Some years ago, when my kids were small, the parking brake lost traction and our car rolled backwards, hit a tree and went into the ditch. My son was alone inside the car, and he was terrified. And, as the car was rolling and gaining speed, he unbuckled his seatbelt, wrenched the door open, and jumped out onto the gravel driveway.
I remember many things from that day: my fear running out and finding my son sobbing and the car in the ditch, my other son’s deep tantrum and the reason I was back inside the house. And I remember having a clear moment of insight that how we helped our son understand what happened would deeply impact how he would recall this day and how he felt about himself.
I made an intentional choice, after acknowledging his fear, to call upon his courage in remembering the event. I emphasized how brave he was to jump out of a moving vehicle, and that this represented a moment of victory for him. He was afraid, and he moved forward.
There were many ways I could have told the story about what happened in the hours and days after the accident. Years later we could have been talking about the car’s parking brake failure, or my failure to engage the brake fully. Or we could have been talking about my other son, throwing his shoes, and how this was the reason my older son was alone in the car in the first place. But those aren’t the stories that have held the pull of time, and this was very intentional. Courage was the feeling I wanted to cultivate, and my intention was for him to remember that day and the audacious act of jumping.
And it was so. The following year he chose to write a short story for a class assignment about that day, and his victory over circumstances. And just this month, years later, now a teenager, he wrote again about the moment – and how it taught him to stay calm and make decisions with courage.
In the business world, when we seek to influence others – to rally our team around a new initiative, get our colleagues to pay attention to a serious issue, or motivate an employee – we have the opportunity to frame a business story. As leaders we can take the same set of events, and how we talk about those events will influence the way someone will interpret them.
For example, a customer could log a support case, only to post the question in an online community forum, and get it answered. Is this a story about the failure of the support team? The triumph of the community? The success of the support team in handling the hardest to solve issues? The dangers of a product that is increasingly complex? Yes and also No. The events themselves do not make the story. Nor does a narration of what happened make the story.
A story takes place when a business leader pays attention to an event, and recounts it – with emotionally compelling details – in an intentional way. How we frame and tell a story makes a profound difference in how others find meaning in the events we share.
As we prepare for an all-hands meeting, key client conversation, or meeting with our boss – asking ourselves these three questions will help a) decide which story to tell and b) frame how we tell the story.
3 Steps to Frame a Business Story
1. What is the feeling we are trying to surface?
Hope is something to believe in, but there are many instances where I tell a story to invoke fear and try to dissuade behavior. When I’m trying to encourage team members to backup the data before doing a customization, I’ll tell about the time we deleted 20k address records and relied on our backup file. For friends who have teenagers, I’ll remind them of what my friend’s daughter was up to at the same age. For a longer meeting, keynote or all hands, there might be multiple stories – one to invoke the seriousness of the moment, and another to call on the hope and resilience of what the team can accomplish working together.
2. How does this connect with what the listener cares about?
A business story is always about the listener and never about the storyteller. If an executive cares about growth numbers for the quarter, a story about frustrating infrastructure that prevents deals from getting closed by weeks at a time will resonate. For an employee who values belonging above all else at work, a story about how their behavior impacts others and can amplify what others are able to accomplish will resonate. Understanding what the listener cares about is integral to how we frame and choose the stories we tell. If my son didn’t care about courage, the story of him jumping out of the car would have lost is resonance.
3. What’s our intention in telling the story?
Typically when I am telling a business story or vignette I want to move someone – get them to rally around a new idea or project, understand a point of view or take my recommended course of action. They may not move right away, but if I’ve connected with what they care about via my business story, a deeper trust will have been established. But it’s also true that in many cases, I want to influence how someone feels about a situation – or even about themselves. For my son, I told him the story of his courage to understand what he was capable of, and to not let his brain get stuck in the fear cycle of what happened. For team members I manage or executives I coach, I remind them of moments when they handled a situation really well – and in doing so, foster their resilience to handle the next conversation.
I went to a college reunion recently and I can’t remember many of the details of my day to day life back then. But I remember many stories, and I laughed and am still mulling over the stories others told to me over the weekend. In a world of attention deficit, stories are sticky – and well told, can shape not just what we remember but how we remember.
Here’s to stories that stick.