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Storytelling Aids Communication: Harness the Power of 'Once Upon a Time'

By Dan Eustace, Ph.D.
University of Connecticut

The ability to tell stories is essential to creating solid connections, finding common ground and establishing trust with others – whether networking at a conference, interviewing for a new position or presenting scientific results. Harness the power of "once upon a time" and build effective communications skills.

 

Stories elicit emotions, spark common ideas and legitimize human inspirations. Facts, of course, are important, but they can be boring and are less likely to be remembered. Stories, on the other hand, carry your message in indirect ways and show you as likeable, thoughtful, courteous, adaptable, authentic and responsive. They make your direct appeal or idea more believable. They build and support connections with your audience and provide you the space to develop rapport and trust.

In many business scenarios, we observe people coming together from different daily agendas. They can be brought to a common place when one person relates an engaging, authentic and repeatable description of an event or situation. Speakers use two or three senses to make the situation real, create interest and draw listeners in whether it is while networking, during an interview or making a presentation. Great leaders rank the importance of telling stories to motivate teams, find bright spots and cultivate an identity worthy of their mission.

How can you bring storytelling into your portfolio of tactics in critical career-building situations?

Networking Conversations

Often when we meet people, for example at a conference like SLAS2013, we know nothing about them. This can lead to discomfort, which often means limited or non-productive conversation. Change this by employing storytelling!

Try this next time you are in such a situation. Offer a short "story" with your introduction. For example: smile, extend a hand for a handshake and say, "Hello, my name is …. and I am from Acushnet, MA. This is the place where Titleist golf balls are made." The short ‘where I am from' story aids in recall and draws connections with your listener. It also encourages your new acquaintances to open up a bit more when, along with returning your smile and handshake, they also share a story about their hometown or their work.

When a speaker is invited to address a group that he does not know much about, he likely conducts an informal audience analysis. Lenny Laskowski, professional speaker, encourages this analysis as part of every speaker's preparation. He offers the acronym, AUDIENCE, to help us remember:

Analysis
Understanding
Demographics
Interests
Environment
Needs
Customization
Expectations

I believe this same process might be done quickly when entering into a networking conversation. Your listener is consciously and unconsciously performing the? same assessment of you. Your "stories" can aid in this process and provide a more memorable encounter in real time, as well as one that can be recalled when the desire to reconnect arises later in the conference or upon returning home.

A couple years ago a colleague I hadn't met before, Joe, picked me up at the Pittsburgh airport for a meeting. We used our cell phones to locate each other, exited the airport and began our conversation. I learned in our conversation that Joe earned his graduate degree from the same university as I did my undergraduate degree, but our time there did not overlap. This common ground discussion opened up a friendship where we collaborate on projects and help each other make progress in our careers.

Interviews

Job seekers want to know: What questions will I be asked in an interview? And, what is the "right" answer to those questions? Interviews can take on a life of their own if they morph into a pleasant conversation within the interview setting. Stories accelerate this process by catapulting from simply a question and answer session to an enjoyable discussion.

For example, this question was posed during an interview with a student, Nick: "Everyone has a weakness. Can you describe to me a particular weakness you have?" After a moment of pause, he looked at the interviewer and responded, "As you know I am an international student and English is not my first language. A dialect of Mandarin is my first language, so I have tried hard to learn English writing and speaking through courses. I joined Toastmasters International. I have also found the Rosetta Stone software program to be quite helpful in picking up English nuances and dialects. Let me give you an example…" and he inserts his story.

In this example, Nick not only followed the popular STAR strategy – that is situation, task, action, result – but he also incorporated a memorable story into the equation.

Another way to introduce storytelling – and thereby memorable responses – into your interview is to link your answers to a concept. For example, in response to a question about how a person's academic work relates to what the company develops, another candidate described: "At this moment, I cannot relate a direct connection. Let me say, however, that unexpected findings in an unrelated area have been able to greatly influence great advances in other areas. For example in 1969, Thomas Brock and Hudson Freeze discovered a bacterium that survives and thrives in the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park. This Thermus aquaticus species has evolved its DNA polymerase to persist in the very hot environment. This enzyme is the prototype for Kary Mullis's polymerase chain reaction that has transformed modern life from legal systems to advanced therapies for diseases." This follows the SARI strategy, for situation, action, result and implication, while also incorporating storytelling.

Make your story believable. When you wish to point out a particular key competence, paint a word picture that shows the result (STAR) or implication (SARI). Clothe the bare bones with enough significant detail that supports, relives some cues, offers some observations or colors in the picture. Have the story stay on the track with the response and elaborate a combination of yet another acronym I've used effectively for years – IMIA, or your intellectual skills, what motivates you, your interpersonal and information organizing abilities and your attitude. Make sure each shows how you would fit well within the organization.

Insert stories appropriately, and don't overuse them. Have a set of anecdotes ready and adjust your antennas to listen carefully while displaying body language that reveals your focus. Look for common ground and opportunities to build on or be reminded of a situation. Especially in an interview situation, be careful of two storytelling setbacks: over qualifying and worn-out clichés.

According to "Storytelling in Interviews" on the FindLaw career center website, one needs to speak confidently and not soften the impact with "qualifying" statements: One legal job seeker had the habit of qualifying just about every one of his accomplishments with the word ‘fairly.' He was ‘fairly good at deposing witnesses,' ‘fairly good at writing briefs,' and so on. As a result, he had a difficult time finding a new position, as interviewers came away with the distinct impression that he was only a ‘fairly good' candidate.

Clichés are lazy shortcuts that assume common knowledge. If done uniquely, it can spice up a conversation. If done too frequently, it dilutes the story. Select your audience and manage your cliché use.

Interviewers will commonly have an approach and an agenda, and these often encourage the use of stories. They will start with a set series of questions and be willing to deviate or probe. Don't be surprised when you are posed emotionally charged phrases, like ‘how did you feel…,' ‘what makes you upset…' or ‘what surprised you about…' Use these questions as springboards for stories that animate your attributes and present your unique qualities for the position.

In response to a question about what drives him crazy, Gary reported results he and his team felt very excited about for the chemotherapeutic agent, paclitaxel. They faced the dilemma that cancer patients and Kaposi sarcoma patients can undergo anaphylactic shock due to implications of its low solution solubility. Gary grabbed his interviewer's attention by drawing out the chemical structures of prodrugs with significantly increased aqueous solubility and no harmful side effects. The oligomer prodrug technology also makes possible oral delivery administration. He not only left the interviewer with a positive impression, but he also left a copy of a symposium abstract that reinforced the excellent story and work (Taxane Prodrugs," Nnoch Ekwuribe, Gary S. Bartley, Christopher H. Price, 2002, Patent US6380405).

Emotions can also play into an actual incident during an interview as well. One time a telephone interviewee commented when the building fire alarm started blaring during an interview, "Oh that happens all the time here. We just disregard it!" That was clearly not the right thing to say in an interview, even a telephone interview, as it reveals a lack of respect for rules and regulations of all organizations.

Presentations

Excellent presentations include brilliant introductory stories. For example, one speaker created a memorable experience for his audience by showing a visual of a pastoral setting in the Scottish Highlands while describing how cures of pernicious diseases are discovered through transforming hearsay suggestions to an experimental protocol.

The speaker said, "Edward Jenner studied under George Hartwicke in a hospital outside of London and had an intense interest in scientific experiments. He was struck by how many people died suddenly from smallpox throughout Europe. For many years he had heard of dairymaids who were protected from small pox after suffering from cow pox. Jenner surmised that cow pox protected against small pox and the protection could be transmitted by inoculation of the matter from lesions from a person infected with cowpox. In May 1796, Jenner administered matter from lesions of Sarah Nelms to eight-year-old James Phipps to confer protection from small pox. This was the first use of vaccination to control infectious diseases." This story transported the audience from their present day agenda to better understanding through a shared experience with the presenter.

Daniel Kahneman is the 2002 Nobel Prize-winner in economic sciences and best selling author who has wonderfully dissected the human thinking processes into two modes: instinctive-associative and deliberative-rational-sequential. He observes that many scientists process experiments and data in the second mode. However, most of our thinking is in the first mode. Kahneman pointed out that coherent stories of concrete events by trusted people are most believed and memorable and should be utilized as appropriate.

Storytelling creates powerful learning, sustains connections and is beneficial for networking, interviewing and presenting. Be sure to employ its magic.

About the Author

Dan Eustace serves members of several societies, local sections and ?universities by sharing behaviors, emerging ideas and best practices for managing careers. He retired from Polaroid and ExxonMobil and serves the UCONN Chemistry Department as an adjunct professor. Eustace has held staff and management positions in battery development, complex oilfield chemical development, terrestrial solar cells, high tech film manufacture and environmental protection, industrial hygiene and chemical safety. He serves SLAS as a career consultant and workshop presenter. Connect with Eustace on LinkedIn.

March 22, 2013