Join Paul A. Smith for an in-depth discussion in this video Why storytelling is important, part of Leading with Stories.
One of my favorite observations about storytelling comes from Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner, who said that "Every great leader is a great storyteller." And that's what we're going to talk about in this video, is why you should be using more storytelling at work. But first, let me give you an example of the type of story that I'm talking about, because I don't want you to think I'm talking about stories that you would use as an ice breaker or some warmup exercise that you'd use at the beginning of a meeting. Or that joke that you might tell at the beginning of a big speech. I'm talking about using stories deliberately to deliver your leadership content.
My favorite example comes from Jayson Zoller. He's the director of Consumer and Communications Research at Procter and Gamble, and he's been telling the same story to new hires there for 20 years. And he got it from one of his college professors, his favorite professor, who told this story in class. And, apparently, what had happened was a few years earlier, the professor broke the students up into groups of five or six. And they each had a class project for the year, a research project. One of them had a more interesting one than all the rest, and this was it. How could they improve the jury deliberation process? So imagine these students, and they did all the kind of things that you would have done had you been on this team.
They interviewed all the judges in the jurisdiction. They interviewed plaintiffs and defendants and prosecuting attorneys and defense attorneys. But mostly they interviewed people who'd served on juries themselves. And they asked them all the kind of questions you probably would have asked them had you been on this team. What was the trial about? How long did the trial last? What kind of information were they allowed to have in the jury room? What were their instructions given to them? They even asked them things like, how late did they make them work into the evening and what kind of food did they feed them? At the end of the semester, what they concluded was this, that none of those things mattered.
It turns out that the only thing that mattered was the shape of the table in the jury room. In jury rooms that had rectangular tables, whoever sat at the head of the table, whether they were the jury foreman or not, tended to dominate the conversation. And they felt like a less than robust debate of the facts ensued and therefore maybe a less than accurate verdict was rendered. But in jury rooms that had round or oval tables, a more egalitarian debate of the facts ensued, and they felt like a better verdict was rendered. So they were very excited at the end of the year and made their big presentation to the judge.
And the judge was very excited, and he immediately issues a decree. "In all the courthouses in my jurisdiction, "anywhere you've got any of those round tables, "get rid of them. "I want rectangular tables in." Now, why would he have done that in direct contradiction to their recommendation? And the reason is this, the judge's definition of an improved jury deliberation process wasn't a more accurate one or a more fair one, it was a faster one. He wanted to reduce the backlog on his court docket. Now imagine you are those five or six students and how awful you'd feel at that moment.
I mean, here these are, these young idealistic 20-something college students thinking this project is going to be their way to save the world or at least make their little corner of it a better place to be. But in their mind, they had done exactly the opposite. Right? They thought they were saving the world and they made it a worse place. And so they got an A on their report card, but I'm sure they left the semester regretting ever even taking part in this project. Now here it is 20 years later, Jayson still tells that story to new hires. And he tells them that story to teach them this lesson.
It is critically important for you to be clear in your objectives before you start your research project, not after. If you wait 'til after, you may be be sorely disappointed in the result. Now, he could just stand there in front of those students and fold his arms and say, "Well you know, "experience at the Procter and Gamble Company "suggests that you should be very clear on your objectives "before you start your project." In addition to sounding kind of arrogant, it probably wouldn't do much good, right? Experience has also been the best teacher, but a story is a close second. Every other form of communication is a distant third.
Now, there are some of you that probably want a more concrete set of reasons why storytelling is important in the business world, so let me give you my top six. First of all, storytelling is simple. Anybody can do it. You don't need an MBA, you don't need an engineering degree, or a degree in journalism. Anybody can do it. Secondly, storytelling is timeless. It's always worked and it always will. Third, stories are demographic-proof. Stories work with infants and children, they work with grown-ups, they work with new hires, they work with CEOs. Nobody's immune to the power of story.
Fourth, stories are contagious. You tell a great story, and it will travel on it's own. Your policy memo probably won't do that. Fifth, stories make things easier to remember. There's studies that have shown that facts are 20 times more likely to be remembered when they're embedded in a story than when they're just given to people as a list. And you can prove that to yourself right now, as you watch this video. You probably know that you're not going to remember this list of six things by this time tomorrow. And that's okay. I'm not going to be insulted. But you will remember the story of Jayson Zoller and those jury tables.
And you'll remember it next week and next month and next year. That's the power of story. Lastly, stories inspire. Slides don't, right? When's the last time you heard somebody say, "Wow, you'll never believe the PowerPoint presentation "I just saw!" People don't say that, but they do say that about a great story. So I want you to start thinking about, in your day as you're leading and going throughout your workday, where and when can you insert some stories to help you be more effective at work?