In the WorkWell Podcast, by Deloitte, Jen Fisher — Human Sustainability Leader at Deloitte and Editor-at-Large, Human Sustainability at Thrive Global — sits down with inspiring individuals for wide-ranging conversations about how we can develop a way of living and working built on human sustainability, starting with ourselves.
This week, Karen Eber, Chief Storyteller of Eber Leadership Group and author of The Perfect Story: How to Tell Stories that Inform, Influence, and Inspire, explains how telling stories effectively helps us communicate, connect, and foster empathy — at work and in every part of life.
On her passion for stories and becoming a great storyteller:
“There was a moment earlier in my life that showed me how impactful stories could be. I have two different-colored eyes, a brown eye and a green eye. And whenever I was in a conversation with someone, their eyes would bat back and forth between mine. They’d say something like, ‘Did you know you have two different colored eyes?’ Because it happened so much, I decided I’d tell a story. I started describing how as kids, we all have a box of crayons. Some are perfect, some are broken. I said one day I was in my room coloring and I was hungry. I took a nibble of a crayon and it tasted pretty good. So I ate all the green crayons, and the next day I woke up and one eye was green! People would look at me unsure as to whether I was making it up, and they’d start laughing. And I’d admit that of course it was a fake story. Then we would have a different conversation and a moment of connection. 30 years later, people would say to me, “Every time I see crayons, I think of you.” And I realized you can use a story to shift energy, and to create a connection, and to change an awkward moment.”
On the science behind storytelling’s unique power:
“When I got into my career, I would tell stories. It was something I practiced and cultivated and found that people were really responding to. And there are layers of science involved. We’ve got this walnut size space on the side of our head, in the frontal cortex, called Broca’s area, where words turn into meaning when we’re listening to someone speak, or go through data — that’s how we comprehend them. But if I talk about how I was on the beach and the warm sand was pushing through my toes, and I felt the salt on my lips, your brain lights up. When you tell a story, you’re using more real estate in the brain than just communicating. And when someone is telling a story about an event in their life, you feel a little closer to them. You feel empathy. That empathy creates a release of oxytocin. You undergo a chemical shift and feel more trust toward them.”
On the impact of a story on decision making:
“We love to think that we make rationally based decisions, but our decisions are made emotionally. We take in information through our senses and they get stamped with emotion and then get stored with long-term memory. And so when you’re telling a story, you’re helping create those memories, but you’re also helping create connections to them. And that impacts our decisions and choices. That’s why we may be buying a car because we love the color, but we’re rationalizing it because of the gas mileage. We’re not making decisions based on logic alone.”
On how to tell a good story:
“It’s not enough to tell a story; the way you tell it makes a difference. Our brain is going to respond to information differently than stories. We’ve all sat in enough meetings that have been boring, with terrible stories. If it isn’t compelling and engaging, with specific details, the brain is going to disappear and take a break. When there is something unexpected and attention grabbing, your brain goes, ‘We better pay attention here.’ So the opening story, for example, in my TED talk was about a woman who drops a phone down an elevator shaft. I talk about it hitting the floor in the basement, and hearing a thud. Specific details like that put the person next to you, picturing what’s happening in the story. Your goal is to get the brain engaged so they feel like they are a part of that story.”
To hear more from Jen and Karen, listen to this full episode of WorkWell here, available wherever you get your podcasts. Visit the WorkWell library for the full collection of episodes.