Storytelling in business can be a double-edged sword, evoking different reactions from an audience. For instance, when I’m listening to a presentation or speech, and the speaker says, “I want to share a story,” two thoughts pop into my head. The first is, “Oh goody, a story!”, quickly followed by the second: “God, I hope it’s a good one.”
Business storytelling can be a very powerful and persuasive way of communicating, helping a speaker bring ideas to life and connect an audience to them. But it can just as easily work against a speaker, especially if that story is too loose and aimless, rambling on without clear direction or purpose. Strong business storytelling is descriptive, but also disciplined. It’s evocative, but also efficient. It paints a picture, but also makes a point, doing so in a way that respects people’s time.
The best business storytelling is productive, tight and focused. It recreates an experience and sets a scene, but is not so expressive and evocative that it starts to feel like Marcel Proust taking seven pages to describe a chair. To focus your business storytelling and ensure it works for you and your audience, here are five things to keep in mind.
1) Clearly identify the point of your business storytelling.
Effective business storytelling is strategic. It’s storytelling with intent, namely to convey an idea and make a point that, in turn, will shape an audience’s thoughts and feelings and motivate them towards a desired action. When business storytelling is strategic, the main purpose of that story is not so much to engage and entertain (though it should certainly do both), as it is to deliver a key message the storyteller wants his or her audience to embrace and take away with them. Without that point clearly identified and cemented in the storyteller’s mind, business storytelling can be rudderless and meaningless, leaving an audience wondering, “What the Hell was that all about? Can we get on with the meeting now?”
2) Make your point the target, and drive your business storytelling plot towards it.
Once you’ve thought strategically about your business story and have its intended point in mind, then start building the plot of that story to drive towards that point. Think of your point as the bullseye your story is shooting for, and ensure the drama, the tension, the contrast and characters are all helping set it up.
Effective business storytelling pulls an audience along versus pushing them in a direction. It facilitates the way an audience thinks versus forcing it. It uses the plot of the story to take an audience by the hand and lead them towards a desired message that, importantly, the audience ultimately concludes on their own versus the storyteller shoving it down their throats. Yes, the business storyteller may emphasize the point at the very end of his or her story, but if the plot and drama unfold correctly, by the time he or she has done so, the audience is already there with them.
3) Sacrifice elements of your business story that aren’t connected to your point.
Great art is often about sacrifice, deciding what stays in, but also what gets left behind. The same holds true for effective business storytelling. As you develop the plot of your story, push yourself to jettison story elements that aren’t relevant to your point or help set it up.
As an example, let’s say I have a team that is facing a daunting challenge and feeling overwhelmed by it. I’ve determined that the message I need them to hear is that by working collaboratively as a team and supporting each other, we can and will overcome this challenge, together. This is the point I want to make, and I’ve decided that I will use a story from my experience climbing Kilimanjaro to deliver that message.
In particular, I’m going to tell the story of when our entire group had to stop mid-way up the mountain because one of our fellow climbers was struggling. I’ll openly divulge how some of us (me included) flirted with the idea of forging ahead without that climber, but decided not to, because our goal had been to get to the top together, and we were determined to honour that commitment. And I’ll tell how we took turns carrying his pack, sharing water, and offering encouraging words so that he could summit along with the rest of us.
In truth, there are many learnings from that Kilimanjaro experience I could bring to life and/or points I could make — e.g., trusting your capabilities; the importance of proper tools and resources; tackling a tough challenge one step at a time; etc. However, I am going to dedicate my limited business storytelling time to the single drama of working with my fellow climbers to reach that summit together, because supporting each other and working as a team is the point I want my story to make. In turn, I am willing to leave those other learnings, and the dramas surrounding them, for another time.
4) Dial down the informational set-up, and dial up the drama.
Before a business storyteller starts to unfold the plot of his or her story, there is typically some set-up information the audience needs to know — e.g., about the place, the time, the people, the circumstances, etc. When you do this informational set-up, make it as tight and concise as possible. Ask yourself what is the minimal amount of information your audience needs in order to understand the plot, the drama, and the point of your story. Very often if a business storyteller’s story is too long, I will point to their informational set-up and suggest they cut it by half or two-thirds. Keep that informational set-up short and sweet, and either bank the saved time (making the whole story shorter) or dedicate some of it to enriching the drama of your story.
5) Start your business storytelling strong, and finish it strong.
I can usually tell within the first 20 to 30 seconds of business storytelling whether or not the speaker’s story is going to be focused and worth my time, or something that makes me think, “Oh we’d better buckle down because this is going to take a while.” Effective business storytellers start their stories off strong. They’re judicious in what they say and don’t say. They provide just enough information and detail to make their story enlightening and engaging, but don’t go overboard by richly describing every single scene.
Importantly, they establish momentum and energy from the get-go, making an audience feel like the experience is driving towards something versus wandering without direction. And just as importantly, the business storyteller knows when to (as one recent business storytelling workshop told me) “land the plane.” Once the point of the story is revealed and connected back to the audience and their workplace situation, the storyteller does not hesitate to convincingly and confidently stop talking, take a breath, and let everything sink in.