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Stories vs. Data: Which One is More Effective?by zengerfolkman June 9, 2011

One important job we have as leaders is to persuade others to take action.  That’s not always an easy task, since those actions can often be difficult, challenging, and uncomfortable.  I recall being a newly commissioned, 22-year old lieutenant in my initial Army troop assignment.  It was my job to lead soldiers who, in some cases, had been in the Army since I was in elementary school.   Sometimes that job meant assigning them unwelcome tasks and duties.  I continue to be thankful for the more experienced First Sergeants who helped provide some of the “persuasion” that was required.

In our leadership communications (especially when there’s no First Sergeant around), we’re easily tempted to persuade others solely by relying on financial and operational data, statistics, and other quantitative evidence.  In PowerPoint presentations, large group speeches, emails, and informal team talks leaders often pull out “The Data” as their trump card.  MBA’s in particular receive extensive training on the use of data analysis to persuade others in their presentations (I’m guilty).

Compelling data can be an important part of how we influence those we lead.  But we have another powerful communication weapon in our arsenal that’s typically underutilized: the liberal use of stories.   Employing stories can be equally powerful ammunition, and is often a superior approach when we’re enlisting others to act.  In my experience, memorable stories are underemployed weapons in leadership communications.

There is an impressive body of research that helps us understand why embedding stories can have such an impact.   In their article, Teaching Management by Telling Stories (Academy of Educational Leadership Journal, January, 2010), authors James Harbin and Patricia Humphrey shared some interesting research summaries relating to the power of storytelling.  Each helps explain why stories can be so effective:

Kouzes and Posner (2002) found that storytelling results in the listener being more engaged; their attention and interest are fostered. Borgida and Nisbett (1977), Zembe (1990), Wilkens (1983), and Conger (1991) all found that information is more quickly and accurately remembered when it is first presented in the form of an example or story; particularly one that is intrinsically appealing.

Martin and Power's (1982) study compared the effectiveness of four different methods to persuade a group of M.B.A. students of an unlikely hypothesis, namely, that a company really practiced a policy of avoiding layoffs. In one method, there was just a story. In the second, the researchers provided statistical data. In the third, they used statistical data and a story. In the fourth, they offered the policy statement made by a senior company executive. The most effective method of all turned out to be the first alternative, presenting the story alone.

Stephen Denning, author of The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling, writes that “studies in social psychology show that information is more quickly and accurately remembered when it is first presented in the form and an example or story.”  In fact, Denning makes the interesting observation that not only is storytelling often a more effective way of communicating, but “its incremental cost is zero, or close to zero, and so its ROI is massive.”

We MBA’s love that bottom line!

In quoting several other researchers on why stories can be so powerful, Deming writes,

“. . . stories excite the imagination of the listener and create consecutive states of tension (puzzlement and recoil) and tension release (insight and resolution).  Thus the listener is not a passive receiver of information but is triggered into a state of active thinking (Strawson, 2004).  The listener must consider the meaning of the story and try to make sense of it.  By this process, the listener is engaged; attention and interest are fostered (Charon, 2004).”

I was in a class recently where a teaching friend quoted several lines from Tennyson’s famous poem, In Memoriam.  He used the verses to illustrate the powerful role stories can play to help others understand key messages.  Tennyson’s lines remind us that using direct, factual communication approaches can sometimes fail. Key truths may be better understood and remembered by all when embodied in a tale (story):

"Where truth in closest words shall fail,

When truth embodied in a tale,

Shall enter in at lowly doors."

Most of us have experienced what Tennyson describes.  We’ve seen the triumph of stories over data when inspiring leaders have captured our hearts and imaginations, and initiated our action.  I hope these few thoughts help remind you to employ more stories in your communications as a powerful way to influence and persuade those you lead.  Then again, I guess you could always hire a good First Sergeant.

Bob Sherwin- Chief Operating Officer


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