How Stories Influence People and Inspire Action

How Stories Influence People and Inspire Action

Robert Rosales

Robert Rosales

Principal Consultant

''Everything starts with a story''

Social media has made it easier than ever to tell the stories of our lives. It is just the latest evolution of the history of storytelling that goes back thousands of years. Cave dwellers painted murals depicting hunting of mammoths, bulls, and lions over 30,000 years ago. The ancient Greeks left us vivid myths of sorrow, courage, love, and war. 

When BBC Culture, in 2018, asked writers around the globe to pick stories that most shaped the world, Homer’s Odyssey (written in the 8th century BC) topped the list, One Thousand and One Nights (8th to 18th centuries), Hamlet (1603), Don Quixote (1605), and Frankenstein (1818) made the top ten.

This begs the question of why some stories have endured across generations and continents. One reason is that stories is how our species has shared wisdom and built empathy through the millennia. In addition to the evolutionary reason, the field of neuroscience found that stories affect the brain and change the way we think, feel, and act.

Stories change the brain

Let’s look at the brain science behind stories. We have two memory systems. One that we are aware of in the sense that we can summon up its contents; the other provides its input through triggers in an automatic way. We call the first explicit memory and the second implicit memory.

The first system is sequential, and is designed for animals to navigate, and find their way back to their homes from a foraging trip. It is designed to connect with the senses e.g., visualization, and add a sense of sequence or timeline. This enables us to recognize milestones on a journey, whether they are smells, pictures, or sounds.

This system is built for journeys. Humans are able to use abstraction on most systems in the brain. They can effortlessly replace real sensory input with imaginary input, and this is a function of implicit memory.  A narrative –or story- has both visualization (implicit) and sequence (explicit). Therefore, it fits with these memory systems perfectly. A story, whether fact or fiction, is a journey created in our imagination.

Archetypes that light up the brain

A story has patterns just like journeys. It is sometimes said that there are only seven story archetypes:

  • Overcoming the Monster.
  • Rags to Riches.
  • The Quest.
  • Voyage and Return.
  • Comedy.
  • Tragedy.
  • Rebirth.

The particular significance of these stories is in the juxtaposition of sensory, emotional and social experience into a pattern. These are all individual elements which are in the implicit memory system. The implicit system is relaxing for us. It’s effortless for us  to imagine a picture or respond to social stimulus. However, it’s effortful to keep sequence in the explicit system. A model like that of a story which oscillates between the two allows us the best of both worlds. The archetype allows us comfort in the predictability of events.

The archetype also provides us with an unexpected bonus, which is the “unexpected”. A sudden twist in an archetypal story line fires a trigger (a dopamine hit) and allows us to experience pleasure. The perfect plot keeps us in suspense, perfectly balancing imagination with sequence and both expected  and unexpected events.

Great stories change minds

Research in neuroscience and cognitive psychology has shown that stories are typically more effective at changing people’s minds than rational arguments. Let’s look at an example that demonstrates how stories are memorable and impactful in ways that statistics aren’t.

In a famous study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania, students were placed in two groups. One group was showed a marketing packet with statistics about childhood malnutrition for children in Africa. The second group was shown the same statistics but was also provided information in the form of a story about an 8-year-old girl from Mali named Rokia.

The subjects were given $5 as compensation for their participation in the study. Before leaving, they were asked if they wanted to donate money to the charitable organization “SAVE THE CHILDREN”.

The individuals in the STORY condition gave nearly twice as much money as those in the statistics condition ($2.38 vs. $1.43).

The Takeaway

Our brain attaches an emotion to the things it wants to remember because they help with survival. Therefore, an emotional and well-constructed message that skilfully uses stories is a MUST HAVE when you want to influence others into action. And that’s how emotion, not logic, drives decisions.

What stories are you telling your customers?  Who is the hero of your stories? Can you tell stories that capture attention and prompt action?

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What Leadership Skills will be the Key to Success in 2021?

What Leadership Skills will be the Key to Success in 2021?

Barry Bickel

Barry Bickel

Senior Consultant

Mountaintops inspire leaders but valleys mature them

As the world finally begins to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, business leaders will need to possess a unique set of skills to effectively lead their organizations in 2021 and beyond.

COVID-19 has transformed life as we know it, impacting us personally, academically and professionally. As the world begins the slow and the tedious process of learning how to reopen safely continues, businesses and communities alike are looking to leaders for guidance to help navigate this with success.

While some may view this as a major roadblock, we see it as an opportunity for organizations and leaders to have a fresh start — forced to optimize their performance and their vision through progressive ideas and skills.

Throughout the pandemic many individuals and organizations have recognized the need for mindset, mental health and resilience support.  Most of this demand was placed at the door of HR and leaders.  The field of mindset and mental health support is relatively new and awash with mixed language and solutions.  Leaders will need to target the right solutions at the right time during the change curve response.

The ‘change curve’ comes from the work  of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (On Death and Dying, 1969) and was adapted for organizational and social change. The curve explores the thinking and feeling journey that people go through as a response to change:

When change is imposed or received by people not involved in design of change, humans will go through this change curve response.  As the world moves out of the crisis and in the direction of thriving again, It is imperative that leaders develop the necessary mindset and skills at the appropriate time to accomplish this with their organizations.

Soft leadership skills will be most important as organizations recover from the crisis of 2020.

While strategic thinking, delivering results and executing with excellence will always be critical leadership skills, soft leadership skills will take center stage in 2021.   Academic, speaker and author, Dr Brené Brown, author of Dare to Lead,  says the world needs leaders who are “self-aware enough to lead from their hearts, rather than unevolved leaders who lead from hurt and fear.”   At her event hosted by The Growth Faculty she said she wished leaders were choosing courage over comfort.

Most importantly, courage to acknowledge their team members have feelings.  “We have to attend to fears and feelings, otherwise we can’t attend to unproductive behavior,”  she said.  Leadership in 2021 requires a more human-centered approach than in the past.

In order to successfully guide their organizations from the crisis to a state of thriving, leaders in 2021 must develop the following skills:


Empathy is crucial during times of crisis when so many people are struggling. It’s also key to producing the kinds of connections with colleagues that can generate much-needed innovation. Empathetic leaders know how to create an atmosphere in which all of their team members – not just a few – come forward with ideas. They know how to engage with team members who are different from themselves because of culture, or background, or personality, or age.

COVID-19 revealed the importance of leaders showing that they cared and were supporting their team and employees. Individuals need to know that their leaders have their back and that they still have whatever they were getting from work e.g. status, certainty, autonomy, relationships, fairness, belonging and security. With each phone call, zoom meeting, involvement in team activities, recalled personal story and connection with the leader, the bond between team member and organization grows.  In the early stages of the ‘change curve’ people are scared.

There is little information to make them less scared. It results in classic fight of flight responses of ‘denial’, burying our heads in the sand until it goes away or hyper defensiveness, sceptically challenging everything.

Now is not the time to leave anyone isolated or excluded. Leaders must value and practice diversity and inclusion, create safety and belonging and acknowledge the emotions that the team may be feeling. Leaders don’t always know the answers either so they must lead with care, giving and building trust through intimacy, reliability and selflessness rather than credibility. Intimacy demands knowing how the change is affecting people’s personal experiences (home, kids, family, social life etc.) and being genuinely interested in their world.


Resilience in leaders will be key because their employees are exhausted from the uncertainty and anxiety of this past year.  A recent survey of 1711 global leaders conducted by CEMS–Global Alliance in Management Education points to the increasing importance of resilience. Pre-pandemic, 13 percent would have pointed to resilience as a necessary leadership skill; post-pandemic, that number increases to 34 percent.

While we can’t always control which problems land on our desk, we can control the mindset to solve them – being solutions orientated, thinking beyond the moment and creating win-win outcomes are all important.  A huge part of resilience is physical resilience, wellness and wellbeing – being active, healthy and sleeping well. 

Humans can be prone to catastrophizing, being overwhelmed, finding blame and excuses when they are in a crisis. Leaders need to control the narrative and the focus of the team in order to remain positive and yet at the same time, face the reality of the change. This is often known as the Stockdale Paradox, named after Admiral James Stockdale. Stockdale was a prisoner of war in Vietnam for seven-and-a-half years. Stockdale survived whilst those around him perished.

When asked how he survived whilst others didn’t, Stockdale answered: “I never lost faith in the end of the story. I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade”. This is a very important lesson. “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.

Emotional Intelligence (EQ)

Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is the ability to sense and respond in a way which increases reciprocity but also steers and influences us to modify the direction that our automatic response would have made. In this way EQ allows us to improve the natural responses to our implicit memories. This means occasionally interrupting our automatic behavior to steer the interaction in a more productive direction. This new sense of direction needs to prove worthwhile, but having done so it initiates supervised learning in the other party or parties of the relationship and as a result builds deep respect and become a basis for trust.

To put it simply the members of the team have learned together and improved together. In teams of people it allows a knowledge to develop of intentionality to each other. This is particularly important to your understanding of how your fellow team members will interact with each other in response to your behavior. This is the basis for a sense of comradeship in which the team enjoys deeper knowledge of your colleagues intentions and actions in response to events.

Cultural Intelligence and Inclusivity

Cultural intelligence measures their ability to relate, and work well in culturally diverse situations. If a leader has cultural intelligence, they are more ready to effectively lead and work with culturally diverse people. Cultural Intelligence has attracted worldwide research and study since its introduction by two researchers, Christopher Earley and Soon Ang in their 2003 book Cultural Intelligence: Individual Interactions Across Cultures. They define it as “the ability not just to understand others, but to understand others who do not meet your cultural norms, and then act on that knowledge in a mutually beneficial way”.

The growing diversity of the workforce can be an asset or a liability, depending on how it is managed. When internal diversity is used strategically and combined with cultural intelligence, firms can capitalize on opportunities more effectively. Rather than relying solely on market research and surveys, a diverse workforce provides first-hand insights as to the motivations and concerns of a broad range of customers. Ajay Banga, CEO of MasterCard, and Brian Moynihan, CEO of Bank of America, personally chair their companies’ diversity and inclusion councils. They believe there is a direct link between their diversity efforts and customer satisfaction. Moynihan says, “When internal diversity and inclusion scores are strong…[we] will serve our customers better, and we’ll be better off as an organization.

Deloitte research shows that inclusive leaders demonstrate six signature traits: commitment, courage, cognizance of bias, curiosity, cultural intelligence and collaboration.  By focusing on developing these behaviors, leaders can more effectively lead their organizations out of the crisis and into the future.

Communication (Storytelling)

Moving past the Covid-19 crisis provides leaders with a compelling reason to engage and strengthen overall connections with employees. Frequent, clear, and succinct communication is vital. Equally, the repetition of messages and usage to different channels of communication ensures everyone hears the message. Remember just because you heard it the first time you said it, doesn’t mean the audience had the opportunity to listen to it the first time.

Technology allows us to reach out and connect instantly with others and share information. However, we are paying the price for this convenience with the loss of our communication skills. More and more as we hide behind the screens of our computers, phones and tablets we confuse the action of sending out information with the thought of creating understanding. Then, when a message was not received or was interpreted differently than intended, we are puzzled by what went wrong.

This is why understanding your communication style and  learning effective communication tactics is more important than ever. Communicating, or “getting through” is about speaking and listening, empathizing with others, explaining yourself clearly, and summarizing your message. Only then can your words and actions translate into true understanding.

Last, a critical leadership TRAIT for 2021 and beyond

While the skills reviewed here will be critical for success in 2021 and beyond, there is one trait above all others that will always be required of leaders.  Character has always been and will continue to be the most important trait of a successful leader. The highest levels of character require courage, determination, integrity and self-discipline. Former Procter & Gamble CEO John Pepper stressed the importance of personal leadership and character as keys to success in business. He said leadership based on values attracts quality employees, simplifies decision making, earns the respect of the customer and community and instills trust and pride among employees.

Personal character, Pepper said, must remain constant across one’s corporate, public and private lives.  “I believe it is perilous to have different sets of values for different parts of your life,” Pepper said. “I know that my effectiveness and peace of mind demand that the values that guide my life in P&G, in community activities, in my family life, and in the privacy of my own mind and heart be as much the same as possible.”

It is often said that you don’t develop character during a crisis. Rather, a crisis reveals the true character you already have. This pandemic may be unprecedented in our lifetime, but there will always be other unforeseen disruptions ahead.  For these reasons, it is imperative that all leaders develop the discipline to strengthen their ethical values, moral courage and ability to think and reason with clarity, in order to be prepared for the post-pandemic recovery and for future disruptive events we cannot yet imagine.

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How are you Showing Up?

How are you Showing Up?

Jennifer Haddad

Jennifer Haddad

Senior Consultant

Some people love working from home. They are happy and thriving at work in the virtual world and are finding ways to keep their energy and positivity flowing most of the time. Others are finding it difficult to get into ‘work mode’ and perhaps fear the camera that video calls require. They may be disappointing their managers and peers in the way they are showing up and feeling quite isolated.

Either way, the current reality for many is a home desk and lots of zoom calls. If this is your current reality, how are you showing up for both yourself and others?

It’s a lot harder in this virtual world to portray energy and enthusiasm, let alone to feel those things. For a start you are seated all day and as we know this is known to reduce energy levels. You no longer have a commute in which you might have walked and got fresh air and you don’t have an office to stroll through for spontaneous ‘hallway’ conversations with your colleagues.

Your work persona is now largely based on your head and shoulders on a screen.

Physically having to sit at a desk all day and only view the heads and shoulders of people on screen, you could almost argue that body language is a thing of the past now at work, but as NLP taught us, body language is a huge factor in building rapport with people so we have to find ways to make it work on screen.

Gianpiero Petriglieri, an associate professor at Insead who explores sustainable learning and development in the workplace says “Being on a video call requires more focus than a face-to-face chat. Video chats mean we need to work harder to process non-verbal cues like facial expressions, the tone and pitch of the voice, and body language; paying more attention to these consumes a lot of energy. Our minds are together when our bodies feel we’re not. That dissonance, which causes people to have conflicting feelings, is exhausting. You cannot relax into the conversation naturally” he says.

“Silence is another challenge” he adds. “Silence creates a natural rhythm in a real-life conversation. However, when it happens in a video call, you became anxious about the technology. It also makes people uncomfortable.”  One 2014 study by German academics showed that delays on phone or conferencing systems shaped our views of people negatively: even delays of 1.2 seconds made people perceive the responder as less friendly or focused.

So what are we left with?

For our external appearance in the virtual workplace to be ‘on point’, we have to show up on screen with energy both in our voice and in our body language. We need to use our mannerisms as effectively as possible and try to connect with others through eye contact.

Think of the simple difference of looking at someone sitting upright in their chair on the screen versus someone leaning back. What might you assume about the person who is leaning back? They are not interested in what you are saying perhaps? They could be tired and not really listening? That may not be true however the perception of this is created by their body posture in this position.

If you are the one leaning back in your chair, consider how this might be negatively affecting your energy levels. It won’t help you to listen better to the person speaking or when speaking it won’t help your voice to lift and sound engaging. By adopting this stance for any prolonged period of time, you are not helping yourself or your work persona.

Consider sitting forward, upright and with your hands and forearms on your desk in front of you. With your shoulders now upright, your diaphragm is in a better position to help you breathe freely and your larynx is in an optimal position to let your voice carry.

An extra note here is to try to make sure your computer screen is at a comfortable eye-level height. This will prevent you looking up or down at your screen which in turn can affect your body position.

Here’s looking at you…

Eye contact is another important factor in rapport building and luckily we can still use this tool in the virtual world of video calls. However we very commonly see people avoid it on screen, more so than they would have in a face to face environment and choosing instead to look down at their desk or worse still, somewhere else in the room.

Maintaining eye contact shows a level of interest and concentration when listening to someone and demonstrates respect to what they are saying. It creates a bond between you and the speaker which is important if you are listening to a client or colleague. This can be challenging on a group video call as it’s not really easy to see who is looking at who but the best practice is to continue to look at the screen as you would politely do in person. Likewise when you are the one speaking on screen, looking at the screen at much as possible rather than down at your notes, will create a much more confident and engaging appearance.

5 Top Tips

As a company that regularly works with managers and senior leaders on executive presence, I asked one of our partners and senior facilitators, Steve Ellis, for his top 5 tips on showing up with impact on screen:

  1. Pretend it’s a real face to face meeting and show up accordingly.
  2. Face up to it – be aware that you are on show and look into the camera rather than the screen to get eye contact.
  3. Check your background – wear clothing that compliments your background rather than clashes and ideally keep your background simple.
  4. Straight talking – sit up straight, ideally on the last 3 inches of your chair. Place one foot in front of the other and ‘be’ on your toes.
  5. Be present – be on time, on video and actively listen. Find a balance between not being pushy but neither being too passive.

Helping Yourself

This isn’t all about your appearance to others. It’s about showing up for yourself during work hours in order to perform at your best. By understanding how your posture affects your energy and how your mental state and mood is directly affected by your environment, you can try out new routines for home working. Find things that work for you and make them a habit. It could be getting up from your desk regularly and walking to another room, it could be keeping a clean and tidy desk area and it could involve getting a new desk light or small heater to keep warm. There are lots of ways to make your home working routine more conducive to productivity. Try to stick to schedules as you would have in the office which includes start and finish times.

In conclusion, this new virtual working world isn’t going away and for many it could be a reality for a long time to come. Instead of working against it, we have to find ways to excel within the constraints of it. Consider what works for you but at the same time keep focused on how your online presence is showing up to your clients and colleagues.

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