How To Trigger A Story

Written by David Pullan

How To Trigger A Story

Last week I wrote about the need for leaders to create a framework whereby the stories of their people can be heard. This is particularly important if that leader wants to implement some sort of change.


I suppose now would be a good time to reiterate two of the guiding principals McKechnie and I believe.


  1. We are all leaders in one way or another. 
  2. Every act of communication is an act of change. We do it in order to change how people think, feel or behave. 

From a parent trying to get their recalcitrant three year old to put the cat down and eat their dinner, to a sales team scoping a new proposition, to a CEO changing the cultural and behavioural traits across a global network, we are all leading and communicating in order to facilitate change.


So if this is true, and a key foundation of leading anyone to change is listening to their stories, how can we get them to tell those stories?


Well the answer of course is to ask questions. But there is a hierarchy of questioning and two questions in particular are great for getting people to open up and talk.


We all know that open questions are key to getting a conversation going. To state the obvious these are the basic detective/journalism questions ‘How, Who, What, Where, When and Why’ or The Bums on a Rugby Post as my sister in law memorably calls them. Have a think about that one.


But if you really want to get people talking then I recommend you focus on two questions in particular. These are ‘How’ and ‘What.’ 


Here’s how it works.


Imagine a situation where a new system has been put in place, either at a client or at your work. You have walked into a meeting with the person in charge and you want to see if there is a selling opportunity or want to understand the system and anticipate any future issues. 


Now, as you’ve read this far you know that the key is to get the other person to tell their story. So you ask them a question.


‘Who is going to benefit from this system?’ In answer to this you are likely to get a list of names.

‘Why did you decide to put the system in place?’ To this you will get a short and potentially defensive answer depending on how you say the word, ‘Why.’

‘When will you know the system has been a success?’ At best you’ll get a date in answer to this.

‘Where is this system going to be most useful?’ I think you’re getting the picture now…yes indeed, you’ll get a list of locations.


But all of these are fairly limited responses as the questioning is very specific.


A way to open up the conversation and expand the response is to reframe them as ‘What’ and ‘How' questions.


‘How will you know when the system has been a success?’

‘What did you want to achieve by putting it in place?’


And on it goes.


If you imagine that you have just been asked these questions you will notice that you start hunting around in the recesses of your mind to look at cause and effect, outcomes and benefits.


Basically, ‘How’ and ‘What’ questions get people imagining. They make people look for more detail, and when they relay that detail they do it in the format of a story. This story creates picture, which in turn creates long term memory for both you and the story teller.


In short, the meeting will be more memorable both for you and the other person and everyone wins.


So have a think this week about how you can reframe your questions as ‘How’ and ‘What’ and notice the difference in the quality of conversations you have and quantity of stories you are told.





photo credit: <a href="">Chef Arlyn Llewellyn With Earth Eats' Annie Corrigan</a> via <a href="">photopin</a> <a href="">(license)</a>


  • W B Yeats

    'Think like a wise man, but communicate in the language of the people.'