If you think about it, the majority of business is based on logic. That’s communicating information, facts and intellectual interpretation.
Those who use this logic-driven communication style hope you will understand and accept their message based on the expert knowledge, data, statistics and case studies they use to support their argument.
Not surprisingly, those who use this logic-driven communication style don’t always have their message accepted, whether in a one-to-one conversation, meeting, or delivering a conference presentation. And logic-driven leaders tend to have little personal presence and impact.
However, the story is quite different for those who employ heart and mind communication. Their messages are more readily accepted.
They inspire people, have greater gravitas and effortlessly persuade.
They are the storytellers. Storytelling brings knowledge to life.
Great storytellers are invariably great leaders—inspiring people with their narrative.
However, for me, discovering the power of storytelling came as a result of a painful lesson…
Some years back, when I had delivered a speech at an important industry conference, I walked off stage knowing I had flopped. However, a few in the audience did gently clap.
I aimed to influence industry decision-makers, but most had just dozed.
Then the next speaker taught me that success and influence parallel the stories we tell. Not the facts we state. Not the case studies we share. Not the diagrams we draw. They had delivered their entire speech using a series of simple and highly engaging stories to position their company as the leader in the market. They walked off stage to a massive round of applause.
The problem was, I had been a ‘logic junkie’.
It was at this point that I set myself a challenge. To become a compelling business storyteller. To be able to influence and inspire with stories. Like learning any new language, it took me some time. I read the research and practised the skills. Then 12 years ago, I published the Storytelling Pocketbook.
This quick read 7 step guide aims to put you on the path to becoming a great storyteller if this is a skill you have yet to develop and refresh your ability if you are already using storytelling in business.
Step 1: Purpose
Be clear on why you want to use stories in your business setting.
The right story told in the right way at the right time will bring your products & services to life and differentiate you from your competitors.
The case for using stories is sound. If you think about it stories, represent how we learn as humans, and mini-stories are an essential part of our day-to-day conversations. Facts are 20x more memorable when wrapped in the narrative.
So if you want to tell the world about your firms…innovative thinking…research capabilities…customer focus…future vision, or perhaps you want to pitch to investors or say to the world about your great new product or service…create greater internal engagement…implement your strategy more effectively…make change happen…bring your firms digital journey to life…then tell a story.
There are many benefits too from a personal leadership perspective. Using well-formed stories told correctly will enhance your executive presence, make the complex simple, get buy-in for your ideas, engage people more effectively, inspire and ignite action.
And when you train your sales teams to become great storytellers, the return on your investment can be significant. One of my clients found that their salespeople who use stories at the right time in a sales meeting were 2x to 3x more successful than those who just used their standard, more logical sales approach.
Jot down a few ideas on the situations where you feel using stories will be most beneficial for you and your business.
Step 2: Start to develop your personal story list
Think of the experiences that defined you.
You will hear motivational speakers telling their audiences how they overcame tremendous obstacles to achieve their goal of climbing a previously unconquered mountain or rowing single-handed across a fierce ocean. However, the most compelling personal stories are about everyday experiences where we learnt something new.
One way to start to generate your personal story list is to draw a straight line on a sheet of A4 paper and mark your age from birth to today on it.
Then note down on the timeline experiences you can remember and what you learned from each; these might be anything a teacher said to you through what you learned if you failed your first driving test. Include experiences that helped shape your business values.
Select three or four of these experiences that were significant for you and that you will be happy to share.
Step 3. List elements in your consulting business that you would like to highlight.
These could encompass your company vision, the problems you solve for customers, your firm’s research capabilities, the exciting careers you offer, coaching your team, your company culture, a change initiative and so on.
Then think of examples or experiences that bring each to life.
To spark some ideas, when you have some spare moments look at the websites and YouTube channels of the following firms; they each use storytelling to great effect: 3M, Xerox, Canon, NASA, FedEx and Ritz Carlton.
If you have difficulty thinking how you might explain something complex, then stop thinking from the perspective of your job title and instead think:
- How would a documentary firm maker explain the reasons?
- How would you explain them to a 10-year-old child?
- How would a painter explain them?
- How would a novelist explain them?
- How would a cartoonist explain them?
- And so on.
Step 4: Structure your experiences or examples into stories
There are several ways to structure a business story. However, they are each variant of the classic Hero’s Journey structure.
Although there are some advanced twists you can add to your storytelling, the following two structures will serve you well as you get started:
For stories to position your products & services in your marketplace:
- Introduce the client (the hero) & share a little about them
- Describe the problem they’ve encountered & the impact it’s having on their business/life
- You meet customer, understand their problem & share a plan to resolve it (You take on the role of a consultant/guide, not the hero)
- Describe the reason the customer had to take action
- Briefly share what might have happened if they hadn’t taken action
- The ‘happy ever after‘, How was their business & its future success due to using your products/services?
For personal leadership stories:
- Set the scene and introduce the key characters.
- Begin the journey until you reach the turning point
- Turning point – all good stories have a turning point. It’s the surprise moment; the grizzly bear jumped out, and then…
- Resolve the story – describe what happened after you encountered the turning point and tie off the loose ends in the story.
- Make your point – state what you learnt as a result of the experience.
Step 5: Telling your stories
There are a few guidelines to be aware of:
- Stories don’t have to be the length of Hollywood feature films. As a general guide, if you are new to using storytelling in business, then start by keeping them to around 2 to 3 minutes in length.
- Be descriptive – use all five senses when you tell your stories.
- Ensure the meaning of your story is aligned with the main message you want to get across.
- Add emotion into your story.
- When using personal stories, don’t be boastful and be perceptive to your audience, i.e. it is likely better not to tell a story about the problems you had building your 20-bedroom mansion in the countryside when most of your audience can only afford to rent a one-bedroom apartment in the suburbs.
- Use your voice effectively – its rhythm, speed, volume and pauses will bring your story to life
Step 6: Practice, practice then practice some more.
Storytelling is like learning any new language. You need to practice.
Start by using your stories with what might be termed, safe audiences, such as team meetings. Ask for feedback from a trusted friend or colleague. Then as your confidence grows start to use your new-found storytelling skills with clients and in speeches.
Gradually increase the number of stories in your repertoire and watch how others in business use stories & storytelling, for example, documentary filmmakers and press journalists.
Step 7: More than a presentation tool
Many people in business see stories only as a tool to bring presentations to life. However, when used wisely stories can be employed to engage your stakeholders’ emotions, change attitudes and behaviours.
For example, I work with clients to:
- Create a greater sense of ownership of culture change initiatives and help them happen more easily. We typically devise a framework for senior managers to create the story themselves (A similar approach can help greatly with strategy implementation).
- For example, build greater trust within teams by sharing experiences in their early life that have shaped their leadership values.
- Improve sales results by weaving the right story in the right place into a traditional sales approach.
You may also enjoy reading Roger’s INSEAD Knowledge article: Storytelling: More than a presentation tool. (Tap here)