Full text of leadership consultant Karen Eber’s talk: Why Storytelling is More Trustworthy Than Presenting at TEDxPurdeuU conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here:
Karen Eber – Leadership consultant
Maria walked into the elevator at work. She went to press the button when her phone fell out of her hand. It bounced on the floor and went straight down that little opening between the elevator and the floor. And she realized it wasn’t just her phone. It was a phone wallet that had her driver’s license, her credit card, her whole life.
She went to the front desk to talk to Ray, the security guard. Ray was really happy to see her. Maria is one of the few people that actually stops and says hello to him each day. In fact, she’s one of these people that knows your birthday and your favourite food and your last vacation. Not because she’s weird. She just genuinely likes people and likes him to feel seen.
She tells Ray what happened. And he said it’s going to cost at least $500 to get her phone back. And he goes to get a quote while she goes back to her desk.
20 minutes later, he calls her and he says “Maria, I was looking at the inspection certificate elevator. It’s actually due for its annual inspection next month. I’m going to go ahead and call that in today and won’t be able to get your phone back and it won’t cost you anything.”
The same day this happened, I read an article about the CEO of Charles Schwab, Walter Bettinger. He’s describing his straight A career at university going into his last exam expecting to ace it when the professor gives one question: what is the name of the person that cleans this room? And he failed the exam.
He had seen her but he had never met her before. Her name was Dottie and he made a vow that day to always know the Dotties in his life. Because both Walter and Maria understand this power of helping people feel seen, especially as a leader.
I used that story back when I worked at General Electric, I was responsible for shaping culture and a business of 90,000 employees in 150 countries. And I found that stories were such a great way to connect with people and have them think, what would I do in this situation? Would I have known Dottie or who are the Dotties I need to know in my life.
I found that no matter people’s gender, or their generation, or their geography in the world, the stories resonated and worked. But in my work with leaders, I’ve also found they tend to be allergic to telling stories, they’re not sure where to find them, or they’re not sure how to tell them, or they think they have to present data and that there’s just not room to tell story.
And that’s where I want to focus today. Because storytelling and data is actually not this either, or it’s an end, they actually create this power ballad that connects you to information differently.
To understand how, we have to first understand what happens neurologically when you’re listening to a story and data.
So, as you’re in a lecture, or you’re in a meeting, two small parts of your brain are activated. We’re in again, Broca’s area. This is where you’re processing information and it’s also why you tend to forget 50% of it right after you hear it.
When you listen to a story, your entire brain starts to light up. Each of your lobes will light up as your senses and your emotions are engaged. As I talk about a phone falling and hitting the ground with a thud, your occipital and your temporal lobes are lighting up as though you were actually seeing that fall phone and hearing it hit with a thud.
There’s this term neural coupling, which says as the listener, your brain will light up exactly as mine as a storyteller. It mirrors this activity as though you are actually experiencing these things. Storytelling gives you this artificial reality.
If I talk to you about like walking through the snow, and with each step, the snow is crunching under my shoes, and big wet flakes are falling on my cheeks. Your brains are now lighting up as though you are walking through the snow and experiencing these things. It’s why you can sit in an action movie and not be moving but your heart is racing as though you are the star on screen. Because this neural coupling has your brain lighting up as though you were having that activity.
As you listen to stories, you automatically gain empathy for the storyteller. The more empathy you experience, the more oxytocin is released in your brain. Oxytocin is the feel-good chemical, and the more oxytocin you have, the more trustworthy you actually view the speaker. This is why storytelling is such a critical skill for a leader because this very act of telling a story makes people trust you more.