Here’s a situation that regularly happens to me before the start of one of our Business Storytelling Training workshops.
In pre-COVID times — before all our Presentation Skills and Business Storytelling training went online — I would arrive at the workshop venue 30 to 45 minutes before the scheduled start time to get set-up, plugged in, and make sure everything is working well before people started arriving. As participants streamed into the room, I would greet them, introduce myself, and invite them to take a seat wherever they want.
Five minutes or so before the scheduled start time — amidst the quiet din of small talk, coffee slurping, and fingers tapping furiously away on keyboards to send that last email — I would let people know that we would get started soon. And then, after that announcement, a participant would rise from his table and walk shyly up to me at the front of the room, his brow furrowed and eyes filled with concern. “Umm…could I talk to you for a second?” he’d whisper. “Of course,” I would respond.
Quite often, he would then motion me over into the corner of the room for some extra privacy. “I’m an awful storyteller,” he would confide, his shoulders lifting slightly after unburdening himself from the weight of this confession. Looking more at the ground than at me, “I am just really, really bad at storytelling,” he would continue.
“Listen, you’re probably better than you think,” I would reassure him. “Regardless, you’re in the right place, because this is what this business storytelling training is all about: teaching you how to be a stronger, more confident storyteller in a workplace setting.”
Slightly reassured but still not completely convinced, he would motion his head to one of the group tables and, more specifically, to a particular, animated woman holding court at it. “That person right there. I work with her. She’s an amazing storyteller: so descriptive and captivating, like she was born to do this. I’ll never be as good as that.”
“Nor do you have to be,” I would reassure him. And then looking directly at him, I would lay out the truth about business storytelling and the intent of this storytelling training workshop.
“Listen. You do not have to be the most dynamic, most animated storyteller to tell the right story and make it a good story. If you are able to think strategically to identify the right story to deliver the right message, and if you are willing to put some work into the content of that story and practice it a few times to get comfortable with it…well, that is 80 to 90% of what makes up success.
“And sure,” I would continue, “if you’re a naturally vibrant, enthralling, more theatrical storyteller …well, that’s good icing on the proverbial cake. But trust me, you do not have to be the most gifted and expressive storyteller to tell the right story in a business setting and make it a good story that is worth people’s time.
Then, patting him on the shoulder, I would say, “So quit worrying and start believing that you can do this. You’ll be fine.” And with a quiet smile and a nod of his head, the participant would return to his seat, still a bit nervous but feeling a bit more optimistic, relieved and, importantly, ready to learn.
Business Storytelling Is a Skill
The truth about business storytelling is it’s more of a skill than a talent. And like any skill, it can be learned through instruction, sharpened through training, and mastered through practice and coaching. In the same way that we learn to ride a bike, play a musical instrument, or take-up a new sport, we can learn the craft and technique of business storytelling.
And the great thing is that, as we learn this skill, we quickly discover that we kind of, sort of know a lot about storytelling already, because we’ve been telling stories and hearing stories all of our lives. That’s the paradox of business storytelling: it can be both surprisingly intimidating and refreshingly familiar at the same time.
When people start learning about business storytelling, they quickly realize that it’s not rocket science (and I say that as someone who regularly teaches storytelling to actual rocket scientists). If you understand the fundamentals of good business storytelling — how to approach it, engineer it, and yes, deliver it — any professional can take concrete steps towards using this timeless craft of humanity to improve the impact of their workplace communications and, with that, their ability to persuade, influence and engage others.
And sure, some people have some natural talent and abilities in the areas of storytelling, public speaking, or presenting. They feel more comfortable than most of us when speaking in front of a group of people and seem to be very much “in their element” when doing so. However, in a business setting, no matter how good that storyteller might be, if the story being shared isn’t relevant to the audience or their situation and doesn’t have a meaningful point that enlightens and inspires them, then little else matters.
Believe me, I’ve run across some incredible storytellers in my career, who tell some remarkable stories. But sometimes, even the best storyteller’s stories don’t land in a business setting — i.e., as entertaining as the story might’ve been and as engaging as the storyteller was in sharing it, in the end you’re still left wondering what the point of their story was, why they told it, how you’re going to get those four minutes of your life back, and whether or not we could just, please, get on with the meeting.
Any Professional Can Become a Better Storyteller
The bottom line is you don’t need to have lots of natural talent for storytelling to be an effective business storyteller. What you do need to have, however, is a willingness to put some work into your business stories to make sure those stories will work for you; to achieve what you need them to achieve, deliver the message you need to be heard, and have the impact you need them to have.
The great aviator and inventor, Wilbur Wright, once said, “It is possible to fly without a motor, but not without knowledge and skill.” Applying this analogy to business storytelling, think of the motor as natural storytelling talent: some of us are born with it, many of us are not. When it comes to storytelling knowledge and storytelling skill, however, none of us are born with it.
But the good news is, all of us, every single one of us, has the ability to obtain both. It just takes some desire to learn, some willingness to try, and some determination to work to master and apply the magic and rigour of business storytelling. Do so and, trust me, it will take your own workplace communications to new heights.
Bill Baker is the founder and principal of BB&Co Strategic Storytelling. For over 12 years, BB&Co has been providing Effective Presentation Skills and Leadership Through Storytelling training to organizations such as Coca-Cola, Cisco, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, Dell, Prudential, and others. Consider joining Bill at his next Open-Enrollment Storytelling Training workshop taking place on April 29 & 30, from 12:30 to 4:00 EDT each day.