We tell stories to our coworkers and peers all the time to persuade them to support our projects, to explain to an employee how he might improve or to inspire a team that is facing challenges. It’s an essential skill, but what makes a compelling story in a business context? And how can you improve your ability to tell stories that persuade?
In our information saturated age, business leaders “won’t be heard unless they’re telling stories. Facts and figures and all the rational things that we think are important in the business world actually don’t stick in our minds at all. On the contrary, stories create sticky memories by attaching emotions to things that happen. That means leaders who can create and share good stories will have a powerful advantage over others. Fortunately, everyone has the ability to become a better storyteller. It can be taught and learned. Here’s how to use business storytelling to your benefit.
Start with a message
Every storytelling exercise should begin by asking: Who is my audience and what will be the message? What do I want to share with them? Each decision about your story should flow from those questions. What is the core moral that I am trying to implant in my team? For instance, if your team is behaving as if the failure is not an option, you might decide to impart the message that failure is actually the brother of success. Or if you are trying to convince senior leaders to take a risk by supporting your project, you could convey that most companies are built on taking smart risks. First settle on your ultimate message; then you can figure out the best way to illustrate it.
Use your own experiences
The best business storytellers look to their own memories and life experiences for ways to illustrate their message. What events in your life make you believe in the idea you are trying to share? Think of a moment in which your own failures led to success in your career, or a lesson that a parent or mentor imparted. Any of these things can be interesting emotional entry points to a story. There may be a tendency not to want to share personal details at work, but anecdotes that illustrate struggle, failure, and barriers overcome are what make leaders appear authentic and accessible. The key is to show your vulnerability.
Don’t make yourself the hero
Don’t make yourself the star of your own story. A story about your dream office or your achieved business contracts is not going to move your employees. You can be a central figure but the ultimate focus should be on people, lessons you’ve learned or events you’ve witnessed. Whenever possible, you should endeavor to make the audience or employees the hero. It increases their engagement and willingness to buy in to your message.
One of the main reasons we listen to stories is to create a deeper belief in ourselves. But when the storyteller talks about how great they are, the audience shuts down automatically. The more you celebrate your own decisions, the less likely your audience will connect with you and your message.
Focus on a struggle
A story without a challenge simply isn’t very interesting. Good storytellers understand that a story needs conflict. Is there a competitor that needs to be bested? A market challenge that needs to be overcome? A change-resistant industry that needs to be transformed? Don’t be afraid to suggest the road ahead will be difficult. We actually like to be told it’s going to be hard. Smart leaders tell employees: “This is going to be tough. But if we all pull together and hang in there, we’ll achieve something amazing in the end.”
A well-crafted story embedded with that kind of a rallying cry means you don’t have to demand change or effort. People will become your partners in change because they want to be part of the journey.
Simple is the best
Not every story you tell has to be a surprising. Some of the most successful and memorable stories are relatively simple and straightforward. Don’t let needless details to detract from your core message. Work from the principle that “less is more”. One of the biggest mistakes you can make is putting in too much detail. Don’t tell your audience what day of the week it was, for instance, or what shoes you were wearing if it doesn’t advance the story in an artful way. But transporting your audience with a few interesting, well-placed details like how you felt, the expression on a face, can help immerse your listeners and drive home your message.
Practice makes perfect
Storytelling is a real art form that requires repeated effort to get right. Practice with friends, loved ones, and trusted colleagues to hone your message into the most effective and efficient story. And remember that the rewards can be immense. Stories are the original viral tools. Once you tell a very compelling story, the first thing someone does is to think, “Who can I can tell this story to?”So, for the extra five minutes you spend encoding a leadership communication in a story, you’re going to see returns that last for months and maybe even years.