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If you do not adapt, if you do not learn, you will wither, you will die.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

A Case Against Plain Words

Charalambos Vlachoutsicos, former businessman and consultant and presently Adjunct Professor at Athens University of Economics and Business in Greece, in a recent Harvard Business Review post:

“Managers spend most of their time talking. Like wrenches for the plumber, words are our most frequently used tools of communication. But words don't always do the job. In fact, they can do the opposite of what we intended: without our intending it, they can antagonize, inhibit, insult or threaten. Words carry risks we cannot assess accurately because we do not know what meaning they happen to have for the person we address. Many a deal has been derailed because of something that was said.”

Vlachoutsicos goes on to make a case for what to do when facing stalled negotiations or other impasses in communication. He advices you to break with the present situation or mood (and thus break with the most used form of communication: plain talking), either by moving from sitting opposite of each other to next to each other, from changing rooms, to tearing up a document and starting anew with a blank piece of paper. As a business coach, I have taken coaching clients, especially males, on nature walks, where they do not have to constantly look me in the eyes and fidget their nervousness away, where physical activity releases tensions, where the smells and sounds of nature increase their creative thinking and problem solving. It works well for some customers.

If you’re not into walking or not in a position to take your audience to the woods, I can add another tool for conveying your message, engaging your audience, convincing your listeners, and enthusing your people: Using words and data in a different, more creative, and much more engaging way – through story telling.

People may hear and understand details, instructions, facts, and statistics but they listen to and remember stories. Think of that book that you couldn’t put down or that movie that struck you and wouldn’t let you go. There's no doubt that stories can change the way you think, act, and feel because stories capture the imagination, hold interest, and instill images in people’s minds which increases focus and retention. Stories create emotions, which increase attractiveness and retention, and they help people connect the topic to their own lives and stories.

You can use stories to communicate your business model, to discuss your leadership thoughts, to dive deeper into customer service concerns or to inspire perseverance, like Shackleton’s 1914 expedition to the Antarctic. Storytelling is a powerful way to engage team members and customers alike.

I recently had the pleasure of attending a workshop by Diane Windingland on storytelling in a business setting. A highly interactive, practical, and inspiring workshop thanks to the engaging and knowledgeable facilitation of Diane.

The first time I was introduced to the power of storytelling in business settings was in the mid nineties and I left it underused for almost two decades. Not anymore. I recently enjoyed introducing my business to a networking group by starting out with two brief stories just like I did when receiving an award from a non-profit that I donate my time and expertise to. In both situations, using different stories, my listeners indulged me with enthusiastic feedback about how my stories stuck with them, and how they could now visualize what it is that I do, and especially how I work in coaching and workshops – how I bring about change and growth.

I’m happy I told my deceased aunt how much I always loved her stories after returning from her many travels to distant places. She’d pull up a chair, have my siblings and me sit close to her, and start talking about the people, the colors, and the customs. I vividly remember my anxiousness, my excitement, my awe, every time again. I regret she never knew that I started making up stories about a Big Yellow Kangaroo for our children whenever they were in dire need of some distraction on long road trips. These stories turned into books that were never written but that were devoured. These stories made it from the car, to the house, to the dinner table, to anywhere where mom was willing to use her imagination some more. In honor of my aunt, I’ll continue my storytelling, in private life and in business settings.

If you want to dive deeper into the power of storytelling, below are just three of many resources you can benefit from:


1.   Story Proof – The Science Behind the Startling Power of Story by Kendall F Haven, 2007

2.   Resonate – Present Visual Stories that Translate Audiences by Nancy Duarte, 2010

3.   Duarte’s TEDx presentationThe Secret Structure of Great Talks http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/nancy_duarte_the_secret_structure_of_great_talks.html

John Kotter, Harvard Business School Professor and author says it best:

“Over the years I have become convinced that we learn best – and change – from hearing stories that strike a chord within us … Those in leadership positions who fail to grasp or use the power of stories risk failure for their companies and for themselves.”

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