“Show, don’t tell.” It’s one of the tropes used by high school English teachers across the country to explain to students that sharing a story full of specifics is more effective than simply stating facts. By the time we get out into the workforce, though, we’ve heard it so much that it doesn’t really mean anything to us anymore. As we work our way up to the top, we forget about the nuances of “showing” and start communicating in facts, numbers, and graphs–things we can grab onto.
Mentors could gain a lot by going back to basics and channeling their inner English teacher. While stating facts is often an effective way to sway someone who is undecided about an issue, it does little to inspire enthusiasm or ignite passion. For a better way to influence others, stay away from facts and stick to storytelling.
Learning from Modern Day Influencers
Some of the most successful influencers in our modern day society are storytellers at heart. Take President Obama, who rose to fame after his keynote at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. How did a relatively unknown Senator rise to stardom overnight? He stood at the podium and told his story–one that resonated with the entire world.
So did Martin Luther King, Jr. So did Nelson Mandela. So did most of our modern day “mentors of the masses.” Recently, TED talks have become known throughout the world for their “ideas worth spreading.” If you pay close attention, you’ll see that most of the talks start out with the speaker’s own story.
From the ancient Greeks to modern day politicians and business, storytelling is the element that makes the difference between connecting with an audience and falling flat. Bringing real life experiences to the table makes interactions believable, memorable, and worthwhile. Facts and statistics can peak our interest, but stories are what move us to action. The technique holds true for personal interactions in any form, from televised speeches to one-on-one conversations.
Stories Help Mentors Become Relatable
The most effective mentors aren’t the ones who are perfect. They’re the ones who are flawed, but who overcame those flaws in order to succeed. They’re the ones who weren’t natural superstars, but who worked hard and showed grit in the face of their troubles. Perfect people aren’t relatable. Vulnerable people are relatable. People who failed are relatable. People who aren’t afraid to stand up and own their weaknesses are relatable.
Everyone who has “made it” started somewhere. We’ve all had low points or setbacks or struggles. Instead of feeling like we should shy away from our personal hardships as mentors, we should instead share those aspects of our stories as widely as possible. A mentor is only credible if he or she can demonstrate that their success can feasibly be achieved by their mentees as well. The more we expose the specific realities of our struggles, the more mentees believe that maybe they, too, can succeed in spite of their challenges.
If This, Then That: The Formula of Effective Storytelling
The stories mentors share shouldn’t just be stories about hardship. They should be stories about triumph, and about what specific actions or qualities brought the protagonist success. The idea is to give mentees a repertoire of effective techniques to meet challenges.
Additionally, not all effective stories have to be about the mentor’s own experiences. Stories about famous historical figures or people personally known to the mentor can be just as useful at imparting lessons and driving home the point that the trouble the mentee is going through is something that others have been able to overcome as well, and to help generate ideas about possible ways to do so. Generic, canned advice will mean more if it is given in context of a time where it worked.
Know Your Audience
A good mentor works with each mentee as an individual, and adjusts their communication method accordingly to reflect how the mentee likes to receive information. Get to know your mentee, get to know how they think, and talk to them in a way that jives with their personality. Know when to tell a story, know when to give hard facts, and perhaps more importantly, know when to just listen. If you play your cards right, perhaps your mentee will provide you with yet another success story to share in the future.