Those who do not have power over the story that dominates their lives, the power to retell it, rethink it, deconstruct it, joke about it, and change it as times change, truly are powerless, because they cannot think new thoughts. —Salman Rushdie

Stories are the creative conversion of life itself into a more powerful, clearer, more meaningful experience. They are the currency of human contact. — Robert McKee

When it comes to communication, the story is everything. Whether it’s selling, leading, managing, teaching or preaching, the power of story is the power of change. I would like to tell you one of my all-time favorite stories, a story that represents a change in my perceptions and, therefore, my reality.
In 1996, quite by accident, when I was 51, I found out that my father had adopted me when I was three years old. That discovery turned my world upside down.
My younger brother, Dave, and his two grown sons were helping my parents move out of our family home in Illinois. My nephews were carrying a chest of drawers down the front porch steps when they lost their grip and a drawer slid out.
Under an old, tattered piece of cardboard was a photo of my mother in what looked like a wedding ceremony with a stranger. Thinking that it was some kind of a Halloween prank, they took the picture back in the house and placed it on a chair. Passing by the chair, Dave picked it up, examined the photo and immediately sought out my father, a calm and peaceful soul. Holding out the photo, Dave demanded, “What does this mean?”
With a glance, my father nonchalantly replied, “I adopted James when he was three years old.” Bordering on hysteria, my brother continued, “Does he know?”
“No,” my father replied. “Neither of you were ever supposed to know.”
“Well, you have to tell him,” Dave shot back.”
“I don’t want to tell him; you tell him,” retorted my father. So they worked out a plan. I would be doing a lecture in Milwaukee and they would meet me at the hotel for dinner.
Over dinner, we caught up and shared our most recent happenings. It was a delight to be with them. Then we went up to my suite. As I sat in a large, overstuffed chair, my father and brother stood. They were staring at me in an odd way. It was a strange moment. My brother suddenly announced, “There are skeletons in our closet!”
Knowing my brother’s extraordinary sense of humor and seeking a punch line, I asked, “How many?”
“Just one,” he replied.
There was an awkward silence as I looked from one to the other with what must have been utter stupefaction. Suddenly, my father, who is terribly uncomfortable with intimacy, quietly declared, “I adopted you when you were three years old.”
What a bizarre moment. It didn’t register; it did register. My mind became a 20-ring circus. I felt my reality tilt. A wave of conflicting emotions churned through me. It was then that my father, a man of few words, did something he has never done before. He lovingly put his hand on my shoulder, looked me in the eyes and said, “I hope this doesn’t change anything between us.” That was the closest he had ever come to saying, “I love you.” And – that’s exactly what I heard.
It was in that millisecond that I realized I had two choices. One was to be angry and resentful; the other to feel honored and loved. I felt tears well up. It was in that moment that I chose to forgive – instantly. Since then, our relationship has soared. The lie and an unspoken barrier no longer existed between us.
I’ve never forgotten that moment or the lesson of love and forgiveness. That awareness has affected me in the most positive way – in all aspects of my life.
Consider this: if I wanted to teach a lesson about love and forgiveness, what would create a more powerful result – relating this story or simply saying to someone, “Holding on to resentment and anger is harmful and will only hurt you.”?
There is no contest. It’s the story that makes the difference. Stories captivate. Metaphor illuminates. Stories with lessons shift our thinking because they draw upon the power of the imagination.
This tale happens to be about love and forgiveness. But there are limitless stories that can illuminate and teach in every area of life – personal and business.
You, as a parent, friend, lover, spouse, business person, community organizer have limitless opportunities to tell a story. In fact, your success in life both personally and professionaly – mentally, spiritually, emotionally or socially – depends on the power of the story you tell to move others. Think about all the stories you tell throughout the day. You tell and hear stories of complaint, success, horror or healing all the time. Those stories influence others as stories influence you. Stories that are vivid in detail and charged with emotion have the ability to impact and influence.
Why are emotional based stories so powerful? As I present in my program – IMAGINE THAT! – stories are impactful because you and I think in pictures and images, because the subconscious mind cannot tell the difference between a real or imagined experience and because it is in our DNA to have empathy and respond to emotion.
The more rounded and full a story, the more impact it has. Human beings have been communicating with each other through storytelling since we lived in caves and sat around campfires exchanging tales. Stories help us make sense of a world that often defies logic. Stories move us to action.
There are long stories like those that propel movies, documentaries and novels. They not only entertain but also provide insight and teach valuable lessons. That can help us lead a more vibrant, engaging, fun and productive life.
There are television series designed to divert and entertain, channels like Nature, Nova and PBS which educate. There are news broadcasts that are an accumulation of quick stories, hopefully to inform.
Then there are the stories called ‘parables.’ A parable is a short, fictitious narrative about something which might really occur in life – from which a moral is drawn. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to turn Dr. Spencer Johnson’s “Peak and Valleys” parable into a live presentation which both entertained and taught how to ride the “ups and downs” of life. There are Aesop’s Fables and the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales. The Bible is chock full of parables that teach lessons.
Think about the stories you tell every day and the impact they have on others. When you complain, gossip or talk negatively about yourself or others, you are affecting other people’s perceptions in a way that you may not want to. When you tell stories that are positive and moving, you shape other’s perceptions in a meaningful way. You can make a difference by the way you tell stories. Two books I recommend are: “The Power of Personal Storytelling” by Jack Maguire and “The Power of Story: Rewrite Your Destiny in Business and in Life” by Jim Loehr.
The inherent value in storytelling is currently being rediscovered because of new studies of the brain. Brain science shows that without a doubt the stories we tell ourselves and others have a powerful impact on our perceptions and the choices we make. The power of story can create change for the better. I feel it will be a key ingredient in education, training, selling, innovation and managing communication.
If you want to move others to action and/or teach a lesson, help others shift their thinking and gain insight, take the time to craft your story.
Here are six tips to help you become a good storyteller:
1) Study stories and how they work.
2) Choose the lesson you want to teach or be clear on the point you want to make.
3) Create or find a story that clearly makes the point.
4) Write your story out to help you clarify it.
5) Be sure your story is rich in color and detail and is charged with emotion.
6) Craft your story so it appeals to the heart as well as the intellect.
In a world of quick sound bites and MTV-thinking, there is still no faster or effective way to make a major difference in your communication than by telling a good story. If you want to live an exceptional life, learn to become an exceptional storyteller.