Storytelling and the Art of Persuasion


August 14, 2007

by Marshall Goldsmith

Robert Dickman is an executive coach who teaches about using stories and narrative strategies as they relate to corporate communication. I do a great deal of coaching myself and I have found his five story elements very useful for understanding why some leaders achieve long-term changes in behavior, while others do not. He and his partner, Richard Maxwell, both of whom have backgrounds in the entertainment business, have just written a book, Elements of Persuasion, that lays out their whole theory in a light, breezy style. I met with them recently. Here is an edited version of our conversation:

In the last few years storytelling has gone from something tolerated around the water cooler to a recognized skill in organizational communication. Why is that? 

There are two things everyone in business does on a daily basis. We sell things – our products, our skills, our vision and ideas – and we all tell stories. We sell things because that is how we, as capitalists, organize our creative energy, and we tell stories because, as human beings, that is how we organize our thinking. It is natural that the business world would seek to combine these two activities to maximize profits.

So what is a story? 

The definition we use with clients is that a story is a fact wrapped in an emotion that compels an action which transforms our world.

That seems simple. 

It has to be simple [if we want] to include the first stories we told as infants. Take “All Gone.” We all told that one. The fact was our bottle was empty. We wrapped that fact in an emotion – either annoyance because we wanted more, or satisfaction because we were full – and expressed it by crying or cooing. This compelled our parents to take an action – either getting another bottle or burping us and settling us down. Either way our world was changed.

So if everyone does it and it is easy enough for a baby to do, why do we need to study it? 

Storytelling is a lot like running. We all know how to do it but only a few of us will break a four-minute mile. What separates the greats from the rest of us is that the greats know how to run from the inside out. They understand how each stride, each muscle in that stride, fits together to achieve the goal. Great storytellers do the same with stories; they tell them from the inside out, understanding how all of the elements in a story fit together for maximum effect.

And that is what you mean by “elements of persuasion?” 

Exactly. With our background in the entertainment industry – where the story is not only how you sell but actually what you sell – we recognized that every successful story has five basic elements:

1. The PASSION with which it is told.

2. A HERO that leads us through the story and allows us to see it through his eyes.

3. An ANTAGONIST or obstacle that needs to be overcome.

4. A moment of AWARENESS that allows the hero, and us, to prevail.

5. And the TRANSFORMATION that naturally results.

If your story has these five elements working together, it will be successful. If it doesn’t, you will have problems.

You have a quote on your book jacket I particularly like by psychologist Howard Gardner, “Every great leader is a great storyteller.” That has certainly been my experience with the CEOs I’ve worked with. Why is that? 

Great CEOs are corporate heroes using story to let us see the world through their eyes. No one does this more effectively than Warren Buffett. There is always a sense of equality we need to share with our heroes. If we are going to see the world through their eyes, we need to recognize some sense of them in ourselves. Buffett goes out of his way to emphasize this equality, calling his investors “partners” – even though legally they aren’t – because that’s how he sees them. They return that feeling of equality with an unparalleled level of trust that gives Buffett the stable pool of capital that allows him to make the long-term, value-based investments that have transformed them all into very rich people.

The annual Berkshire Hathaway stockholders meetings are a good place to see this in real time. When you read the transcripts, one thing you notice is how open Buffett is with his feelings about what he is doing and why. He takes the cold hard facts of his investment strategies, wraps them in his honest emotion, and the resulting story has transformed Berkshire Hathaway into an unstoppable money-making machine.

Effective storytelling is clearly a good communications strategy. What are a couple of common mistakes people make trying to use it? 

The Facts and Nothing But the Facts: A common mistake is that in the pressure of the moment the presenter forgets that stories involve emotions and tries to persuade us with facts alone. This unfortunate phenomenon is sometimes called “Death by PowerPoint.” This is the often the result of a fear-reaction in the presenter.

But there are simple techniques – many of which we have in the book – that will allow you not to conquer your fear, but to use it as a positive force. The key is to ground your presentation in a well-constructed story, one that contains all of the elements. Once panic is out of the way, the subtler emotions that actually make your presentation memorable will naturally show through.

Making the Story Only About You: This is a problem that often happens with corporate leaders who are powerful thinkers. They simply assume that everyone else in the room sees the world the same way they do. Quite often everyone would, if the leader took the time to invite them to see it through his or her eyes – to actually become a hero. A big key to doing this is learning how to listen to the stories of others. There are a number of techniques that can help here, like those pioneered by Carl Rogers as – Active Listening. – These techniques are also great for team-building.

In Elements of Persuasion you end each chapter with simple exercises the reader can do at home or in the office. I like them. And I like the theory. But not to be too crass and commercial, what is in it for the average corporate reader? 

We come out of Hollywood. We love crass and commercial. But not everyone wants to be a CEO or to work for a high-end design shop. But all people do want control over their own ideas and their working environment. Ultimately that is what knowing and using the elements of persuasion will give you.