Now that I’ve caught you with that headline, I won’t keep you in suspense, but first-- what it isn’t. The single most important ingredient in your success story isn’t success. It’s distress. Surprisingly enough, when you leave out the struggle that led to your success, you really have no story at all.
Obstacles, failures, setbacks, difficulties, stumbling blocks, hardships, hurdles – you get the idea. This is the distress in your success story. The reason why you need to include it, is because distress causes a physiological reaction in the brain of your listener that pulls them into your story. The result is that they feel like they are not just a spectator, but a participant.
Taking someone on a journey through a dramatic story stimulates rich brain activity. Many writers, movie makers and public speakers figured out the formula for a good story long before we had the neuroscience to prove why it works. Storytelling is an art that we can all learn so that when we share our success stories, we can increase the understanding of our listeners, help people remember our message, and motivate them to act.
What else do you need in a good story? The trigger that caused you to make a change in your life or the world is another ingredient. Most people live with a problem for a time before they decide to do something about it. The moment you decided to change the status quo is a pivotal point in your story.
A mentor often helps us to overcome the problems and distress in our journey. The mentor could be a friend, a colleague, an author or a teacher. Maybe it’s God. In addition to helping us discover the solution to our problems, the mentor is also concerned about the internal struggles that we’re facing that compromise our confidence and threaten to undermine our determination to press forward. Mix the mentor into your story.
Now you can talk about success. The outcomes of your actions may have led to the future that you envisioned or a better future that you couldn’t have imagined. On the other side of your struggle, you’re different than you were at the beginning. You’re transformed. This is where your passion for what you do will really sing out. This is where empathy kicks in.
Let’s go back to the neuroscience of storytelling in a little more detail. Encountering distress in a story causes the body to release cortisol. Cortisol is often called the “stress hormone”. When you come down from distress and get to the successful resolution of the problem within the story, the body releases oxytocin. Oxytocin is often called the “empathy hormone.” (There are other physiological reactions but for simplicity’s sake, we’ll focus on these two.)
We need our listeners to travel through distress in our story – in the problems that we encounter and the internal struggles that we face -- because it’s the best way to get to empathy. Empathy is the real power in your story because it’s the emotion that connects people.
So here you are on the other side of your story. You’ve traveled through the problem, the trigger, the distress, the mentor, the success and transformation. Your listener feels like they have been a player in your story. What they do with their empathy is up to them, but you can influence some outcomes.
Your story helps your listeners get to know you, developing your relationship with them and nurturing their trust. Your story may change your listeners attitudes or beliefs persuading them to make a decision. You can inspire people to act whether that is to donate, buy, join you in your cause or remind staff of the reason why they do what they do every day.
I heard a story at a networking event that sticks with me. The host told of how he and his wife founded their assisted living organization because of their experiences of caring for his wife’s mother who had Alzheimer’s. I think he was probably one of those innate storytellers who just knows how to reach people because his staff also know the story and they use it to guide their actions. When they have a decision to make they think back to the reason the founders started the organization and they ask each other, “What’s best for Betty?” And so, the story has become not only their mission, but the overriding value that guides their behavior.
If you’re like many people, you might hold back on sharing your success story because you don’t want to toot your own horn, or perhaps it makes you feel vulnerable. But when you mix up the right story ingredients, you’ll be able to reach and connect with people in a more impactful way. As you reflect on your journey, you just might gain insights about yourself that could only be uncovered by the storytelling process.
First published in River Valley Woman magazine August issue: