Storytelling Is Key Soft Influencing Skill, Says UK Consultant, Coach and Storyteller

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In steps Andrew Thorp, who describes himself as consultant, coach and storyteller, specializing in “verbal PR.” In essence, he helps his clients use storytelling to develop their soft influencing skills—enabling business people to persuade and educate in a “non-salesy” way, says a testimonial on Thorp’s website. (Thorp’s international clients include Swiss Re and a Big Four accounting firm. He is headquartered in Manchester, England).

Perhaps it is best to explain Thorp’s theory of the power of storytelling with one of his own stories. In an interview with Carrier Management, Thorp recalled a client—we’ll call him “Harry”—who was introduced to Thorp by the learning and development manager at a major financial services company. “My initial brief was that Harry needed help with his presentation skills, but when I met him, it became clear that that wasn’t really the problem.”

Harry, who was 26 at the time, was actually quite comfortable presenting facts to his senior leaders. The real problem he had was in making small talk before and after the events where he spoke—in networking. “He had a hard time building any rapport or relationships with people, simply because he didn’t think he was interesting as a person,” recalled Thorp.

“For the most part, the best stories are about things that don’t go to plan, where there’s an unexpected twist or turn so there’s a bit of drama or comedy or something unexpected, when there’s an interesting lesson to be learned.”

So, Thorp sat down with Harry and began to dig into Harry’s library of experiences to help him find things that might be of interest to other people. “In our first meeting, he told me he’d been looking after his niece, who was one-and-a-half. But he couldn’t figure out why anybody would be interested in the fact that he’d been looking after his niece,” Thorp said.

Nevertheless, Thorp encouraged Harry to continue with the story of babysitting.

Harry told Thorp that he was a quick eater and would regularly finish meals in a few minutes. However, he soon discovered that if he finished his meal before his niece, she would stop eating—she would only eat if Harry had food as well—and the only way that he could get her to finish a meal was to slow down his pace.

Thorp said: “Do you mean to tell me you’ve been taught a lesson in how to eat properly by a one-year-old?”

Harry then laughed and started to see the value of personal stories—often from outside the workplace”—to help build his connections with people, Thorp said. “He really started to grow in confidence. He’s been promoted. If you could see him now, he’s a different person.”

Storytelling is something used by observational comedians, who see material everywhere, Thorp explained. These comedians don’t rely on a limited stock of stories, he said. “They’re constantly refreshing their libraries until they’re ready to use them in what comedians call ‘rehearsed spontaneity.’”

While Thorp finds it relatively easy to see linkages that help with storytelling, he admitted that many people don’t think that way. As a result, in his role as storyteller coach, his clients might initially need some hand-holding. “I encourage them to see meaning in things that they might not see at first.”

As a result, as part of his coaching work, he holds classes for his clients to help develop influencing skills using story-sharing.

Andrew Thorp

In such classes, 12 or 15 employees are asked to bring significant experiences either from within or outside the workplace, with a catchy headline that describes their story and entices people to want to hear more about it, Thorp said. “We then list all of those titles on a flip chart, and collectively we choose three or four to hear that story in full. And then the person who tells the story explains what they’ve learned from that story. Then the rest of the team connect with the story from the prism of their own experience,” he noted.

“It’s a very useful exercise in getting them to be more aware of the world around them, seeing the things they wouldn’t normally see. It’s also a very good way of using stories as a way to influence others by drawing some kind of wisdom or insight from them.”

He said that such soft influencing skills can help a manager who has to discipline an employee. “Rather than just telling them they’ve done something wrong, it could be more effective to say, ‘Actually, when I was your age in your position, I did exactly the same thing, and my boss took me to one side and explained to me what I’d done wrong.’”

By referencing something from your own history, your own library, you help develop a connection with the employee, Thorp noted. “You can soften the disciplinary process and get on the same wavelength with the person you are trying to influence.”

Thorp then described how story-sharing can help build bridges between people and help them feel more connected.

In a story-sharing class about five years ago, Thorp recalled a woman who was very shy and asked to be excused from the exercise when the group contributed their stories. So she stepped to one side and just listened.

Thorp said these sessions continued for several months. “On one occasion, I was ready to pass her by as usual and go to the next person in the line. But she put up her hand and said, ‘Andrew, do you mind if I share something?’”

Thorp said it was wonderful to see that she actually had something she wanted to say “strongly enough that she was willing to put herself out there and share an experience.”

“I have since seen her grow in confidence hugely—to the point where she’s now joined the management team. And she had a relatively junior role when we started our work together five years ago.”

Why are people so reticent about sharing their stories?

“People mistakenly think they don’t have anything to say. They don’t think they’re interesting enough. They don’t believe their experiences are big or bold enough. Of course, in my experience, I think the most powerful stories are often the smaller ones. It’s not about climbing Mount Everest or walking on the moon or winning a gold medal. It’s really the small and closely observed stories that resonate the most with people, that make them more accessible [and] that we all can relate to.”

Are the stories based on negative experiences or positive experiences?

“For the most part, the best stories are about things that don’t go to plan, where there’s an unexpected twist or turn so there’s a bit of drama or comedy or something unexpected, when there’s an interesting lesson to be learned.”

In addition, Thorp confirmed that the best storytelling will be based on an experience that provided some kind of positive learning. “Good things can emerge from difficult experiences. I suppose my own story’s an example of that.”

In the Beginning

Thorp then described how he got to be a consultant, coach and storyteller.

Ten years ago, Thorp was in the midst of a mid-life crisis when everything went wrong at the same time—when one bad event after another piled up like a group of London buses.

“I was involved in a business partnership that went wrong. I got divorced. I had no stable place to live. I was broke, and my mother was very ill.”

In retrospect, Thorp said, it was a “healthy mid-life crisis” because it led to positive life changes. “I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now if it hadn’t happened. I think there’s always something positive that can be drawn from difficult experiences.”

Thorp started his working life in the golfing industry. His brother is a professional golfer, and he grew up in Lytham St. Annes in northwest England, which is where the Open Golf Championship is frequently played. “It was inevitable that I would play golf. I played to a fairly high level as an amateur but not good enough to turn pro.”

After doing a social sciences degree at Manchester University, he reverted back to what was familiar and for 22 years worked in the golf and leisure industry in the UK and as a referee. “I refereed in the Ryder Cup, many years ago, which was a great thrill to do.”

He also used to coach golf for business people who were beginning golfers and were interested in using the sport as a networking tool. He also was a journalist for a couple of years and edited and wrote for a national golf publication.

“I also used to run commercial golf and leisure clubs in sort of interim turnaround roles when they were bought by new owners…and I managed the transition from one ownership to the next.”

So, when the business partnership—a golf coaching business—went wrong 10 years ago, “I thought very hard about what I wanted to move away from and move toward.”

As he now had a negative association with the golf industry, he decided to move into a different field. “I needed to do something that I had some competence in. As I’ve always loved public speaking and most people hate doing it, I thought I would help people with their public speaking skills.”

In the course of this work, he helped people with their delivery, but he quickly discovered that their messages just weren’t very interesting. That’s when he decided that storytelling could be a game-changer.

Storytelling helps an audience relate to the narrative and to the speaker, Thorp said. “Storytelling helps people sound more authentic, more human.”

The flipside to storytelling is story-listening, he affirmed. “My intention is to help people create a greater connection with their audience—not just during a speech but also in conversation.”

Part of being a greater communicator and relationship builder is to know your own story well but also to encourage other people to share their stories, he said. “That’s the way you create a really deep human connection with people.”

Andrew Thorp can be reached at andrew@andrewthorp.co.uk.

This article first appeared in Insurance Journal’s sister publication, Carrier Management.



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