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Stories create powerful memories

I was recently reminded of how quickly new, long-lasting, and personal memories can be formed through the power of story – and why stories can even help leaders to make seemingly complex ideas far more interesting and easier to grasp.

As an executive coach who specialises in corporate storytelling, I’m always on the lookout for new and interesting stories and one of my favourite sources is taxi drivers – as it never ceases to amaze me how much a typical taxi driver knows, sees and hears. And here’s a case in point.

How a Denver cab driver’s story got my attention and never let go

On a recent trip to America, I struck up a conversation with a quiet-spoken taxi driver called Abraham and hearing his accent – which clearly wasn’t local – I asked him where he was from?

“Eritrea”, he said. “And how did you come to be in Denver?” I asked.  “Oh, I’m a refugee,” he said quietly and then he stopped talking.

But, being inquisitive and guessing there was bound to be an interesting story behind his answer, I pressed him a little to tell me more about his story and what he told me was truly shocking. Here’s the short version:

In his early 20s, he was forced to join the Eritrean army that was fighting against Ethiopia in a long-running war and for seven years he was forced to live on next to no rations and never got paid. But he wasn’t alone as everyone from the ages of 17 to 40 was conscripted and subjected to similar and dangerous conditions. And you daren’t run away, as you knew all deserters were shot!

He explained how he and his friends lived in constant fear and how, one by one, so many of his pals died. And as he told me about his experiences Abraham kept shaking his head and saying: it was bad, always really bad!

Later he was put into a brutal prison for religious reasons – When it became known that he was the wrong kind of Christian (Evangelical) at a time when the regime was cracking down on anyone of his ilk.

And when – finally – he was set free, he was ordered straight to the front line of fighting – where he felt certain he’d end up getting killed.

Afraid, exhausted and starving, this was the last straw for Abraham. He snapped and ran away with a friend. And for 3 days, with no food or drink and on foot, they managed to duck and dive and hide in forests as they made their way to get to the Sudan border.

Having made it that far, they still had to get through 2 more countries before, years later, he would make it to America and his friend went to Canada. But, all the while he had no idea what had happened to his remaining sister and brother and if they were safe.

Two years later he was elated to learn that they had also managed to escape and his sister is now living in Sweden and his brother in Canada (and his sister did the sleuthing to find the others).

Amazing, isn’t it?

Why it pays to lead with stories when you want to inspire others

But here’s the thing about Abraham’s story and why I shared it with you today:

If like me you didn’t know much about Eritrea up to this point, have you noticed how quickly Abraham’s story helped you to form vivid impressions and memories about what he experienced?

And wouldn’t those experiences beat a history lesson – replete with lashing of details and sequence information (however well researched) – any day of the week?

Of course. Truth is, stories eat complexities for lunch and can help you create far more powerful memories for any audience you address.

As I mentioned in a previous blog post – when it comes to communication impact: “Stories rule and facts droll!”