March 13, 2020 / Esther Choy

conversations lead to storiesAs much as we hope that a lecture or presentation is going to change our lives—especially when we’ve paid big bucks to hear from an expert—one-on-one conversations usually stick with us much better.

That’s because, as Mark A. McDaniel and Peter C. Brown argue in their book Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, “learning is deeper and more durable when it’s effortful.” A good conversation takes work. We’re involved and invested, so we remember.

But how do you elevate a casual conversation into a really good one, especially in the workplace? How can you improve your conversation skills? How can you make conversations part of your corporate culture, encouraging a culture of corporate storytelling?

The answers lie in these five quotes.

1. “Leadership is not about a title or a designation. It’s about impact, influence and inspiration. Impact involves getting results, influence is about spreading the passion you have for your work, and you have to inspire teammates and customers.”

Robin Sharma, best selling leadership author

In other words, a good conversation is about influence. Influence is the key in business communication. Sure, you can influence people by the sheer force of your job title. But to have lasting influence, you have to share your why—you have to invite others to share your enthusiasm for your work.Stories are the way to do this. Every story you tell in conversation is more than entertainment and much more than small talk. It’s a chance to influence others.

2. “The only reason why we ask other people how their weekend was is so we can tell them about our own weekend.”

―Chuck Palahniuk, Invisible Monsters

Ouch. Can you feel the truth here? We ask others questions because, really, we’re waiting for our turn to impress them. Or, we ask questions like this out of laziness.

In his MasterClass, humorist, comedian, author, and radio contributor David Sedaris advises us not to ask questions that get us nowhere (“how are you?”). If you ask interesting questions, you’ll get interesting answers. Sedaris once asked a chauffeur whether he’d ever run for office. He had! Twenty years prior, the chauffeur had campaigned to be a judge. Can you imagine the kind of conversation that ensued?

I am a firm believer that it’s best not to be overly concerned about impressing others. Instead, we should let others impress us, creating space for them to share their experiences with us.Even if they thought their weekend was a little boring, a few follow-up questions can change that. Suppose, for instance, that a project assistant tells you, her manager, “Oh, nothing much, I just went to my art class this weekend.”

Aha! An opportunity to dig deeper. Why is the project assistant devoting her weekends to art classes? What started her interest in art? What does she envision her artistic journey looking like?Perhaps your interest will simply lead to a stronger connection. The assistant will be grateful because you’re acknowledging her and helping her understand that she does indeed have great stories to tell. Perhaps it could even lead you to help her align her weekend hobby and her day job. Could she help with visuals in your company’s marketing materials, for instance? Hearing other people’s stories allows you to understand their passions. Listening is fundamental to leadership storytelling.

3. “One of the benefits of moving from a presentation-style to a storytelling style is that we’ve had much better conversations, much more feedback from everyone in the room, and greater learning for our project team.”

—Claudia Gamboa, Sr. Program Manager, Ziploc, Global RD&E, SC Johnson

In other words, a good conversation is about creating corporate stories. Corporate storytelling is the strategic use of stories to bridge cross-functional teams, uncover innovative ideas and envision a shared future.

Several years ago, I helped a client launch a “storytelling raffle” to encourage people across the organization to share stories in honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month. She and other members of her company’s Hispanic Business Council (HBC) planned to ask colleagues to write true stories and send them to the HBC. Participants would then be entered in a drawing to win free tickets to a popular musical. She and I worked together to formulate questions that would inspire well-crafted stories. The submitted stories revealed the participants’ human side and reinforced the company’s storytelling culture. They opened possibilities for conversation.

Initiatives like this one fulfilled her company’s mandate to make storytelling part of their corporate culture. As storytelling wove itself throughout the fabric of this company, my client witnessed its power to show the human side of the technologies she was discovering. If she—a scientist— could show this in presentations and everyday conversations, she could influence the way people in sales, marketing and other departments told the public why the technology made sense to adopt. She could influence them to repeat a corporate story.

4. “The audience actually wants to work for their meal. They just don’t want to know that they’re doing that.”

Andrew Stanton, Pixar screenwriter

A better conversation unfolds through strategic narrative. How do you develop a strategic narrative? Of course, it’s true that conversations are all different, but they also have patterns, so they can get better when we think ahead.

For instance, when answering the question, “what do you do?” it’s worth thinking in terms of game theory. What will the other person say based on your responses? How can you answer the question in a thoughtful, strategic way that will guide the conversation down a path that’s mutually beneficial? I’ve covered some examples of how to do that here.

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A client of mine once had 500 phone conversations to prepare for. She was campaigning for 2nd vice president of Toastmasters, a position that could set her on the path to become the organization’s president. Before the election, she called hundreds of members around the world. The conversations were well planned. She strategically divided her time between listening carefully and communicating her own ideas. Once she had listened well, she shared three key ideas about why she was running. Not until the end did she say why she was the best choice— and then actually ask for the vote.

5. “Asking questions is the first way to begin change.”

― Kubbra Sait, Indian actress

Good conversations have to break the mold. Relationships tend to fall into patterns, often with one person dominating and the other person nodding and “mmm hmmming.” Unexamined patterns like these can strangle the health of the relationship.

If you’re a frequent talker, try asking questions. You don’t have to talk to have influence since listening creates a bond.Here are three questions related to origins, from our Crazy Good Questions (download them here).

Try these with a friend from work:

1. What got you interested in pursuing this career?

2. This investment strategy is certainly ahead of its time, how did this idea come about?

3. You were identified by the previous chairman of the board to succeed him. What qualities did he see in you that led him to conclude that you’re the right choice?

After asking each question, listen aggressively.

Good conversations lead to life-changing ideas, strong partnerships and galvanizing decisions. It’s said that Samuel F. B. Morse came up with the idea of using electricity to communicate over distances because of the good conversations he had about electromagnetism while aboard a ship sailing from Europe to America. And it’s well-known that conversations led to the birth of Silicon Valley itself! Good conversations lead to success in business and to a better life as a whole.

Taking charge of a conversation, breaking out of an unproductive conversation pattern, or choosing to incorporate a story does not always feel natural, especially to introverts. Here’s how introverts can become inspiring storytellers.

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Photo credit: bernardbodo

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Esther Choy

Esther Choy founded Leadership Story Lab in 2010 to help others leverage the art of storytelling to create extraordinary opportunities.
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