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Stories That Challenge

One of the most powerful stories you can tell contains a message that your audience probably doesn’t want to hear.  It’s a message that lets people know that things will become harder before they become better.

The movie, MARY POPPINS, assures us that “just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.”  I would never presume to argue with Mary Poppins.  Yet, there are those times when audiences are primed for bad news.  Their imaginations have been imagining the worst, and a “things are not as bad as you think” message will only fan the flames of distrust.

The converse is that “things will get better” messages can also be met with distrust.  We want to believe that, yet we feel personally threatened…and that influences our ability to accept the message.

Facts alone aren’t always reassuring.  Homilies such as “It’s always darkest before the dawn” sound like clichés. Fear adds a layer of suspicion…and fear is an immensely strong emotion.

Stories speak directly to the emotions.  They can counter-balance negative situations by presenting an image of a desired state.  Since we are naturally hardwired to understand and remember stories, their messages can stay with us long after their telling is complete.

Since the financial troubles of 2007, I have listened to many “we need to tighten the belt” messages.  From the reactions to them, I could tell that the majority were received negatively.  The impression was that the listener was being kicked while already down.

A few of those messages, though, were contained within stories.  While the reaction wasn’t a joyous jumping up and down, there was a feeling of hope and a sense that someone was working to sort things out.  There was a belief that we would emerge from the darkness.

What were some of the elements employed?

·       The elephant in the room was identified.  When a story dances around the issues, the audience hears a fairy tale.  The speaker isn’t grounded in the reality of the people.  Acknowledging a painful situation that everyone knows promotes a belief in the honesty of the speaker.

·        The emotional situation was acknowledged.  When people are worried, they do not need to hear that they are professionals and should act in a professional manner.  There needs to be a validity given to the very real human emotions they are experiencing.

·        The picture of an ideal resolution was painted.  The audience needed to envision a desired state, an image that would carry them through the difficult times ahead.  Having a vision of something strongly desired a powerful motivator.

·        The steps to get there were driven by values.  Outlining steps in a process lets others know that a plan is in place.  Tying those steps to values such as personal integrity and acting for the common good makes them inspiring.  Instead of merely following a plan, we are ennobled. 

·        We were reassured that we were not in this alone.  This was the “My door is always open” part of the presentation.  Very few people will take you up on it.  Still, it’s comforting to know that option is available.

·        There was a reaffirmation that this could not be done without us.  We all know that if the business does not survive, we all lose.  We expect there will be business decisions made that we will not like.  Those decisions become more palatable, though, when our personal worth and an acknowledgment of our contributions are noted.

The Challenge Story is essentially a heroic speech.  It is a call to action during uncertain times.  Emotions are already at a high.  Stories allow us to tap into that emotional channel and create a sense of emotional purpose.  Few things in life are more powerful than that.

Thank you for reading.