When it comes to being an effective storyteller in business or at work, there are two mistakes leaders sometimes make. The first is leaders psyching themselves out, telling themselves “I’m an awful storyteller. So, I’m just going to stick with reporting the facts.” The second is the other side of that coin, with leaders telling themselves, “I’m already a great storyteller. So, I don’t have to prepare or practice a story. I’ll just wing it.”
The downfall of the first mistake is leaders who never give storytelling a chance, depriving themselves of a powerful tool of influence, persuasion and inspiration. The downfall of the second is leaders who tell stories regularly but not effectively, because their stories are never well thought-through or delivered and always seem to lack a relevant point, leaving an audience scratching their heads and wondering, “What the heck was that all about?”
The fact is, stories work; but to be an effective storyteller you have to put some work into your stories to make them work for you. Nervous storytellers will quickly realize that developing and delivering a meaningful story isn’t that complicated. More confident storytellers will learn that with a bit of strategizing and preparation, they can make a key communications strength even stronger. Outlined below are eight ways that both types of leaders can be a more effective storyteller at work and use stories to improve the impact of their communications and their ability to engage and persuade others.
1. To be an effective storyteller, be strategic first, defining the desired impacts of your story before content.
In business, we don’t just start working on an initiative and hope that everything will unfold as it should. We strategize first, thinking about our intent and desired impact before tactics, identifying goals and objectives before activity. The same approach should be taken with business storytelling. More specifically, it’s important to first consider and identify what you need a story to do so you can find the best story to do it. To accomplish this, ask yourself the following strategic storytelling questions:
- Who’s my story for, and what’s their current situation (my audience context)?
- What do I want or need them to do (my desired action)?
- What do I think they need to think or feel in order to take that action (my desired influence)?
Thinking strategically is less about what your story is and how you’re going to deliver it (those come later). It’s about understanding why you need to tell a story and what you want it to achieve.
2. Identify a key message or idea that will create your desired impacts.
Being an effective storyteller at work isn’t about entertaining people (though a workplace story can certainly be entertaining). It’s about having a meaningful, relevant point you want to make and using your story to deliver it: that message or idea that will elicit the thoughts and feelings identified in your story strategy and inspire your audience to take your desired action. And while I never like to overly script a story, I will make sure the wording of my point is pithy and memorable: a focused sound bite that my audience can take away with them.
3. Find the right story to deliver your message and create your desired impacts.
Once you’ve identified what you need a story to achieve, an effective storyteller then finds the right story to achieve it. For example, “My team is facing a seemingly insurmountable sales target. I need a story that inspires them to overcome that challenge and conveys that, by working collaboratively as a true team, they can do so.” The most natural place for you to look for the right story is your own experiences, personal or professional. But you can also “borrow” stories of someone else’s experience: a friend, family member, or colleague. Or it could be an analogous story you pull from sport, literature, history, the movies, etc. If you can’t think of a good story on your own, go to Google or Bing and just ask (e.g., “What’s a good story about teamwork to overcome a tough challenge?”). It’s amazing what will pop up.
4. Map out the plot of your workplace story to give it structure, direction and focus.
Time is the single most precious commodity we have at work. As such, an effective storyteller tells stories that are worth people’s time. Workplace stories shouldn’t be thought up on the spot in front of an audience. Rather, they are thought-through in advance, with meaningful content and a captivating plot. They should start strong, but also finish strong: be effective, but also efficient; contain rich detail, but just enough to set the scene and recreate an experience. And importantly, the plot of your story should drive towards the point of it, so that when you emphasize your message at the end (“The point of my story is…”), your audience is already there with you.
5. Make sure it’s a real story, not just a report or business case.
Giving reports or making a business case are two valuable workplace communications practices, but they are different than storytelling. Reports or business cases are meant to inform people: about what happened, what is happening, or what could or should happen in the future. They are about “what” or even “how”. Stories, however, are more about “why”. They go beyond informing people to enlighten and inspire them, shifting the way they think and feel and motivating them towards a desired action. Don’t think about storytelling replacing your report or business case. Rather, think about using a story as part of your report or business case, to position what you’re reporting or proposing and pave the way for your audience to be more receptive to it.
6. Focus more on the human drama than the business drama.
A key difference between reports and stories is that reports are about what happened, while stories are about what happened to someone: what they did, said, heard, saw, thought, felt, and experienced. Even if that story is about work, it’s less about the business or operational situation (that’s a case study) and more about the people involved in and/or affected by it – e.g., real employees, customers or managers, with real names and personalities. When we hear reports about work or business, we connect with them at a professional level, but only if what is being reported is relevant to me, my company, role or discipline. As such, the appeal of a report can be limited. But because stories involve human drama, we connect with them at a human level. And because we are all human, stories provide greater opportunity to engage more people in a deeper, more personal way.
7. When you tell your story, be a storyteller.
Don’t report your story or present it; tell your story, bringing the experience of it to life and transporting your audience to that place and time. Be descriptive in setting the scene. Be human in sharing thoughts and emotions. Interact with your audience and make them part of the experience. This is not to say that you should be overly dramatic or act in a way that is inconsistent with who you are and how others know you. But if you tell your audience you want to share a story with them, they will be expecting a true story, with rise and fall, with tension and resolution, and with a valuable lesson or moral they can take away with them.
8. Practice your delivery, again and again.
Storytelling is a craft; it’s a skill; and like any new craft or skill, practice makes perfect. It’s like learning a new song on the piano or a new move in hockey. So, after you’ve strategically selected the right story to tell and have mapped out its plot, take time to practice telling that story, out loud, to yourself and/or to others. Thinking through your story helps. Reading through it helps. But nothing takes the place of working on your verbal delivery of it. So practice telling your story a few times before you have to tell it as part of your presentation, meeting or one-on-one. Do it in the car, in your hotel room, walking the dog…but do it. When the time comes for you to share it with your audience, you will be glad you did and will be a more effective storyteller for doing so.
Bill Baker is a seasoned storytelling trainer, teaching executives, managers, sales people, engineers, scientists and others how to use storytelling strategically to improve the impact of their communications and, with that, their ability to lead others.