tell about two attempts, you do not have to mention all five. It is enough to say that you were quite distressed, you do not have to tell that you cried through three nights. It is enough to say that you slammed the door, you do not have to tell that you broke it.

Some stories especially win when they are shortened to the essentials. Always start in the middle of your story. Setting information, such as age, date, location of the event, and/or people present, can be summarized in one sentence in most cases, and then move on to the point the story is actually about. For example, “I was in my early 20s, a single parent, and it was my first job as a telemarketer.” Instead of telling, “I can remember clearly, it was a soft spring, I had just moved from a job as a clerk at XYZ company, where I had been a maternity representative for three years, to a new company. I had found this company by chance …” This sometimes takes a little practice. If you have the opportunity to strategically plan your story, it can help to write it down and eliminate any sentences, especially at the beginning, that are not necessary to understand the point you are making.

Tell the story to someone you trust and of a more mature age and clarify what you can delete for better understanding and the effect of one or two “naked” truths. Most people have a good gut feeling about what is appropriate and what is not.

Nobody is interested in my stories …

… I have not experienced anything “big”. Everyone has my experiences and they are nothing special. The good news is that life is not always about the big superhuman events, but about the small everyday occurrences.

Some time ago I listened to a lecture by Sir Richard Branson about his path to success and how he still goes from one superlative to the next. Nathan Blecharczyk then told the founding story of Airbnb. Later, when I reflected on the two stories, Sir Richard Branson’s story felt like a vacation in Hawaii. You fly there, you’re blown away, thrilled, fascinated, and then it’s back home to your everyday life. There weren’t really any concrete points that I could have implemented in my life. Nathan Blecharczyk’s story, on the other hand, inspired me to change a few points in my own marketing, plus it planted a seed in me for a new dream, and it gave me the motivation and a mental kick in the butt to finally implement a long-held idea. Stories always have an impact, sometimes as a flash, sometimes with long-lasting effect and inspiration.

That goes for your stories, too, no matter how mundane they seem. If the message fits the situation, if your counterpart can identify with the story, and if it contains actionable points, it’s just the right story.

Collect stories from your lived everyday life. Tell these stories, not for the sake of telling them, but because it contains a metaphor or an image or an experience that will help your customer, your employee, or any other listener make their life a little more successful. Because this will also make you that little bit more successful.

And yes, the trainee from the beginning of this article came on time from then on!

For 18 years, Gaby S. Graupner has been helping clients become more successful in life and in sales as a keynote speaker and trainer. Along the way, she has found help from many experts and put the sound advice and insights to a practical test. She is the only speaker in the German-speaking world who uses the “stand-up talk” format. She introduces the topic with a few impulse minutes and then asks the participants to call out questions, keywords or half-sentences to her. In return, she promises participants a story from her life that matches the keywords mentioned, including three tips on how best to deal with such a situation. The stories told are also always aligned with the general thematic context of the lecture. As President of the German Speakers Association, she helped her professional colleagues to network more closely with each other and promoted a clearer awareness of ethics and values. With her lecture topic: “Jump over your shadow – Everything else is excuses!” she shows her audience how to use their own strengths in such a way as to successfully master challenging situations in life and brings all the techniques of positive communication to the point.

For more information, visit www.gabysgraupner.de.