Why Stories Matter and How They Work
Scott Whitehair didn’t plan to make a business of storytelling—it was 2013, and Whitehair loved stories so much that he ran events where his friends and neighbors could spin yarns in front of an intimate crowd—but one day, Whitehair’s phone rang.
“We found you through your website,” a nonprofit executive said to Whitehair.
“You did?” Whitehair replied, slightly confused. He had been telling stories publicly and coaching others in Chicago’s tightknit storytelling community, but he wasn’t sure how a business could find him—his website was a tangled mess.
“Yeah,” the exec said. “Do you coach sales teams?”
“Of course, yes,” Whitehair said, even though he had never coached a sales team.
Whitehair still shakes his head in disbelief when retelling the story of his first call from a business. “I worked with people who want to tell stories to their family and socially and on stage,” Whitehair says, “But [after that call], it clicked for me that this stuff is useful anywhere people communicate.” Whitehair researched the business he’d be coaching, scribbled down everything he knew about storytelling and coached his first group of employees on the art of the story.
Five years later, Whitehair is a full-time storytelling coach, a fantasy job for an English major and storytelling hobbyist. He has coached at corporations (Johnson & Johnson, BlueCross BlueShield and PwC), nonprofits (Chicago Cares, Rady Children’s Hospital – San Diego, Boston Children’s Hospital) and universities (Northwestern University, DePaul University, University of Chicago Booth School of Business). Whitehair spends a lot of time working with businesses, but he doesn’t spend any time wondering why a business would want employees to learn storytelling. “It bypasses the skeptical mind,” Whitehair says. “If I tried to tell you about all my values, how I was raised … it would take 10 or 15 minutes. Or, I could tell you a story about finding a wallet full of cash in front of my apartment and how I took all day to track this guy down. He had a very common name, but I found him through Facebook and gave his wallet back. At the end of that story, you know about my values.”
Sharing values through storytelling succeeds, Whitehair says, because people want to work with people, not ideas. This ability to relate to others can be critical to a career, according to research from Lauren Rivera, associate professor of management and organizations at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management. Rivera conducted two years of interviews with hiring professionals at 120 large companies and found that the most common way interviewees were judged for a job was by their similarity to the interviewer.
One professional told Rivera that potential employees must be able to pass the “stranded in the airport test,” which asks, “Would I want to be stuck in an airport in a snowstorm with them? And if I’m on a business trip for two days and I have to have dinner with them, is this the kind of person I enjoy hanging with?” Rivera called another common interview test “looking glass merit;” interviewers defined merit by their personal sense of worth and goodness, using themselves as the standard bearers, judging interviewees thusly. “Because these firms leave a lot of discretion to evaluators—‘I want you to pick somebody that’s driven!’—but they don’t tell you what drive looks like, people end up defining it in their own image,” Rivera told Kellogg Insight.
Interviewees can’t know the merits or personality of a person they’ve never met, but they can use stories to relate to interviewers as human beings instead of potential employees. Esther Choy—the woman who coached Reddan on storytelling, president and chief story facilitator at the Leadership Story Lab and author of Let the Story Do the Work: The Art of Storytelling for Business Success—says most people banter with and talk past one another, but very few people communicate well. When they learn how to tell stories, they’re learning how to captivate and communicate, all while sharing memorable truths about themselves. The standard reaction from new storytellers, Choy says, is, “Wow, people finally understand what I’m saying.”