Leaders tell stories so that audiences listen, remember and act on what they say.
In fact, stories are “the single most powerful weapon in a leader’s arsenal,” according to Harvard University professor and noted psychologist Dr Howard Gardner.
But many business leaders shy away from storytelling because they don’t see the value, or because they don’t know how to do it. The good news is that you don’t have to be an author or orator to come up with an effective story. Simply follow our four-step process for effective storytelling below and read/watch our examples of business storytelling in action.
Plot twists and character arcs are for novelists; you need a story that will resonate with your audience. Keep it simple yet relatable. Pitching to a client? Align your problem with something they’ve experienced themselves.
Breaking your story into three parts can be a helpful way to start: situation, complication and resolution. Almost every story has this basic structure, from fairytales to business anecdotes. In fact, your story might only need to be three lines long, as long as it covers all three parts:
It’s well-known by authors that the key to a compelling read is to use the five senses – sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste – to invite the reader into the scene. Great storytellers pepper their stories with sensory details that spark the imagination. These details make us feel like we’re really there, right in the middle of the action.
For example, metaphors involving texture stimulate activity in the sensory cortex, the part of the brain responsible for actually perceiving texture through touch. Instead of talking about ‘bad’ customer service, you might refer to it as ‘raw’, ‘coarse’ or ‘abrasive’. Instead of talking about ‘good’ customer service, you might use ‘warm’, ‘solid’ or ‘bubbly’ to bring it to life in your audience’s mind.
You can do this with your business storytelling too, by adding splashes of sensory detail to your stories. Using vivid language and imagery will invoke the five senses of your audience. It paints a mental picture in their minds and makes them more receptive to what you have to say. For example, when describing a product launch, you might say “The new prototype was Ferrari-red, with modules that clicked into place like a seatbelt into a buckle”.
Do you go out of your way to break down highly technical, complex or scientific concepts into easily understood ideas? Metaphors and analogies can help make even the most complicated of topics relatable to an audience, by comparing the known to the unknown (or turning dry stuff into more interesting material).
Here’s an example of a metaphor applied to the most basic business context: A fragmented business is like a leaky bucket; it may still work but you have to make a lot more trips to get your water. If your business is leaking money then you’ll have to sell more to keep up. It’s far easier to plug the leaks than to keep going back to the well.
Stories appeal to the right-hand side of the brain, bypassing the logical and judgemental left-hand side. We make decisions emotionally, then try to back them up rationally. A story gives you direct access to that emotional decision-making centre.
In business, speakers and presenters too often try to connect with people only on a rational level. While your audience may understand exactly what you want them to and why, they will only act on your message if they feel emotionally engaged.
As Maya Angelou said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Emotion is the vehicle that will take your audience on a journey with you. So be vulnerable by sharing the emotional highs and lows. Tell your audience how the situation felt. Describe how the challenges and solutions you describe affected people personally.
For example, if you’re telling a story about how you changed the company’s direction after misreading the market, describe the consequences of that mistake. Reveal how you felt when you realised things needed to change. Then talk of the frustrations of making those changes, and your joy and relief once they were implemented, as well as the positive impact they had on customers and employees.
One of our clients, John, was the MD of a large utility company when he approached us to help him improve his public speaking. John had avoided speaking in public, but now he had to deliver a presentation on health and safety to hundreds of staff. That’s a dull topic at the best of times and, to make matters worse, his presentation had been prepared for him by the HR team. It was pretty dry.
John knew how to communicate well from his training with us. So he binned the HR presentation. Instead, he started his piece with a story. He said, “I once managed building sites. In my first two weeks of a new job, we had a crane collapse on site.
“That night, I had to knock on the door of a house and tell a woman that her husband was dead because of an accident on my site. I never want any of you to have to go through what I went through that day. And that’s why I’m talking about health and safety today.”
John started by describing the situation (managing building sites), introduced a complication (crane collapsing) and finished with the resolution (telling a woman that her husband had died and wanting the audience to never have to experience that). The language is simple, but has a powerful emotional impact: we can all imagine what an awful day that was.
For other examples of business storytelling, watch the previous CEO of Uber Travis Kalanick use a story about what happened over 100 years ago as a warning against over-regulation today, or watch Stanley McChrystal share what he learned about leadership from the military.
We’re hardwired to understand the world through stories. Our ability to recall the past and imagine the future is a defining aspect of what makes us human. Great stories enable us to do this, and effective leaders use them to help us do it.
We’ll help you use stories to inspire, engage and persuade your audience. We’ll help you craft your message, transform your content and rehearse your delivery. You’ll feel calm, confident, and ready to deliver your most powerful talk or presentation yet.
CEOs and Senior Executives consistently rate our award-winning advice and coaching as the most practical, effective and transformative they’ve ever had.
Storytelling is in our DNA. Humans have been using stories for thousands of years, from ancient cave paintings to trivial stories about waiting in line at the supermarket. Creating a narrative isn’t hard; most of us do it every day.
American author and business consultant Peg Neuhauser neatly summarises how business leaders can learn from our rich storytelling heritage. She says, “No tribal Chief or Elder has ever handed out statistical reports, charts, graphs or lists of facts to explain where the group is headed or what it must do.”
Recent scientific work has put a much finer point on just how stories change our attitudes, beliefs and behaviours. When we’re presented with “hard facts” (data) it only activates a particular area of the brain associated with the simplest form of language processing, decoding the incoming words into meaning. And that’s it. However, a story ignites the parts of the brain linked to the actual experience of the subject, according to a study reported in the New York Times. In other words, stories create empathy.Transform your public speaking skills with our award-winning 1:1 coaching
Being able to articulate your story, or that of your company, is crucial to almost every aspect of business management.
Film producer and CEO of Mandalay Entertainment Peter Guber explains, “An effective CEO uses an emotional narrative about the company’s mission to attract investors and partners, to set lofty goals, and to inspire employees. Sometimes a well-crafted story can even transform a seemingly hopeless situation into an unexpected triumph.”
Yet, contrary to popular belief, storytelling is not always about you or your company. The most powerful stories are the ones that resonate with your audience. It’s all about context.
So, When you want to use storytelling in your next leadership communications, ask yourself the following questions:
Answering these key questions will help you frame your stories appropriately.
One way to ensure you have the right story for the right context is to begin curating a library of stories. Encourage people at all levels in your business to contribute relevant stories to this library. You’ll be able to pick and choose the most powerful one for each audience you need to address, as and when you need them.
Find out how we can transform the message, content and delivery of your talks and presentations using tools like business storytelling. Call Louise Angus on 020 7018 0922, email her via email@example.com or fill in our enquiry form.
You may also be interested in our free ebook, Five Steps to Improve Your Leadership Talks: an introduction to The Powerful Presentation Process.
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