Author: Rana Sajjad Ahmad*
“Let me tell you a story.” All of the around 20 members seated in the audience in a bright sun-lit room in downtown Chicago almost leaned in, eyes locked on the speaker, eagerly anticipating what was coming next. Then, the speaker, a slightly bald man in his fifties, gave a wry smile and instead of telling a story, broke it to the audience that they had just been beguiled by the power of these six words: “Let me tell you a story”.
The attendees, my fellow Columbia alums, while being enthralled, realized that they had fallen for it, the irresistible impulse to hear, yet another story. While being fascinated, some almost looked embarrassed at being hooked by the seemingly superficial draw of a story. How shallow was that, they thought, to be in a professional setting, and look so eager to hear a story? But is being curious about hearing stories superficial or simply part of being human? Is the human brain not wired to respond in such a way when someone throws the bait of a story to capture and hold our attention?
Think for a moment of our hunter-gatherer ancestors and visualize them huddled around a big fire telling and hearing stories to learn more about one another and the world around them. Bottomline is, there is no shame in getting excited about stories as our love of stories goes back a long time.
Another testament to the power of story-telling over the years is how it has been widely used not just to engage the attention of large audiences but to change people’s minds and inspire and motivate them. This is also why, in the realm of public speaking, the ability to tell a compelling and riveting story is considered an invaluable skill.
So, what is it about story-telling that makes it such an effective tool? By appealing to our emotions, stories do not just get our rapt attention, they also help us remember and retain a lot of the information packed in the story. As much as we may think that we choose and decide on the basis of logic and reasoning, according to neuroscience research, a lot of our understanding of ideas, reactions and decisions are based on the emotions we feel after hearing and connecting with a story. The question then is: If leaders, entrepreneurs and agents of change can use stories to inspire, engage, and persuade millions of people, why can story-telling not be used to teach and learn? Why do speakers and trainers not tell stories at conferences and training workshops to help participants understand the issues and topics being discussed? Why do they continue to belabor dense and uninteresting details while communicating their thoughts and views?
In the realm of arbitration, would it be odd to have arbitration conferences and training workshops in which speakers and trainers tell stories, either true ones about them and people they know or fictional ones by creating scenarios that the attendees do not just hear but visualize and immerse themselves in to develop a deeper understanding of the topics of discussion.
In my previous blog post titled “Reimagining webinars” in this space, I had discussed the value of asking questions and having a diverse group of speakers at webinars and conferences for deeper engagement and a multi-disciplinary approach to understanding concepts and issues related to arbitration. In the same vein, the use of story-telling can improve the learning experience of attendees from the standpoint of both how and what they learn and retain. So the next time you hear the two magical words “story time”, they may not just bring back fond childhood memories of your parents reading a bedtime story, it may well be time to grab your coffee, get seated at your conference table with your colleagues and prepare to hear and learn from a dazzling story about drafting an arbitration clause or a court decision enforcing an arbitral award.
*Rana Sajjad is a dual-qualified lawyer (licensed in New York and Pakistan). He is a Partner at the Lahore-based law firm of Rana Ijaz & Partners and the Founder & President of the Center for International Investment and Commercial Arbitration (CIICA), Pakistan’s first international arbitration center.