Strories or sermons?

Persuading someone else to voluntarily do what you want them to do can be tricky. Yet, much of interpersonal communication involves just that. You might be trying to pitch your product to your customer. You might be trying to get a staff member to follow a procedure. You might be trying to get a vendor to get order to you more quickly. Whatever the case may be, there are two ways to go about making your demands…

To persuade someone to do what you want them to do, you can:

  1. Preach a sermon.
  2. Tell a story.

A sermon is an explicit command. “Do this.” “Do not do that.” It’s about giving orders and, occasionally, padding them with threats. Buy my product or you’ll miss out on the great deal. Follow the sales process or I’m going to reduce your commission. Get me my stuff or I’m going with another supplier. In this scenario, if the person taking your orders is devoid enough of self-respect to listen to you, they are doing so only because you said so–not because they’re convinced it’s the right thing to do.

A story is an example. It’s about giving a demonstration, whether through something that actually happened or through a metaphor, of why the person you are trying to persuade should listen to you. Customer X bought this product and it helped him reduce inventory carrying costs by 30% in three months. Employee Y skipped that step in the sales process and lost his best customer to the competition. I once waited for Supplier Z to deliver a late shipment, lost a dozen customers, and could no longer afford to keep Supplier Z on board with me. When telling a story, people listen to you because it makes sense to them to listen to you–they see it as being in their best interests.

There’s a really poignant example of how storytelling trumps sermonizing in getting people to listen to you and, ironically, it’s from the Christian Bible.

25  And a [a] lawyer stood up and put Him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”26 And He said to him, “What is written in the Law? [b]How does it read to you?” 27 And he answered, “ You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” 28 And He said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.”29 But wishing to justify himself, he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:25-29)

Jesus could have simply said, “Everyone is your neighbor. You should love everyone as yourself.” But he doesn’t. Instead, he tells a story. He demonstrates how one man who, by societal standards, is an enemy reaches out to an injured man while two other men who are supposed to be friends of the injured man simply pass him by. At the end of the story, Jesus has this to say:

36 Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the robbers’ hands?” 37 And he said, “The one who showed mercy toward him.” Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do [e]the same.”

Jesus gets the man to admit what being a neighbor means: “the one who showed mercy toward him.” But he doesn’t doing this by preaching a sermon; he does it by telling a story.

How are you attempting to persuade those in your life? Are you trying to do it forcefully? Are you dishing out commands and threats? Or, are you telling stories?

I would suggest a little more storytelling. It will go a long way in getting people to listen to you and like you at the same time.

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