The need for stories


The more I read, the more I hear, the more I listen, and the more I say, two things become more and more evident to me. First, great speakers and great writers alike use stories to convey their messages and their points. Second, and most important to me, my verbal and written storytelling skills still need work.

You’re probably thinking, so what, who cares, and what’s in it for me, the reader? Fair question.

Imagine yourself sitting at a computer, surfing the web and looking at a professional speaker’s blog posting for today. Continue to imagine that as you read this post, you think, “wow, he posted this topic just for me”. That’s right…just for you.

How do we get there from here?  You probably already know the answer…stories.

So why stories? Here are a few keys:

1. Stories can relate abstract concepts and bring them to real life.  
Not too many years ago, I was teaching groups of new supervisors in the Air Force about how to motivate their people to work hard and achieve top ratings on their performance evals. If you would have been in one of those audiences, you would have heard me make my point about the way to get there from here is to give concrete criteria for achieving the top ratings in each of 7 performance categories.

You would have heard me give clear and useful examples from each of the 7 areas, working from examples in a variety of job skills, very likely including one or more of yours. To tie it all together I’d tell this story:

I had the opportunity to supervise a troop a few years ago. I knew that she was underperforming, in part, due to inexperienced supervision. Her previous boss was still a new supervisor, and his boss had spen a number of years avoiding those types of duties, so he wasn’t a very good role model. Fortunately, my new troop had been in the service less than a year, and I was sure the right motivation could be uncovered. When we spoke about her goals, she mentioned that she wanted to be promoted early, commonly known in the Air Force as a Below-the-Zone (BTZ) promotion. This opportunity only came once per person, and usually around the 2-3 year point in an Airman’s career.

Of course, this is a goal many Airman share, but in the Communications Squadron, it was a rare event for one of the Project Managers (our field) to be recognized. This is by no means the prelude to an excuse, but something we had to keep in mind and remember as we looked toward this goal.

Going over the criteria I have been teaching you, I discussed all seven performance areas with her. In each area, I told her what performance levels would get her a mid-level rating, what would get her a higher rating, and what would get her a maximum rating. Then, I included 3 things she needed to do in each area, above the max-rating standard I had set, if she wanted to be competitive for BTZ promotion next year. Besides job performance, knowledge, and having a sharp uniform and demeanor, these standards included self improvement (college), additional duties and volunteer work.

I made sure she understood that if she performed to this level, I would put together the best package I could for her BTZ board. I even made sure to sit on two of the three boards before her’s so I knew what it would take to achieve this promotion with our unit’s leadership. I gave her regular feedback throughout the year, and made sure to do my absolute best to accurately, honestly, and professionally convey her achievements for that year. When it came time for her records to meet that board, there were two promotions that could be given in our unit, because there were 14-20 eligible Airman during that quarter.

If you had been at our next commander’s call (a meeting for all of the members of the unit), you would have been on the edge of your seats right there with us. The commander called the first person’s name to receive the promotion. Rats! It was someone from the helpdesk.  They always seem to get those promotions. Okay…okay…I’m clapping. But wait, here comes the second name. Our commander said “The second Below the Zone promotion to Senior Airman goes to…” Bam! She had earned it, and now she was walking up to the stage to receive it.

All of her hard work had paid off, but it wasn’t just that. Because I had taken the time to use the tools, taught to me in the same manner I’ve taught you today, she didn’t just know I wanted her to do a “good job”, but she knew exactly what was expected of her, and what would be waiting for her, no matter what path she chose. This process works if you use it, and because of it she was able to succeed.

In the end, this story had the ability to make the concepts I was passing on to them very real, not just academic “try this” and “tell them that”. Real world stories, preferably from your own real experiences, make the difference in bringing those abstract concepts to life for your audience.

2. Stories can take the focus off of you, and allow someone else to be the expert and the hero, and allow the process to be what the audience remembers.
In the story above, you noticed how I reference the process I was teaching was given to me in a similar setting (in this case an experienced Senior NCO teaching new supervisors). This means I was passing on someone else’s wisdom, used to help yet another person succeed.

3. Stories give your audience an anchor to connect your point to, so later when they are in a similar circumstance, the point comes back through the association.
In my story,all of the new supervisors were going to have to write performance appraisals and set standards and goals for their troops. My hope was that the next time they caught themselves saying “be on time” or “do better work” they would remember how giving specific standards (i.e. at your desk by 7:30 am or answer the phone within two rings) would give their troops the best chance of success.

That example was one of the very few decent stories I had developed when I was giving this training. It also led to the most successful connections I was able to make with my audience as well.

Lots of great speakers will tell you that you need a story file. As it turns out, this is an area that I’m seeing my own need to improve as well. If you already have one, then that’s good news. If not, I’ll tell you my plan and you can use what you like from it:

1. Create a Microsoft Word file (use Apple stuff if you have to) and copy and paste the above story into it.
2. I’m going to categorize this file by roles (on the job, at home, Toastmasters, etc.)
3. Over the weekend, I’m going to work on some titles (i.e. BTZ promotion at xxx Air Force Base) to get me started remembering things that have happened
4. Continuing on, I’ll fill in the gaps and have stories categorized much like the blog has categories
5. Also, I’ll incorporate these stories into future blog posts, to help me stay on track

Follow along, and feel free to provide comments. And while you’re watching, start your own story file. Believe it or not, whether you’re a presenter, a coworker, or a parent, you too have a need for stories.

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