3.5 Bringing Your Stories, Messages, Points Of View And Cases To Life

You can express yourself in a manner that’s technically excellent yet has oddly little impact. This might well be because your style lacks the human touch. This skill is about ensuring that you’re interesting, colourful and convincing, as well as clear. One of the keys is to pepper your conversations with examples and instances, since these hook what you say to real life.

a. Helping the other person to ‘see’ what you mean

Try to paint a picture in your mind of a ‘building’.

That’s an impossible task because the word ‘building’ is too general, too vague for it to be represented by an image in your mind. You can’t picture vagueness.

Now imagine a thatched cottage, surrounded by a pretty garden and bathed in sunlight. That's much easier to picture, because the description is concrete and specific.

Good Explainer/Tellers appreciate the power of being concrete and specific, whether they are telling a story, delivering a message, sharing a point of view, or making a case.

Stories, examples, and presentations that create pictures in the other person's mind — or take on some other form of clarity — usually have more impact. One term that’s been used to describe this quality is ‘imaginability’ — a measure of how hard or easy a description is to imagine or visualise.

Stories, illustrations, instances and examples bring messages, points of view, and cases to life. In person-to-person communication, clarity and accuracy of detail are often not enough. It’s vital that the points being made are and clear but even then, they may still be somewhat lifeless.

Effective Explainer/Tellers avoid off-the-shelf, generalised descriptions and clichés. Which of the following two statements has more meaning built into it?

"I felt let down by her. She did things that just weren't right."

"I felt betrayed. I really trusted her, only to discover that she'd been playing a game with me all along. I'd pour out my problems to her - I thought in confidence - but then she'd talk about me behind my back."

The first is a statement of fact, but is vague and lacks life. The second is not just a fact but a story that gives life to the fact. The details are explicit and precise.

Do people like listening to you? Do they get caught up in what you're saying? If not, perhaps you need to find ways of injecting more life into your conversations.

b. A word about feelings in the Explainer/Teller role

Some people consistently leave out feelings. Their stories are without emotion, their messages are lifeless, the points of view are without conviction, and passion is missing from the cases they are trying to make. If we fail to include a description of what's going on inside us: our thoughts, mental states, and feelings, we are leaving out what could be an important part of the picture. We can't expect people to be mind readers.

On the other hand, if our story concentrates too much on feelings, at the expense of other ingredients, we also run the risk of being misunderstood. That's because feelings only make sense when they are connected to the other ingredients of the story. Ordinarily, feelings don't just come from nowhere. They arise because of what happens to us and because of what we do or don't do.

There can be many reasons for our failure to share what's going on inside. We may be embarrassed because ‘talking about how we feel inside’ is not part of our style. Alternatively, we might be only partially aware of what we're feeling or are unable to find the words to describe them.

c. Making stories interesting

There are various ways of making stories and presentations more compelling.

Consider ways of bringing the SAME framework to life when telling a story or giving an example. Add a bit of drama to the background, if the background is important. Bring what you did, or didn't do - your Actions - to life. When telling a story about yourself make yourself the ‘leading actor’ in your story. Relive the incident as you talk. Recall the sights and sounds, the thoughts and feelings just as they were at the time. But also, consider the situation in which you’re telling your story. Don't go overboard.

In the following example, Nina is looking for a new job. She is talking to Lionel about her first interview. She wants to tell him about the interview with a view to getting his thoughts on how she might do better next time. She could have said, "Overall, I think I did a good job, but I could be fooling myself." Instead, she paints a more engaging picture of what happened during the interview.

As you read the following, review how Nina effectively uses the SAME criteria: providing the right background (S), explaining what she did or did not do (A), describing the actions of others (E), reliving feelings that accompanied her experiences and actions, and expressing appropriate feelings (M), in the telling of the story itself. What follows is a summary of what she told Lionel. The actual conversation was much more of a dialogue.

"When he asked me what I found most difficult in my present job, I knew he wanted to know something about my ‘weak spots’, you know, the things I don't do that well. Well, my heart pounded a bit, but I knew I could take something that sounded negative initially and turn it into a plus. So I began by saying that I thought that the ability to criticise oneself is an essential aspect of self-development. He looked surprised and said that he couldn't agree more. I was delighted. I knew I was on the right track."

"I said that one of my weak spots was, paradoxically, being too hard on myself and too easy on others. I tend to find fault even with the things I do well. I don't let others get away with murder, but at times I don't intervene quickly enough when things are going wrong. I need more balance. Of course, I didn't go on and on. He asked questions and made brief remarks throughout the interview. I answered all his questions in a direct way. He didn't press me on anything. I took this as a sign that he was getting the answers he was looking for."

In response to questions from Lionel, she gives a couple of examples of what she means by being "too easy on others." She also gives an example of what she means by being "too hard" on herself, describing how she referred a client to one of her colleagues because she doubted her own abilities. In retrospect, she realises that could have done a better job in a few places in the interview.

Nina obviously brings her story to life. This gives Lionel something to work with. The two of them go on to discuss the best points in her ‘interviewee’ style and ways in which she might improve.

d. Making messages convincing

There are ways of bringing messages to life, making them clear and forceful, but without overwhelming your conversational partners. A lively mix of the message itself (M), the reasons for it (R), and the implications for all concerned parties (I), can give messages the crispness and sense of urgency they need.

Georgina is talking to Tess, one of her close friends, about her dissatisfaction with college. She could have delivered her message quite starkly, "I've decided to take a year off."

Instead she starts with some background saying, "Tess, you know I've been unhappy the last few months. I've been missing quite a few lectures. I've been grumpy in conversations, even with you. The problem is I'm so unfocused in what I'm doing. I'm studying history, but I think I've made a mistake in choosing it."

Up to this point her emotional tone is muted in keeping with what she is saying. But now she continues with a much more upbeat and self-assured tone.

She starts with a headline, saying, "Anyway, I've decided to take some time off college. Maybe a year. The scholarship money will stop and I'm not sure it will be available when I return. But that's not the point. I want to get a job, forget the academic rat race for a while, and be myself. And take time to plan a college experience that makes sense for me."

At this point Georgina relaxes and speaks much more deliberately. "I'm at peace with myself. In fact, since I've made the decision, the headaches I've been having have disappeared."

Even in this short message, Georgina headlines the central message, "I'm taking time off college," gives some reasons for it, outlines some of the practical implications of her decision (the MRI package). In doing so, she expresses a range of feelings. She also reveals something about herself that Tess did not know - the part about the headaches. This, too, adds some depth to her message.

e. Bringing points of view to life

There are also ways of sharing opinions and points of view with conviction without giving your conversational partners the impression that you’re trying to ram it down their throats. A sprightly mix of the point itself (P), the reasons or evidence for it (R), and examples (E), that illustrate it can bring your point of view to life.

Harriet is talking with her husband, Nathan, about her mother. Nathan has suggested that Harriet was not paying enough attention to her mother's needs.

Harriet listens, feeds back some highlights, then shares her point of view. "I love my mother. Well, she's my mother after all. But that doesn't mean that she doesn't have faults or that I should overlook them. I think that she is much more self-centred and controlling than she comes across to people who see her only now and then. She adores you. She manipulates me. Or tries to. I know that this sounds stark. Maybe even harsh. And I don't want to overstate my point. Take the family gathering last week. I didn't want to play hostess. It just wasn't a good time for me. There were too many things on my mind. But I let her badger me into it. I don't think I helped her, or myself, by giving in. All this means that I'm not as open with her as I would like. I'm ‘careful’ when I'm around her. I don't like it that way, but that's the way it is."

And Nathan replies, "I know that you and your mother have a tiff every now and again. But I had no idea of picture you've just painted."

Harriet goes on, "Well, you and she get along so well. I've kept some of this to myself because I don't want to do anything to mess up your relationship with her."

Nathan reflects a moment and then says, "I don't want to mess it up either. But neither do I want to be a co-conspirator with her when she's playing games with you."

Harriet moves beyond the bare facts. She shares her point of view about her mother, shares her feelings, and uses an example. Notice how this leads to a dialogue with Nathan. Note, too, that Nathan's immediate response is not to feed back highlights. He might have sounded like a counsellor instead of a husband. Instead he shares a bit of himself in the spirit of understanding.

f. Making cases compelling

Bringing your proposal or case to life can make the difference between its being accepted or rejected. On the one hand, you want the substance of the case to speak for itself. The life that you give it should correspond to its substance. Otherwise you’re using selling, or persuading, as a substitute for substance - or, worse, pulling the wool over other people's eyes. The life you give your case should highlight its good points rather than obscure its faults.

Remember that you’re making your case with people, not robots. The CRITIC categories provide a logical framework but they often need to be humanised, brought to life. Stories, illustrations, examples, and the expression of feeling, can help you do justice to your case, set it in the right light, and give it life and definition. Sharing your own emotional commitment can be a sign of your conviction and credibility. If you have passion, express it.

Harry couldn't understand why his brothers and sisters rejected outright his proposal that their mother, suffering from Alzheimer's disease, moved to an assisted-living residential community. He provided them with facts and figures. He gave a good clinical overview of what assisted-living would be like. He pointed out that they all lived within reasonable driving distance of the facility he had chosen. He even estimated driving times. He gave a rundown of their mother's condition, pointing out how easily she forgot things and even people. They remained unmoved.

One day he was talking to one of his sisters. He said that all he was doing was trying to make sure that everyone's needs were met - especially his mother's. But he also thought that his plan showed consideration for his bother, Silas's, needs. Their mother was currently staying with Silas and his family. His sister told him that his argument went over so poorly because it all sounded so clinical.

She said, "It was like listening to someone read out a sales brochure.”

She also said that their initial rejection of his idea had a lot to do with the guilt they were feeling about ‘getting rid of’ mother. They didn't want to face the issue.

In a renewed attempt to make a case for new living arrangements for their mother, Harry said something like this:

He briefly mentions the background. "The last time we got together, I talked about a possibility for a different living arrangement for mum. But in retrospect, I think I made a mess of it. I've had feedback that my proposal didn't exactly go down well. I think that a lot of this had to do with the way I presented things. I've talked with a few of you individually, so I'd like to take another shot."

They have a brief discussion that centres around these opening remarks.

Then Harry goes on, "First of all, I don't want to give a speech here. So I'm going to bring up some ideas and we should all talk about them as we go along. I know we all want to do what's best for mum. And all of us want to share some of the burden, if that's the right word. Probably not. Silas, it seems that you and your family are doing most of the work. I know you do it willingly, but still it doesn't seem right to some of us."

They all discuss the current living arrangement and agree that something should be done about it.

Harry goes on to say, "If mum lives in an assisted-living residence, she'll get the best treatment. The facility I have in mind is cheerful. The staff are very accommodating to individual needs. They're experts in helping people who, understandably, become a bit difficult as they get older. And, let's admit it, mum's a bit difficult at times. When, and if, mobility becomes a problem for her, that's no problem for us. It's very easy to get around. She's been great to us. She deserves the best. Sue and I visited the residence the other day. Sue, would you mind giving your impressions?"

His sister gives her favourable impressions of the facility. "It didn't make me think of a nursing home at all." The family members ask questions and discuss some of the details.

Then Harry continues, "I know some of you’re worried about ‘abandoning’ mum. Actually, if she lives there more of us could get involved. I've already talked about how convenient it is to get to. And Linda [one of the mother's favourite nieces] has agreed to stay with mum until she gets orientated. They encourage people to stay over when times are difficult for their residents. The times I've been at the residence there have been lots of relatives around."

Harry goes on in this vein, encouraging dialogue, using examples, talking with emotion about doing their best for her, and sharing things about himself.

He ends by saying, "I personally think that the time has come for mum to move. But there's no need to take immediate action. We need to think about it and talk about it more. The time should fit mum's needs, not our timetable. You might come up with a better residence, or have other ideas. But the time to talk about it is certainly now."

All of this is completely different from his previous presentation. A compelling human picture replaces the clinical one. He ends the family meeting by suggesting that they not make a decision immediately. They need to talk it over further with their siblings and with their families.

How do you think Harry is doing in this second attempt to make a case? Apply the CRITIC guidelines (credibility, case, clarity, reasons, the interests of others, time to think it over, Harry's interests, room for compromise). Effective Explainer/Tellers, when sharing points of view or making a case, not only use examples to illustrate key points, but also have some in reserve to meet the needs of different Understanders. Obviously, this takes preparation.

Using examples to illustrate your messages, points of view, and cases, has an added advantage when your listener is not favourably disposed to the case you’re making. Opponents often say, "Give me a couple of examples of what you mean." Sometimes the request for examples is a legitimate search for understanding. At other times it’s a thinly disguised way of saying such things as, "I don't like what you're saying," or, "I don't believe what you're saying." What the objector really means is, "I dare you to come up with examples that will convince me." When you're put on the spot like that, it's very difficult dredge up some examples. If your listeners are really adversaries, then mountains of examples won't work.

Bringing your story, message, point of view, or case to life does not necessarily mean lots of words. Effective communicators provide the essentials in a lively way and then encourage give and take. They don't introduce drama for the sake of drama. They remain themselves. They prefer the role of authentic conversational partner rather than that of actor.

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