Influence Through Storytelling

Michael Zigarelli

From: Influencing Like Jesus: 15 Biblical Principles of Persuasion. Copyright 2008 by B&H Publishing Group. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

I have an eleven year old son who is half Irish and half Italian. Pity the poor boy; his hard-wiring has yielded many, many wonderful attributes, but also a temper that epitomizes the stereotypes of those two fabulous cultures. Like his father, he’s had to learn a thing or two about releasing one’s anger in an appropriate manner. I’ve done everything I can think of to help him in this regard, including trying to model the appropriate behaviors (Principle 2), educating myself about kids’ emotions (Principle 3), relationship building through similar interests (Principle 4), seeking his solutions (Principle 6), showing him relevant passages in books like Proverbs and James (Principle 10), and administering a plethora of time-outs and other consequences (Principle 14). That’s just a sampling, by the way; I’ve tried a few other things as well. And to be honest, each of these methods has produced some positive results. But not one of them ever had the effect of reading him a story from Bill Bennett’s A Children’s Book of Virtues.

In that book is a story about Genghis Khan, a Mongolian warlord from the thirteenth century who was known for, among other things, his blistering temper. The story, in a nutshell, tells of Khan hunting with his pet hawk, a trusted friend who helped him find game to shoot. He was alone in the woods and very thirsty, but had no water with him, so when he came across some water dripping slowly from a rock ledge, he was elated. Khan took a cup and, over the course of a couple minutes, filled it drop by drop. But just as he tried to drink the water, his pet hawk swooped down and knocked the cup from his hand, spilling the water on the ground. This was strange and unprecedented behavior for the hawk.

Kahn was enraged and returned his cup to the ledge, waiting a couple more minutes for it to refill. Again, just as he was about to drink it, the hawk knocked the drink from his hand. Kahn screamed at the hawk, warning him that if he did it again, he’d be dead. And sure enough, minutes later, when the hawk again prevented Kahn from taking a drink, Kahn struck down the bird with his sword.

By now, the water had stopped dripping, so an infuriated Kahn had to scale the rock ledge to find where the water had come from. When he reached the top he found a lake””with an enormous (think “sea monster”), poisonous snake laying dead in it. The snake’s body blocked the path of the water that had been dripping down the rock ledge, and immediately, Kahn realized that the water he intended to drink was venomous. His pet hawk, having seen the snake from above, had saved his life, but Kahn’s uncontrolled anger caused him to repay the heroic bird with death.

My son, an animal lover, sat in stunned horror, transfixed by the picture of this poor, dying bird at the feet of a sword-wielding soldier. Tears filled Michael’s eyes (an unusual event). He couldn’t sleep for hours that night. The story triggered a flood of emotions””and, I think, a flood of revelation””that no punishment, no Bible verse, no parental relationship ever had. Through the story and the picture, he felt for the first time the destructive power of improperly released anger, and it had a profound effect on him for a long time.

That’s not to say that he (or his dad) no longer struggles with the issue. It is to say, though, that the emotional appeal of a story, coupled with the graphic picture of the consequences of unmanaged anger, affected him more than any other influence method.


The Influence Method Most Likely to Change Behavior

Aside from prayer, storytelling, especially when it tugs at the emotions of another person, is the influence principle that is most likely to get your audience to actually do something–to change their behavior. I recognize that’s an audacious statement, considering the enormous power of the other principles we’re discussing in this study. But it seems a little less audacious when we consider that storytelling was Jesus’ primary means of teaching and influencing others.

When we think of Jesus’ teachings, we think of stories, don’t we? Parables. Lessons taught through familiar experiences, at least familiar to the original hearers–farming, weddings, employment, borrowing and lending, tending sheep. It was really just an extension of what we now call the “oral tradition.” With the scarcity of both writing implements and literacy, every ancient culture passed along its wisdom and tradition orally and anecdotally. In doing so, it influenced the next generation to embrace longstanding values.

Jesus used stories for far more than this, though. Rather than just perpetuating values of old, he introduced through parable an entirely different way of relating to God and neighbor. To teach that God’s forgiveness is always available, no matter what we’ve done, he told the Prodigal Son story. To teach that it’s never too late to be saved, he told the Workers in the Vineyard story. To teach us how to pray and how not to pray, he told the Parable of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee. To teach that we are to love and serve all people, regardless of who they are or how busy we are, he told the Good Samaritan story.

In this way, he influenced thousands of his contemporaries and billions since then to see differently. How does this work? It’s not just that Jesus’ stories offered clever analogies to everyday experience, or that they were simply memorable tales. A major reason is that Jesus’ stories, like all of the most influential stories throughout history, touched people’s emotions. They had “pathos,” to borrow Aristotle’s term for the influence principle–the power to evoke feelings and arouse emotions.

Consider for a moment the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Nice story about a couple big-wigs whose heads were too big for their wig, right? And about a little guy who did a big thing, right? Wrong. If we hear the story through the ears of the original Jewish audience, it’s not nearly that tepid. It’s nothing less than a scandalous story. Because the protagonist is a Samaritan–essentially an impure, half-Jew–few stories could be more offensive. In fact, according to renowned seminary professors Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, if Jesus told the parable today, it would sound something like this:

A family of disheveled, unkempt individuals was stranded by the side of the road on a Sunday morning. They were in obvious distress. The mother was sitting on a tattered suitcase, hair uncombed, clothes in disarray, with a glazed look to her eyes, holding a smelly, poorly-clad, crying baby. The father was unshaved, dressed in coveralls, the look of despair as he tried to corral two other youngsters. Beside them was a run-down old car that had obviously just given up the ghost.

Down the road came a car driven by the local bishop; he was on his way to church. And though the father of the family waved frantically, the bishop could not hold up his parishioners, so he acted as if he didn’t see them.

Soon came another car, and again the father waved furiously. But the car was driven by the president of the local Kiwanis Club, and he was late for a statewide meeting of Kiwanis presidents in a nearby city. He too acted as if he did not see them, and kept his eyes straight on the road ahead of him.

The next car that came by was driven by an outspoken local atheist, who had never been to church in his life. When he saw the family’s distress, he took them into his own car. After inquiring as to their need, he took them to a local motel where he paid for a week’s lodging while the father found work. He also paid for the father to rent a car so that he could look for work and gave the mother cash for food and new clothes.[1]

Get the point? Framed in these contemporary terms, the story is not only memorable, it’s provocative in the same way that it provoked the first century Jewish audience. Indeed, it’s offensive, but its offensiveness finally gets us to think. In fact, I’d bet if this contemporary version of the parable were told this coming Sunday at churches across America, two things would happen: (1) some people would not return to their churches the following Sunday and (2) those who did return would be thinking differently about themselves and others. I suspect that they’d be very open to hearing more about this “new” teaching (in fact, many would be demanding it!), and our pastors would have a unique opportunity to preach a life-changing message to their most attentive audience ever. Pastors would be in a remarkable and rare position to have significant influence over normally-complacent congregants.

That’s the power of a great story. It provokes as it proffers. It prods as it progresses. It shakes people from their comfort zones and gets them asking questions they’ve never considered asking.

Have you heard stories like that? Or told them? You probably have on occasion, so you know what I’m talking about.

But now, are you willing to try to use this approach more often? It’s surely worth the effort. As we said above, of all the principles covered in this study, other than prayer, storytelling may be the one most likely to stimulate change. Since people are so prone to really listening when we’re telling a story, storytelling influences in the most non-threatening and disarming of ways: before we know it, we’re face-to-face with an uncomfortable truth–one that will shadow us even when we try to run from it!

Make a habit of telling more stories in your efforts to persuade. Invest the time to identify stories that could be wake-up calls for those you’re trying to influence. And invest the time to become a better storyteller by developing a delivery that’s both enjoyable and enlightening. It’s a technique that works in nurseries and nursing homes alike”¦and everywhere in between. So, like Jesus, if you want to master the art of persuasion, master the art of storytelling.


Mastering the Art of Storytelling

We can look to many other places in scripture where a story led to influence and change. To cite just a couple, think about how the Nathan influenced King David to see the egregiousness of his sin: through a story (2 Samuel 12). Think of how Paul evangelized the Gentile world: through telling and re-telling the story of his Damascus Road experience (e.g., Acts 22:6-21, 26:12-18). Overall, think of how God chose to reveal who He is and how he desires for us to live: through stories in the Bible.

Pretty compelling evidence that we should perfect our storytelling, don’t you think? To improve the skills you already have, consider these practical tips:

Selecting a Story and Preparing to Tell It

  • Finding an appropriate story is sometimes the hardest part. To do this, it helps to identify a situation in the past that’s analogous to what you want to teach. In other words, identify a story where the change you’d like to see has already happened somewhere. Learn as much as you can about that situation and then tell that story. The more analogous the story to your current situation, the more believable your point will be and the more likely the story will be influential.
  • It’s usually best for a story to have only one protagonist, rather than a lot of them. Listeners can connect well with a single character, empathize with him or her, and thereby learn the lesson of the story better.
  • Practice telling the story. Then, if you really want this to be effective, practice it some more. That might sound weird, especially if you tell a lot of stories. But truly great storytelling doesn’t just happen, not even for professionals. As with any performance, excellence requires that you rehearse before going “on stage” with your story.

Telling the Story

  • As you’re telling the story, relive it as well as you can. If you imagine yourself in the setting you’re describing, you’ll be more comfortable telling the story, you’ll include richer detail, and you’ll tell it in a way that draws others into that setting with you. By contrast, when we tell a story by mentally remembering how we’ve told it before, and then try to repeat that earlier performance, our story usually falls flat.
  • Perform the story. Tell it with emotion. Tell it with enthusiasm and animation, using hand gestures and other non-verbal cues. Use inflection in your voice, rather than a monotone delivery, and vary your pace of delivery, slowing down in the most important parts. If you can mentally “relive” the story as you’re telling it, as noted above, these things will happen more naturally.
  • Enjoy telling the story. Have fun with it. Don’t worry about what anyone thinks of you.
  • Avoid offering unnecessary details or tangents in the story. Practice helps you to identify these.
  • Tell the story often. The best influencers tell good stories over and over again, even to people who have heard them before (like their employees or their kids). Why? Because people forget the lessons. A year after telling my son the Genghis Khan story, for example, he had remembered it differently–Khan was out hunting with his pet dog (not his hawk), they caught a snake, and everyone lived happily ever after. Ouch. Because I neglected to re-tell the story enough times, the anger management lesson was completely lost.
  • Remember that storytelling is contagious. When people hear stories, they often want to continue the conversation by telling their own similar stories. This helps immensely in an influence situation. If the person you’re trying to persuade connects enough with your story to tell you one with a similar lesson, then stop talking and listen attentively. People are convinced best when they convince themselves.

Some Other Tips

  • Self-depreciating stories–stories about how you personally failed at something–tend to keep people’s attention and they lend credibility to what you’re saying.
  • For any situation you encounter often (e.g., introducing yourself, telling someone about God, training a new employee, etc.), have a stock story or two that you’ve polished and perfected. Very few people can tell inspiring, motivating, or life-changing stories in an impromptu, off-the-cuff manner.
  • There’s not one right way to do this–or even two or three. Find a storytelling style with which you’re comfortable and stick with that. If something in the above list doesn’t work for you, ignore it and do something else. What’s important is that your storytelling style is entirely yours and that you’re comfortable delivering in story form the messages that God wants you to deliver.

Excerpted from Influencing Like Jesus: 15 Biblical Principles of Persuasion. Copyright 2008 by B&H Publishing Group. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Michael Zigarelli is a Professor of Leadership and Strategy at Messiah College and the editor of Christianity 9 to 5.

[1] From Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 2nd edition, Zondervan Publishing: Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1993, p. 147.