Using Personal Stories to Persuade:
Sappy or Smart?

Just how personal should you be when you craft a story (as a leader or manager) designed to persuade people? I guess it depends on your audience… or does it?

I’ve known keynote speakers who use stories of a parent’s death or illness to make a dramatic point and get their audience emotionally engaged. Sometimes it comes across as sappy and manipulative. However, done well, it can be both touching and effective.

Here’s an example of how screenwriter Robert McKee suggests a CEO pitching investors might use story, from a 2003 Harvard Business Review article,  Storytelling That Moves People. He’s asked, what makes a good story?

You emphatically do not want to tell a beginning-to-end tale describing how results meet expectations. This is boring and banal. Instead, you want to display the struggle between expectation and reality in all its nastiness.

For example, let’s imagine the story of a biotech start-up we’ll call Chemcorp, whose CEO has to persuade some Wall Street bankers to invest in the company. He could tell them that Chemcorp has discovered a chemical compound that prevents heart attacks and offer up a lot of slides showing them the size of the market, the business plan, the organizational chart, and so on. The bankers would nod politely and stifle yawns while thinking of all the other companies better positioned in Chemcorp’s market.

Alternatively, the CEO could turn his pitch into a story, beginning with someone close to him—say, his father—who died of a heart attack. So nature itself is the first antagonist that the CEO-as-protagonist must overcome.

The story might unfold like this: In his grief, he realizes that if there had been some chemical indication of heart disease, his father’s death could have been prevented. His company discovers a protein that’s present in the blood just before heart attacks and develops an easy-to-administer, low-cost test.

But now it faces a new antagonist: the FDA. The approval process is fraught with risks and dangers. The FDA turns down the first application, but new research reveals that the test performs even better than anyone had expected, so the agency approves a second application. Meanwhile, Chemcorp is running out of money, and a key partner drops out and goes off to start his own company. Now Chemcorp is in a fight-to-the-finish patent race.

This accumulation of antagonists creates great suspense. The protagonist has raised the idea in the bankers’ heads that the story might not have a happy ending. By now, he has them on the edges of their seats, and he says, “We won the race, we got the patent, we’re poised to go public and save a quarter-million lives a year.” And the bankers just throw money at him.

In the HBR article, interviewer Bronwyn Fryer asks McKee, “Aren’t you really talking about exaggeration and manipulation?”

No. Although businesspeople are often suspicious of stories for the reasons you suggest, the fact is that statistics are used to tell lies and damn lies, while accounting reports are often BS in a ball gown—witness Enron and WorldCom.

A story can make or break your presentation, depending how sincere and authentic you are. The closer the story is to the reality of the situation at hand, the better. The problem many executives have is in wanting to embellish and tell happily-ever-after tales of glory.

Stories don’t ring true when they are too one-sided. What do you think about this, and what has been your experience in sharing personal stories? Ever had one that back-fired?

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