Feb 2, 2019
One of the more popular stories I hear during our Storytelling for Business training workshops is of someone running their first marathon. This popularity is for good reason, because running a marathon is no easy feat, and one learns a lot from doing so.
I have never run a marathon. I have no intention of running a marathon. So, I can’t, personally, relate to that particular physical journey. However, when a “first marathon” story is told really well, I can still relate to the storyteller runner who’s telling it. Because even though I have never run a marathon, I have had to overcome plenty of tough challenges that seemed epic or insurmountable when I first faced them. In other words, even though I have never shared the storyteller’s physical experience of running 26.2 miles in one go, I have shared a similar mental and emotional experience of conquering an intimidating, overwhelming task.
For business storytelling to be effective, it must be relevant and relatable to the audience, not just the storyteller. More specifically, the storyteller should try to make sure that audience can see themselves in the storyteller’s story, even if they never shared the experience the storyteller is recounting. The more the audience can relate to the story being shared, the more meaning and insight they can glean from it, and the deeper and more lasting impact that story will have.
Outlined below are three things you can do to make sure the stories you’re sharing are relevant and relatable to your audience, not just to you.
ONE: Take a strategic approach to your business storytelling
When you think strategically about the stories you’re telling at work, you don’t start with the story; rather, you start with your audience, identifying the impacts you want your story to have on them. More specifically, you think strategically about what you want a story (any story) to do for your audience, so you can find and develop the best story to do it.
This “audience first” approach to strategic storytelling unfolds through the following line of questioning:
1) Who is my audience and what situation or circumstances are they facing right now? What’s happening to them, inside of them, around them? What’s the context for a story?
2) What do I want my audience to do after hearing a story; the action I want them to take; start or stop doing; do more of or less of?
3) What do I think my audience needs to think and/or feel, or stop thinking and stop feeling to take that action?
4) What’s a message I believe they need to hear and take-away?
5) And finally, do I have the right story to foster and facilitate all of the above? Do I have the right story to deliver that message, to shape those thoughts and feelings, to inspire that action or change in behaviour.
Because a strategic approach starts with the audience and keeps them always in mind (versus being self-centredly focused on the storyteller), it helps ensure that the story being developed and shared will be relevant and relatable to that audience. This is the difference between just telling any story in a workplace situation, and telling the right story, to deliver the right message at the right time.
TWO: Decide whom your audience should relate to in your story
One key difference between business reporting and business storytelling is that business stories, workplace stories involve people. They’re about human drama, not just operational, technical or financial drama. Moreover, they convey not just what happened, but what happened to someone: what they heard, said, thought, felt, and experienced. While reports have facts, stories have characters; and the more your audience can relate to those characters, the more learning and wisdom they can pull from those characters’ experiences.
However, most stories have more than one character. Therefore, when you develop your story and think strategically about it, you need to decide which character you want your audience relating to most.
As an example, you might share a story from sport that involves a coach and a team of athletes. When sharing that story with new managers or directors, you would likely want your audience relating to the coach character. More specifically, the human drama unfolding would demonstrate how effective she was in empowering her team and inspiring them to take on greater ownership of their own success. It would bring to life the struggle that coach felt balancing her impulse to simply tell her team what to do with her realization that encouraging them to figure things out on their own would lead to more sustainable success.
On the flip side, when sharing that story with new employees, you might want your audience relating more to the team member characters. In that case, the human drama would centre more on those athletes weighing the ease of being told exactly what to do by their coach with the pride and fulfillment they experienced when they took on more responsibility for their own success and figured it out themselves.
Same situation; same cast of characters; but it would feel like a different story because the relatable character and the drama unfolding for them would be different, as would the message or lesson revealed at the end.
THREE: Take some creative liberties to make your story more reflective of your audience.
Storytelling must be genuine in its intent to be most effective, facilitating the audience’s thinking versus trying to manipulate it. With that said, I think it’s ok to embellish a story, as long as there is a genuine strategic reason for doing so. You shouldn’t lie from beginning to end. You don’t want to say anything someone could Google fact-check you on. But if you want to take some creative liberties with your story to make it more reflective of your audience and/or make the point of your story come through more clearly, I think that’s ok.
As an example, one area of a story I will often embellish to make it more relatable to my audience is the inner dialogue that was going on in my head during the ordeal I’m recounting. For example, “And I remember thinking to myself I couldn’t do this anymore; I’m in way over my head. But then I woke up the next morning, I realized I could do this, but it was going to take hard work and belief in myself.” To be honest, I can’t remember if that’s exactly what I was thinking at that time; but I know that’s what my audience is thinking right now.
Relatable stories are like a mirror you’re holding up to your audience. In taking those creative liberties, in exercising those embellishments, you can often make that mirror more reflective of your audience and what they’re going through. When this happens, your audience’s connection to your story will be stronger, but also their connection to you and the wonderful wisdom you are sharing with them.
Bill Baker is the founder and principal of BB&Co Strategic Storytelling. For over 13 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. BB&Co’s training helps managers, salespeople, finance directors, engineers, scientists and others understand how to use storytelling to improve the impact of their communications and presentations and, with that, their ability to persuade, engage and inspire others. Sign up for our next open-enrollment, online Storytelling Training workshop!