Coaching Change: Use Negative Stories in a Good Way

Social scientists have shown us that negative messages are what gets people’s attention. Bad is stronger than good, when it comes to getting people to listen.

But without being a fear-monger or doomsayer, how can we effectively use negativity to encourage change?

I’m a big believer in the power of stories for getting people to want to change. Whenever I’m delivering a keynote, or just coaching groups, I find I get people’s interests when I’m telling stories.

Here are a couple of suggestions that combine the power of negativity with stories, without being too gloomy.

  1. Tell a story about the audience’s problems (“These problems are serious…”)
  2. Talk about the likely trajectory of the problem (“These problems are getting worse, and here’s what’s likely to happen if this continues…
  3. Sometimes I’ll share a story about a challenge that I had that is similar
  4. I’ll also bring up a surprising question or a variation of the problem in an area of interest to the audience

If I’m new to the audience, it’s really important to gain their trust. There’s no better way to do that than by telling them about a personal story they can relate to. It’s important, however, that I don’t get too deep into my own story, that I continually tie it back to their situation.

It’s not about me, it’s about them. But if I can’t gain their trust, then they aren’t going to buy into what I have to suggest. I know that negativity sparks interest and grabs attention. But I also don’t want to come across as a bearer of bad news.

Besides, negativity doesn’t get people pumped up for change. How could it? Negativity is good at triggering the reptilian brain, getting people to pay attention, but it also creates fear and anxiety.

I want people enthusiastic, not fearful. To create a desire for change, I use positive stories.

However, the traditional approach in most business presentations favors setting the stage with a comprehensive set of reasons for change. Graphs, charts, slides to show the options, the projected figures, etc.

My feeling is that once people are paying attention, they need to be able to visualize a better future, before they are tasked with analyzing the data.

Unless people are stimulated emotionally to desire that ideal solution, they won’t care much about your charts. They won’t be as enthusiastic about implementing change and getting into action.

Positive stories provide an emotional connection. They get the audience thinking about possibilities, and the role they might be able to play. It primes the pump for your solutions.

It’s key, because without emotional connection, nothing happens. If people don’t desire a better future, if they can’t see themselves as part of the possibilities, they won’t buy into your solutions.

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