IEEE is a renowned resource for research on cutting-edge innovations in the engineering and technology world. However, more than just our technical prowess is required of many of us to be effective in our line of work. Often, we are asked to be part of a collaborative team, give presentations, and provide clear, diplomatic feedback in a room full of stakeholders representing varying expertise and needs. In those times, we need to talk beyond geek speak to make our points clearly and cohesively.
Yet we, as engineers and technicians, are often tempted to treat discussion of soft skills with disdain. We see IEEE as this bastion of scientific intelligence, and don’t always see the underlying value of softer skills such as storytelling. I was reminded of this when my recent article “What Can we Learn About Leadership from Ted Lasso” received a critique voicing disappointment that a professional group like IEEE was “plumbing the depths of an Apple TV series.” And so I deemed it a good opportunity to take a step back and address the elephant in the room. Yes, as an engineer, I dabble in the art of storytelling, and today we will delve into why.
Stories Change Our Workplace
When it comes to disseminating information, I have found the most effective approach involves balancing brevity and storytelling. I am not referring to an elaborate story or a random tangent. Instead, I’m speaking of the time-honored storytelling strategies leaders engage, whether for business, politics, religion or social justice. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I have a dream” speech because he knew his message would be more likely to resonate and stick with his audience if he could paint a picture of living in a world without racial inequality.
This isn’t just my opinion, it’s backed up by research. According to cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner, we’re 22 times more likely to remember a fact if it’s wrapped in a story. That’s a powerful statistic in a world where we face a daily deluge of data overload from ads, news and social media.
How we tell our stories determines whether we are heard or ignored, understood or misinterpreted, appreciated or dismissed. Stories allow us to engage our audience in the research we’re sharing, and make the more topics personally relatable.
A Google study found that the best teams were the ones that didn’t necessarily have the top scientists, but included individuals that had “skills like good communication, insights about others and empathetic leadership.” Again, it’s that ability to hone in on the most important details and tangibly share that information. That is what helps the unit work effectively. And this is why it’s so important to learn about, practice and grow in communication, empathy and storytelling.
Stories Change Us
Beloved Sandman author Neil Gaiman put it so succinctly when he said, “Fiction stories are one of the most interesting phenomena that human beings have…We are using lies. We are using memorable lies. We are taking people who do not exist and things that did not happen to those people in places that aren’t. And we are using those things to communicate true things… to each other.” These fictional stories may include the most outrageous lies, like talking animals or an American football coach taking over a Premier League team. However, we latch on to them and connect because the truths resonate. They hold up a mirror, and in it we can see ourselves as we were, are, or even how we could be.
So, no, I don’t view the use of stories, even fictional stories, as beneath me or even beneath IEEE. And if we allow, they can provide an opportunity to see our situations from a different angle and look through eyes that are so relatable, yet not our own. We can learn that dragons exist, but also that they can be slain. We see good leaders along with poor ones, and can better assess which camp we fall into. Each of these is an opportunity to see ourselves and others in a new light. For this reason, I will continue to plumb the depths of pop culture as we can continue to learn and grow together.
In the end, our intelligence is only as valuable as our ability to disseminate it, whether that’s in a conference room or in an article. So, my logical crusaders, I invite you to consider the value of inspiration that storytelling can bring to our workplaces and to our growth as individuals, regardless of its source.