How To Use Stories To Engage Hearts And Minds

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Everyone loves stories

Picture this: The year was 1519. In a harbour on the eastern shore of Mexico, a whole flotilla of ships was ablaze. The distraught sailors on shore had no chance of putting out the fires and were frantic at the thought that they could never return to their homeland.

But what had caused such a disaster?

Are you curious?

Of course, you are! Your mind likes to know the hows and whys and the ins and outs. It wants things sorted, finished, tidy, completed, and put to bed. It can then file them away and forget all about them. But that’s the opposite of what you want when you’re teaching people — or when you’re learning!

You need a way of keeping your mind — or your participants’ minds open

As anyone who has been on a course with me will testify, I tell lots of stories. They may be case studies, made-up stories, or authentic stories, but they all have one thing in common. Can you guess what that commonality might be?

The value of stories in teaching and coaching

Stories take us away from our usual thinking and stimulate our creativity and imagination. Stories engage our emotions, stimulating laughter, joy, sadness, and many other emotions. They let us escape from our minds and connect to our hearts. We can ‘step into another’s shoes’ just for the duration of the tale.

Thus, we remember stories and the concepts and ideas associated with those stories much more easily than dry, factual information. The beginning of a story engages our curiosity. We want to discover what happens next and we want the ending.

“You’re never going to kill storytelling, because it’s built in the human plan. We come with it.” – Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale

But once we’re aware of the conclusion, our mind closes and we stop learning.

So, how do you prevent mind closure?

Reveal a part of the annecdote, to begin with. You will have aroused curiosity with the delivery of the first part and by not completing the entire story, your listener’s mind will stay open to the learning you’re about to deliver.

Then you give them the information you want them to know, or perhaps an exercise or two to integrate the learning. Let them ask questions —  one of which is likely to be, “How does the story end?”. Then you can finish the piece and close the learning loop.

Apply the same open-loop principle to your work

Don’t give the brain what it wants! Try not to leave a piece of work at a place where you’ve finished a part or section of it. (I realise it sounds counter-intuitive.) Once you’ve completed part of it, your mind will put it aside, and you’ll find it more difficult to get traction when you restart. Far better to stop when you’re excited and interested because your mind will be eager to regain the momentum and get back to it.

Now you’ve learned something, I can finish the story

Hernán Cortés had landed his fleet of ships in Mexico in the spring of 1519 in search of treasure. His 500 sailors were tired, hungry, and homesick. Cortés knew that seeing the boats anchored in the harbour meant his sailors yearned to return home.

ships on fire story

He ordered the ships to be set on fire. There was no longer a possibility of the crew returning homeward to Spain — and their old way of life. He forced them to change their mindset and commit to making Mexico their new home.

What comparisons can you make with this story that might impart a useful learning?

For example:

  • By burning the boats, it forces you to make the best of where you are.
  • It stops you from reminiscing about ‘what could have been’.
  • What situations have you been in where there is no going back?
  • Sometimes ‘burning the boats’ (ie, eliminating other options) forces a commitment to another option.

So, what’s more impactful?

Using a metaphor to illustrate your point, or advising people how they should handle a situation? The beauty of storytelling as opposed to telling people what to do is that a listener doesn’t feel compelled to take advice. Because it’s just yarn, they can choose how best to proceed.

“We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.” – Jonathan Gottschall

Everyone has stories to tell

It’s worthwhile keeping notes of stories for future use.

They can come from:

  • Your own life experiences — stories you tell when you get together with family, for instance
  • News
  • Video and film
  • Jokes
  • Myths, legends, and fairy tales
  • Parables
  • Stories you make up
  • Scientific research

Then look for opportunities to use them. I started keeping a notebook of personal stories that I thought would be useful for teaching and coaching, some years ago. Now I have a massive folder full of them — and more on the computer!

This brings me to the commonality my stories share…

It’s that they don’t get finished. Not straight away, anyhow. When I’ve finished the teaching, then I close the loop. Just like in this post.

If you’re interested in storytelling and how to use metaphor productively, check out NLP Practitioner Certification Training

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Tags: Learning and memory, Thinking and mindset, work and career

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