What would Mrs. Ardi do?
There was once a manager who needed a new receptionist. So he hired a fresh employee to join their company. On her first day, the receptionist was nervous. She didn’t know the system or routine of the office, which was now under her administrative control. The manager noticed her polite shyness as she sat uncertainly behind the desk in the lobby. He sat beside her and took a refreshing approach to her training.
Instead of overloading the new employee with information, the manager told her a story. The story was about Mrs. Ardi, the best receptionist he’d ever known. Mrs. Ardi was from Bangladesh. She worked hard and stayed calm. He told her how Mrs. Ardi could simultaneously calm an angry customer, locate their CEO, and welcome the UPS man with a smile. Instead of telling her how to hold calls, transfer lines, and use the controls, he told her how Mrs. Ardi would manage the reception.
The manager represented the skills he wanted the receptionist to display through a story, using Mrs. Ardi as his main character. Practicalities and technicalities could be learned through experience rather than command. He knew that if the receptionist followed the advice of his story and the behavior of his main character, the rest would slip into place.
He wanted the receptionist to ask herself a single question in times of stress. That question wasn’t, “Where is the hold button?”. Nor was it, “How do I transfer the call?”.
It was, “What would Mrs. Ardi do?”
A few days later, the manager walked past the new receptionist in the lobby. She gave him a warm smile, with her phone tucked between her ear and shoulder, while signing a smooth signature for the UPS man. She was calm, friendly, and confident. A model receptionist. The image of Mrs. Ardi.
Perhaps, thought the manager as he stepped outside, she was even better.
Why are stories a powerful learning tool?
Stories are everywhere
The manager in this story (based on an example from Annette Simmons’ The Story Factor) is a good manager (Simmons, 2006). He realizes that stories are a powerful learning tool. Far more powerful than the relaying of information. Not only does he realize the power of stories, he applies that knowledge to the workplace. And the results are similarly powerful. The receptionist learns from the character of Mrs. Ardi and learns how to do her job through the story.
We have been learning all our lives through stories. Morality is taught through parables and children’s fables. History is taught through memorials and recollections. Life lessons are taught through plays, films, TV shows, and books. Stories surround us every day. They are in advertising and social media, and in our anecdotes from the weekend. And we are constantly learning from them, about how we want to live and who we want to be.
Beyond our own lifetimes, humans have been learning through stories for centuries. Even before the written word, oral tales helped communities survive and thrive. In her study for the New York Times, Nayomi Chibana showed that many centuries-old storytelling techniques are still applied today. And not only by novelists but by business leaders, presenters, journalists, marketers, as well as many others (Chibana).
Stories are how we organize life events in our minds into narratives that encourage growth through experience. So if stories are everywhere, in every culture and every generation, then they can be used as a learning tool throughout the world and into the future.
Stories send a message
Stories are powerful not just because they are entertaining but because they teach us something. We can use stories to draw in listeners and invite them to hear a specific message. In this narrative style, people learn from the experience of a character as though it was their own. They find a clear point in a creative and artistic form.
And although stories have their own point to make, the reader is free to take as many lessons from the story as they like. The listener also has agency over your story. They have the power to interpret and learn from it in their own way. Even though you might have told a story, it has a life of its own. There are certainly techniques we can use to design a story around a central, core message we want to spread. But a story is its own unstoppable force.
Stories are memorable
Many stories stick with us our entire lives. The specific form of the narrative tunes into the metaphorical way we perceive the world. That makes them memorable. Stories not only send a message, but they make it difficult to forget that message. Through such techniques as good timing, well-formed characters, and reprise, you can create a story that will stick with others forever.
“Storytelling is an integrative process...Research shows that we remember details of things much more effectively when they are embedded in a story. Telling and being moved to action by them is in our DNA.” - Daniel Siegel (Guber, 2011)
A lesson you carry through life might have been learned decades ago from a children’s story. You don’t just learn from a story. You remember what you learned.
Stories are meaningful
It is important to communicate as a leader. Just like the manager in the story, we should communicate in a way that resonates with a deeper identifying part of our listeners. Stories touch who we are as people. In the story, the receptionist can identify with Mrs. Ardi. She sees herself in the same role facing the same challenges. And that gives the story meaning – it holds significance within her own life.
The receptionist learns from the story because it means something. It is significant and important in some specific way. The receptionist can internalize the story and let it become part of her behavior, habits, and even herself. And that’s the most powerful way to learn possible.
John Kotter talks more about the power of stories in leadership in this Forbes article (Kotter, 2011). Check it out. Once we recognize the power of stories as a learning tool then we, like the manager, can utilize it. And, like the receptionist, we can continue to learn ourselves through the stories of others.
Chibana, N. (n.d). 7 Storytelling Techniques Used by the Most Inspiring TED Presenters [online] Visme. Available at: https://visme.co/blog/7-storytelling-techniques-used-by-the-most-inspiring-ted-presenters [Accessed 18 August 2019].
Guber, P. (2011). The Inside Story [online] Psychology Today. Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/articles/201103/the-inside-story?collection=67103 [Accessed 20 August 2019].
Kotter, J. (2011). Why Stories Are Powerful Leadership Tools [online] Forbes. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/johnkotter/2011/08/02/why-stories-are-powerful-leadership-tools/#7b1dd5ed3a0c. [Accessed 18 August 2019].