So there I was, standing in a gloomy training room one hot evening in late June, ready to start a course on customer service and empathy. I watch as the class participants drag in one by one and slump into their chairs. Twenty-five flat, tired faces from a diverse group of countries sit looking blankly back at me. Faces which have just finished a long and gruelling shift as waiters and kitchen staff at VIPs, a chain of cafeterias. Twenty-five faces that don’t know each other and don’t know me, the “guiri” trainer. The only thing we have in common was wanting to be anywhere else but there.
Lord, I have to find a connection—and fast—or this is going to be a long and painful four hours. I decide to ditch the video I’d planned to open the session.
“Before we start, let me tell you a little about me,” I begin instead. “I was born in Wales, but when I finished my studies I came to Spain for a two week holiday. I met someone, fell in love and just stayed and stayed—and now suddenly twenty years have gone by!”
I see a small flicker of curiosity cross their faces, a couple of nods and smiles emerging. I quickly pull a photo of a dark, smiling 10-year-old girl out of my wallet.
“I’d like to tell you something about my daughter, Sara…Sara was born a full three weeks early. And she caught her dad and me by surprise because we just weren’t expecting it. I woke at 5am with stomach pains, thinking it was the carrot soup my husband had made me for dinner. As he lay there snoring, I half-heartedly packed my bag, just in case, expecting the pain to pass.”
The class shifts a little, some participants sitting up straighter in their seats.
“I was in denial—this just couldn’t be happening.” I continued. “We weren’t ready—we had a pram and a crib, but no nappies, no baby bottles. We hadn’t done the food shopping in a week. My parents had a flight booked for two weeks later and my parents-in-law would take 6 hours to drive here from Cádiz. And I still had things to do at work.”
“But the pain got worse and worse. By 8am I couldn’t stand it any longer, so I booted my husband out of bed to go to the hospital just in case. But straight away we hit the morning traffic jam and he had to drive at about 10 km per hour all the way there, with me groaning in pain and still complaining about the soup. Just imagine.”
The class laugh now, people leaning forward in interest, some looking alarmed that my daughter could arrive in the world in the back seat of a car in moving traffic.
“When we got there, I thought the nurse was going to laugh at us as obsessive newbies and send me straight back home, but instead she said “You’re going nowhere—this baby’s knocking at the door now!” I remember that as my gynecologist rushed in, red-faced and stressed from his own battle with morning traffic, my husband said, “Hurry up doctor, the bull’s in the ring!””
Laughter and nodding now, from the guys too.
“And just like that, our little Sara was born at 1pm, just in time for lunch!” I pause, watching their smiles.
“We were thrilled it had all happened so quickly and our tiny, beautiful daughter was finally here. The first day passed in a whirl of phone calls to surprised friends and family who thought we were joking. Day 2 we spent marvelling at Sara, counting fingers and toes and wrestling with breast-feeding.”
“Then came day 3. The doctor did his round just before lunch, announcing “You’re doing fine, and your daughter too, so you’re free to go now.””
“What? Already? You mean after lunch, at least, right?” I asked the nurse, in a panic. But the look on her face told me everything I needed to know. Just like that, we were being kicked out of the hospital to fend for ourselves.”
Most of the class shrug in amusement—three or four women clasp their hands to their mouths.
“Half an hour later we were standing at the top of the hospital steps nervously clutching the new blue Maxi-Cosi baby. Finally we had wanted to continue alone for a few days, so there was no help, no one waiting at home except an empty fridge. Careful what you wish for. We looked down at our new fragile little baby blinking sleepily in the autumn sunlight. “What the hell do we do now?” asked my husband.”
Looking around at all the expectant faces, I ask “So where do you think we went? Where is the first place we took our newborn baby, the most precious thing in the whole world?”
An agonizing silence. I wait, heart pounding, praying that someone will give me the reply I need. “Did you take her to VIPS?” asks one of the women from Santo Domingo, hesitantly. Silence. Everyone in the whole room is waiting for my reply.
“That’s right. We took our new-born daughter straight to VIPs in Arturo Soria. And why? Because I knew we would be looked after there. Because I had been there often and the staff were always so patient and kind to me. Because I felt safe there.”
I pause to let my message sink in. “That was ten years ago and I think that since then the levels of empathy and customer service here have dropped a little. And that’s why we are here all here in this room today. To work together to get it back.”
Now almost every single person in the audience nodded, eyes shining and smiling. A couple of men wiped their eyes. I smiled back in relief. In less than three minutes I had them in the palm of my hand, the atmosphere completely transformed through the power of storytelling. They had opened up to me and now I could get to work.
Dear Reader, Every single word of this story is absolutely true. But in order to succeed, I had to dare to tell my story—and tell it well.
Dare to tell your story
Storytelling may sound complicated, but it’s actually something we all do naturally on a daily basis, sharing memories and anecdotes with friends, family and workmates. And throughout history, from Aesop or the Bible to Shakespeare or even “Who Moved my Cheese”, stories have been used to captivate the audience and transmit ideas in an easy, powerful and memorable manner.
In the business world I must have seen thousands of PowerPoint presentations, but remember almost none. What I will never forget, however, is our European Director telling us—in the year 2000!—how he had used his mobile to buy sweets at a vending machine in the Helsinki metro.
According to neuroscientists, storytelling creates an emotional and physical connection with the listener. Dozens of experiments using MRI technology have shown that the brains of those listening to and telling the story activate in the same pattern—a phenomenon known as neural coupling. And our brains activate more areas when we listen to a narrative than when we are given facts, figures and dry data. This is why storytelling can play a powerful role in motivating teams in difficult times, inspiring trust and driving change.
Tell it well!
There’s no need to be an Oscar winning actor or stand-up comedian to tell your story well. What you do need to do is use great body language and voice (playing with rhythm, tone and pauses for effect). A lot depends on the situation and what you want to achieve. In the example above I deliberately included a lot of personal detail and humour to break the ice with a large audience of complete strangers.
Deep inside, we all have a treasure chest of personal memories and anecdotes built up over our lifetimes—but we don’t always know how to put them to good use. That’s why we have designed our new Storytelling workshop to help you identify your most valuable stories and perfect your narrative so that they capture the hearts and minds of your audience.
So how does my story end?
Well, after the success of that first time I went on to share that story with another 20 groups—and it worked its magic every single time! So much so that I got excellent feedback and for years afterwards, every time I visited a VIPs the waiters would come up and say hello and ask after Sara! But the most important thing is, there was a marked improvement in teamwork and customer satisfaction for several years afterwards. So I guess you can say—thanks to storytelling, we all lived happily ever after!