The Power of Storytelling in Mentoring and Career Conversations

Beautiful landscape image of Llyn Padarn at sunrise in Snowfonia National Park in pages of imaginary story book

Do you want your employees to really engage with what you are saying?

Do you want to grab their emotions rather than just their logical brain?

The secret is to use stories. Storytelling is the oldest and most powerful way to engage, excite and educate people.

When people are inspired, they take action. That’s not because you told them to. It’s because it makes sense in their world. For that reason, storytelling is a great tool for mentors to share their knowledge and experience. It’s also a great way for mentors to reflect on and learn from their experience.  The writer Salman Rushdie says:

“…those who do not have the power of the story that dominates their lives – power to retell it, rethink it, deconstruct it, joke about it, and change it as times change – truly are powerless because they cannot think new thoughts.”

The sharing of experience is essential to any mentoring relationship. It can be illuminated with stories to help a mentee navigate their own path through whatever their chosen area may be. This is true whether they are looking to join the board, understand social media, or any career transition the mentoring is set up to support.

‘The authenticity and immediacy of a story of lived experience takes us into the experience of another and it results in broadening the perspectives of those that lived the experience and those who will learn from it in the future.’

Rossiter & Clark, 2007

Why storytelling is so powerful

As human beings, we are programmed for stories. They’re part of who we are. It’s how we evolved to understand our place in the world before we had written language. It’s how we passed on lessons for where to find food, or what threats were coming for us, or how to build relationships within our tribes and our families. As human beings, we’re programmed to respond to stories.

A few different things happen when we hear a good story. The first is that the neural activity in our brain increases.

Our brains run on electrical pulses, and when we hear stories our brains light up. Neuroscientists have this saying that neurons that fire together, wire together. So, when we’re hearing a story and our brain is lighting up, you have all of these neurons that are then wiring together. That triggers us to remember more of the information we’re getting. 

Research by Jennifer Aaker of Stanford Business School shows that stories are up to 22 times more memorable than facts or figures alone.

Stories do another thing. They trigger the release of a neurochemical called oxytocin, which is known in some circles as the happiness drug. About ten years ago, all we knew about oxytocin is that it’s released when, say, a mother is with her baby. But since then we’ve discovered, through the work of neuroscientists like Dr. Paul Zak, that stories trigger the release of oxytocin in much the same way. Stories make us remember and they make us care.

Stories are important for several reasons. They:

  1. Enable you to show humility and to relate to people in real terms.  By demonstrating that you understand their issues, and sharing your experience, warts and all, you build a level of rapport and trust.
  2. Help you highlight the meaning and importance of ideas, suggestions and opportunities.  Sharing the consequences and payoffs of either taking or not taking action helps them move forward in their decision making.
  3. Are powerful in creating memorable impressions and vivid images.  By helping mentees visualise the possible, you can create an emotional connection. That can help to start to alter beliefs and change mind-sets.
  4. Are engaging and inspirational because mentees can put themselves into the situations described.  By using stories to provide an example of reframing an issue, you can help mentees consider new options or perspectives.
  5. Persuade mentees to take action.  By taking them on an engaging and inspirational journey, you help them identify specific steps they can take to make progress.
  6. Help you answer tricky questions. By explaining what you did in a similar situation, you can provide a “real” answer rather than a conceptual or hypotheticalone.

Mentoring is a relationship. 

To build relationships you need create trust and meaning.  Storytelling creates both.

Are you looking to develop your leaders and managers as mentors`? Find out more about our Mentoring Matters Programme here.

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