Tell me a story.” That is one of the first sentences I can remember saying. And I said it a lot—especially to my mother.
I grew up in an oral culture. Stories were the way in which my family conveyed life’s important lessons. Later I was educated into a literate culture, but stories continue to play a crucial role in the way I make sense of the world. Like me, many people find it easier to communicate their ideas, insights, and beliefs narratively rather than through facts and figures. At some level, many of us are saying, “Tell me a story.”
Congregational leaders also are thinking anew about how to engage narrative in creative and effective ways that move beyond how stories might have been used in the past. These leaders are finding ways to use stories that make sense of a changing environment, reshape congregational culture, or imagine a preferred future.
The use of narrative is different in congregations than in other organizations. In a congregation, there is not a single story that can be supplied or adapted by the leader. Instead, there are multiple stories that need to dance together. A congregational leader becomes the choreographer for the emerging dance between the individual stories of members, the overarching biblical or faith story, and the collective congregational story.
Despite this difference, I believe congregational leaders can find valuable resources from the business world concerning the use of narrative. In what follows, I describe four of the books I have found most helpful, along with a lesson from each that might help congregational leaders in their own settings.
The Story Factor: Inspiration, Influence, and Persuasion through the Art of Storytelling1
Annette Simmons explores the power of story to influence others by stimulating readers to imagine how they might use stories that communicate who they are and what their goals are in ways that touch the hearts of others.
“The magic of influence,” Simmons argues, “is less in what we say and more in how we say it and who we are…. Influence results from how others feel about you and your goals.” Even more importantly, Simmons contends that story works in a way that facts cannot to inspire and sustain faith as people come to believe for themselves the message they hear. “People value their own conclusions more highly than yours,” she explains. “They will only have faith in a story that has become real for them personally. Once people make your story, their story, you have tapped into the powerful force of faith.”
Simmons identifies six types of stories leaders need to learn to tell if they want to influence others:
- “Who I Am” StoriesBefore you can influence anyone, you must establish a level of trust with your listeners. People want to know who you are. Simmons encourages the use of a story that helps listeners “see who you want them to see about you.” That story may be a personal story, a fable, a historical story, a parable, or a current event story that reveals something about who you are.
- “Why I Am Here” Stories
Establishing trust also involves providing listeners with a plausible explanation of your goals and motivation. In almost any situation, listeners want to know what is in it for you before they will believe what you claim is in it for them. A story that honestly communicates your goals will contribute to your credibility.
- “The Vision” Story
If you are to influence people, you must be able to paint a picture that will help them see where you want to go. This type of story must be authentic and must connect with and move listeners. In addition, it must identify the courage that will be needed to accomplish the vision and it must weave “all the pieces together—particularly the struggles and frustrations—so that they make sense.”
- “Teaching” Stories
Story can communicate both what you want someone else to do and how you want it done. A good teaching story also helps others understand why you are asking them to learn something new and helps them make sense of that new skill in a meaningful way.
- “Values-in-Action” Stories
While the best way to teach a value is “by example,” telling a story that provides an example also can be effective. Such a story allows you to share the values you hold important in a way that encourages people to think about those values for themselves.
- “I Know What You Are Thinking” Stories
Telling this type of story requires understanding your listeners’ perspective and identifying their possible questions, objections, and concerns. These stories can help listeners feel you understand them, as well as dispel their fears.
Wake Me Up When the Data Is Over: How Organizations Use Stories to Drive Results2
To determine how organizations are using story to drive results, Lori Silverman conducted interviews with 171 people from more than 80 nonprofit, for-profit, and governmental organizations around the world. The result is an edited volume that Silverman designed to increase the visibility and influence of the “story work” that is taking place in organizations globally, through a variety of business disciplines. This book pays special attention to the practical application of story in such areas as marketing, finance, customer service, and project management. It also addresses how organizations use story to bring about organizational change, build teams, and deal with difficult issues.
One of the book’s strengths is its exploration of the strategic use of stories. In a chapter on using stories during difficult times, Michael J. Margolis offers suggestions that congregational leaders could adapt. When people in an organization believe “the sky is falling,” for example, an effective leader needs to offer a new story to orient and guide people. Margolis offers the following approaches for leaders in such difficult times:
- Share stories that invite people to connect with you personally and that help them locate themselves within the organization.
- Encourage people within the organization to tell stories, and then listen for how those stories reflect people’s fears, hopes, losses, and motivations.
- Tell stories that remind people what matters most and that help determine what should be preserved during a time of change.
- Identify stories that help inspire and guide the organization forward and “strengthen the bonds between memory, dreams, and reality.”
- Tell stories that show how the organization’s core values and guiding principles look in real life.
- Identify stories that should be institutionalized as part of the organization’s culture.
Corporate Legends and Lore: The Power of Storytelling as a Management Tool3
Peg Neuhauser’s interest in how storytelling has worked over the centuries as a way of connecting the past, present, and future of a tribe or community led her to explore how narrative can impact organizations today. “Without stories, it has always been difficult for people to know who they are or where they fit into a complex world around them,” she explains. “Many modern organizations have forgotten this old truth.”
Neuhauser explores how storytelling can enhance the effectiveness of a leader and help connect individuals, such as customers, to an organization. She offers insightful ideas about the role that storytelling can play in managing change, including how it can help create adaptive organizat
Neuhauser’s ideas about the positive stories that can be told in an organization may be especially helpful to congregational leaders. She defines a positive story as one whose telling leaves people or the organization “better off.” For example, because of the story, the listeners learn something, feel proud, or experience a lowering of tension. She identifies six categories of positive stories:
- Hero StoriesThese stories—which tell about individuals who acted from the heart and reached beyond moral achievements and experience—can foster positive change and promote morale.
- Survivor StoriesThese “everything went wrong . . . and we fixed it” stories can help listeners understand how they and others can survive against all odds.
- Steam Valve StoriesThe key ingredients to these stories seem to be “humor, high drama, and an irreverent tone.” They can help people reduce stress and tension, as well as develop a sense of camaraderie and group loyalty.
- “Aren’t We Great?” Stories
These stories are filled with pride, enthusiasm, and sometimes exaggeration. They play a role similar to survivor stories, but they go straight to acknowledging the group’s strengths and successes.
- “We Know the Ropes Around Here” StoriesThese are stories about individuals or teams in the organization who are known for extraordinary accomplishments. The main characters of these stories tend to combine high levels of technical job skill with a high degree of organizational political savvy.
- “Kick in the Pants” Stories
These stories tell about dangers, mistakes, or shortsightedness. While they may seem negative, these stories can have the positive outcome of waking people up and getting them to change their current behavior before it is too late.
The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling: Mastering the Art and Discipline of Business Narrative4
Stephen Denning has worked in the field of narrative for a number of years, and he believes storytelling is a discipline that is crucial for leaders. In this book, he shares how leaders can use storytelling to deal with the most difficult challenges they face today.
Denning identifies eight “narrative patterns,” or ways that stories can be used: to motivate others to action, to build trust in the leader, to build trust in the organization, to transmit values, to get others to work together, to share knowledge, to neutralize gossip and rumor, and to create and share a vision. The author also considers how the use of narrative can transform an organization—leading it to be more innovative—and create leaders who are interactive and, therefore, more effective.
Among the lessons available to congregational leaders are Denning’s ideas about using narrative to lead people into the future:
- Consider whether you can shorten the length of the chain between the current situation and the future your story imagines. The longer the chain, the more difficult it will be for people to find your story credible.
- Tell a story from the past to help people begin to imagine how the future might look if they implemented the change idea embodied in that story.
- Use evocative language to capture your listeners’ attention and help engage their imagination about how the future might look.
- Avoid clichés.
- Keep the story simple so that your listeners can comprehend and remember it.
- Make the story positive in tone.
- Help your listeners make a connection between their current situation or worldview and the future you describe in your story.
As we pastors and lay leaders reflect on the congregations we lead, perhaps the lessons from these resources will help us identify how we can more effectively use narrative. Although we need to adapt these resources to our congregational settings, they still can inspire and equip us to tell the stories that we and our congregations most need to hear—stories that will help our congregations make sense of the changing world, move into a faithful future, and help build our congregations into strong communities of faith.
And as we expand our use of narrative, we will be able to respond in meaningful ways to the deeply human request to “tell me a story.”
1. Annette Simmons, The Story Factor: Inspiration, Influence, and Persuasion through the Art of Storytelling (New York: Basic Books, 2001).
2. Lori Silverman, Wake Me Up When the Data Is Over: How Organizations Use Stories to Drive Results (San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2006).
3. Peg. C. Neuhauser, Corporate Legends & Lore: The Power of Storytelling as a Management Tool (Austin, TX: PCN Associates, 1993).
4. Stephen Denning, The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling: Mastering the Art and Discipline of Business Narrative (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005).