Storytelling is the interactive art of using words, body language, or tone of voice to reveal the elements and images of a story.
Storytelling connects the speaker and the audience. If you’re listening to NPR, stories come to you by the spoken word and tone of voice. If you’re reading a novel, descriptive written words draw you in. You benefit from the entire orchestra if you are in person with a storyteller.
Here’s the magic of storytelling. The listener’s brain activity often mirrors the storyteller’s activity. The process of neural coupling produces greater understanding, connection, and receptivity.
When someone says, “Let me tell you a story,” something in the brain says, “Ahhh …”. Storytelling is the form of communication in which we climb in for an effortless ride-along with the speaker.
On that ride, we experience the story. What scientists have come to realize is that storytelling produces a sensory experience for the listener.
Words and phrases like “freshly-cut grass” elicit a response in the brain devoted to dealing with smells; ones like “we heard the screech of a hawk nearby” will also light up the sensory cortex.
It’s a shame that so many business people don’t get this. They make presentations in the name of data and information.
But listeners don’t want all information; they want the most compelling facts, ideas, and stories that develop understanding. Data does not create neural coupling. If you exclude stories from your communication, your message will not stick.
Great Brands Are Stories
Iconic Brands like Disney and Coca-Cola have long realized the power of their brand story to create a connection with their audience. Nike does more than sell shoes; it tells a story about human potential and athletic excellence.
Years ago, marketing guru Tom Peters conducted a study involving new hires at companies like FedEx. In the first group, executives laid out the company’s philosophy. They supported the philosophy with facts.
In the second group, the executives told stories — without explaining the company’s philosophy. For example, the executives of FedEx told stories of extraordinary overnight deliveries to people in dire situations.
The researchers conducting this study found that new employees who heard stories were far more likely to internalize the company’s philosophy than those who listened to facts about the philosophy.
How Do I Build a Successful Brand Story?
Begin by asking these questions: Who is my audience (the hero of the story), and what problem needs addressing? How can I help them manage their lives more effectively?
Know Your Hero
Thinking of the audience or customer as your hero will keep you from thinking you’re the star. You are there to solve problems for the hero, without whom you would be inconsequential.
Practice what marketing guru Seth Godin calls the marketing flip:
- From: “Pay attention to me. I’m your hero. I’ve made this cool thing and want you to buy it.”
- To: “I’ve been paying attention to you, and I think I can help solve your problems, so you can make your world a better place. You’re my hero.”
As an internal marketing exercise, use a famous storyline to construct a story. Make the story about a hero who needs your help to solve a problem and complete their mission. For example, in Star Wars, Yoda (you) instructs Luke Skywalker (your audience) to fight the Dark Side and unlock the path to immortality.
Get very specific about the demographic profile of your hero, the problem they face, and the excitement of success.
What Problem Does Your Brand Solve? (Keep the Answer Simple)
We may love the complexity of The Lord of the Rings and Rings of Power by J.R.R. Tolkien, but we can’t put that level of detail into a brand story. Some of the most successful brand stories come from the simple formula: Problem+ Solution = Success Stories.
Consider the Buffer brand story:
- Problem: Social media can be the fastest and cheapest way to build your following and grow your business — but it can also take up all your time.
- Solution: Buffer’s software promise: Grow your following without wasting time.
- Success: Get excited about the success this produced.
What is a Success Story?
You and your hero will co-write the successful conclusion. What does the world look like to the hero when you’ve released them to manage their lives more successfully and thrive?
The Buffer user enjoys a more extensive following without wasting time or money. Your company makes money as a result.
Leaders of Great Brands Know Three Stories
Stories fulfill a human need to grasp the experience of life — not merely as an intellectual exercise but within a personal, emotional experience.
Leaders satisfy that human need by communicating three stories: 1) Who I Am, 2) Who We Are (What Is Our Purpose), and 3) Where We Are Going.
1.) Who I Am
We want to know you and hear stories about what your life has taught you.
In one of his most famous speeches, Steve Jobs addressed the graduating class of 2005 at Stanford University. Here are excerpts:
“Truth be told, I never graduated from college, and this is the closest I’ve ever gotten to college graduation… This story is about love and loss. I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of success was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods in my life… Sometimes life’s going to hit you in the head with a brick… Don’t lose faith.”
Vulnerability is vital. Tell a story that stirs you, and your audience will trust you. Consider the people, places, losses, and obstacles that helped shape you as a leader.
2.) Who We Are (What Is Our Purpose?)
Now more than ever, customers, employees, and partners want to participate in something meaningful. What is your purpose? The answer to that question requires that you tell a story.
A brand like TOMS shoes uses its story as a bedrock. The tagline, “One for One,” means that for every purchased pair, TOMS gives a pair of shoes to someone in need. TOMS exists to improve lives.
3.) Where We Are Going
The final story, Where We Are Going, is critical to inspiring employees to move the company forward. How do you cast the future? You create a great story of a future built on the growth of strengths that are unique to your company.
But a story without a challenge isn’t plausible. Does the company need to overcome a distribution, product, or recruiting problem? Employees don’t trust candy-coated optimism.
When a leader tells a heartfelt story that carries a rallying cry, employees will become partners in change because they want to be part of the journey.
Stories told with vulnerability and integrity build trust. They require the right features — authenticity, overcoming struggle, and the goal of enriching lives.
The net effect of neural coupling is comprehension, understanding, anticipation, and receptivity is trust.
Why Do Business People Push Back on Storytelling?
Author and story consultant Robert McKee believes executives can engage people on a whole new level if they toss their PowerPoint slides and learn to tell good stories instead.
Research is essential, but a brand will thrive only when you wrap a compelling picture around it through storytelling.
The reluctance of business people to embrace stories goes back to the last century when we valued fact only and dismissed storytelling as inappropriate fluff.
Then Walter Fisher came along in the 1980s and introduced the idea that we experience life in narrative form. We are storytellers who make decisions based on what makes sense to our narrative, core values, and heart. Fisher’s observations were new to a generation of business people who relied on facts and information.
Fisher understood that we are story creatures. And this means we don’t have to work hard to learn storytelling. In many ways, we must stop making things so hard. Fifty years later; business people are still trying to catch up.
Today’s PowerPoint presentations are not only clunky, but they’re also dry and dull because they plod along predictably. When the speaker establishes the cadence, we know what comes next — another slide of text, followed by another slide. Blah, blah, blah.
On the other hand, we love a relevant story that includes genuine, unpredictable human experiences.
How Do I Develop My Personal Stories?
“Sankofa” (SAN-KO-FA) is a West African word meaning “Go back and fetch it.” It also describes returning to collect yesterday’s wisdom to build the future.
If you are after authentic leadership, you must gather memories and life experiences to communicate change, challenges, resilience, and teamwork.
What life events help illustrate your philosophy and point of view?
Here are storytelling prompts that will help you think about your personal experiences:
- The most important thing I learned from my parents…
- A kindness that impacted my life…
- A meaningful, personal success…
- Something I had to learn the hard way…
- A decision I made that changed my life for the better…
- Resilience when things go wrong…
- Something important I learned from a customer/client…
- A risk I took that was worth it…
- Someone who mentored me and what I learned…
- Someone I mentored, and what I learned…
What Makes a Good Leadership Story?
Do not paint a vanilla picture of your life filled with successes. Instead, you want to share the struggle of real life, lessons learned, purpose, and successes. Human beings understand the battle.
I once worked with an attorney who watched his family lose their business due to a lack of understanding of wills and the transfer of wealth. He drew from that experience to build his practice area of estate planning. He connected authentically with listeners and gained their trust when he told that story.
Your audience sees you as a genuine human when you tell the story of your struggles and what your life has taught you.
What’s Wrong with Painting a Positive Picture without Struggle?
We don’t believe it. You can send a beautiful brochure about a perfect track record and future, but we know that’s not real life. We know you’ve spun the story to make you and your company look good.
When I worked in broadcasting, we sent boilerplate press releases about being #1 in this daypart and that daypart. Since every station in the market did the same thing, all of it worked against us because clients saw broadcast salespeople as shysters.
Only the account reps who built relationships and gave clients an accurate picture of the station’s quest to meet the needs of an ever-changing market achieved sustaining success.
In the same way, leaders have to navigate their companies through supply chain issues, recruiting problems, disruptive competitors, attacks from analysts, and more.
Shoot straight and tell your team it won’t be easy, but you have a plan, and they will become your partners.
Tell us a truthful story about overcoming obstacles and your belief in the team, and we are on board.
How Do Stories Engage and Persuade?
Engagement and persuasion are at the core of doing business. Customers must be attracted and convinced to buy your products or services.
Employees must be engaged and inspired to go along with your strategic plan. Investors must be attracted to the brand and confident to buy your stock. Partners must be enticed to sign off on the next contract.
How can you engage people, and why is persuasion tricky? It requires a human connection. A leader’s job is to motivate people to reach goals, and they must express their emotions.
Too often, they rely on corporate speak, an overload of data, and the latest slide deck from the marketing department. Research is often greeted with cynicism since you’ve only selected the studies that prove your point and make you look good.
There are two ways to persuade people: First, appeal to their intellect with logic and statistics. You might engage them initially, but you’ve done it only on an intellectual basis. The other way to persuade people is through their humanity; the best way is by telling a compelling story.
You will be persuasive and influential if you share both essential information and make the human emotional connection.
Are There Different Kinds of Stories?
Yes. Not all stories are personal; here are eight ways to use storytelling in business presentations.
A rich and relevant quote can warm up your message. Quotes fall into the category of “story bites,” which are moments of imagery and color.
Now, don’t use tired quotes that most people have already heard. Use short, expressive quotes (sparingly) that carry a touch of heat.
For example, you might open your talk by saying, “Bob Dylan once said, ‘Chaos is a friend of mine.'” From there, you might expand on the opportunities given to the company in times of constant change and disruption.
2.) Your Mini-Stories
You might not have to look further than your own experience to tell a meaningful mini-story.
For example, a few years ago, I was snowed in at O’Hare International Airport. My heart sank when the ticket agent told me she didn’t know when I would get home. I was upset and angry.
Feeling hopeless, I went to the lounge and tried to do some writing. I met a fellow traveler, Joan, who was also stranded. She shared my table and asked me what I was working on — and without trying, she gave me a fresh idea. When I got to the gate, I hunkered down and finished the piece. It was ten times the article I had been writing.
Being stranded allowed me to be open to a different perspective and focus entirely. When I stopped fighting the situation, I found the gift.
3.) Metaphors & Analogies
A metaphor makes an interesting comparison between two unlike things to develop understanding. If you were talking to your teammates about having the x-factor and what it takes to win, you might remind them the x-factor is about heart.
Champion thoroughbreds born with a heart three times the size of the average horse have a genetic condition known as the x-factor.
An analogy makes a comparison between two similar things for the explanation. Here is an example from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech: “We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” King was a master at metaphors and analogies.
A fable is a simple story that teaches a practical lesson about life. Author Steven Covey made the metaphor “Sharpening the Saw” famous in his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effectively People, by telling this fable.
There is a fable about two woodcutters. An exhausted woodcutter struggled to see down a tree. A young man who was watching asked, “What are you doing?
“Are you blind?” the woodcutter replied. “I’m cutting down this tree.”
The young man pressed on. “You look exhausted! Take a break. Sharpen your saw.”
The woodcutter explained to the young man that he had been sawing for hours and did not have time to take a break.
The young man pushed back. “If you sharpen the saw, you will cut down the tree much faster.”
The woodcutter said, “I don’t have time to sharpen the saw. Don’t you see I’m too busy?”
The woodcutter fable sticks to the brain, and this advice comes along for the ride: To live a balanced life means taking time to renew yourself. You can renew yourself through relaxation. Or burn yourself out by doing everything.
An anecdote is a short, exciting story about a real person, like this one about Billionaire Warren Buffett.
Buffett delivered a surprising message to hundreds of Columbia Business School students attending a Town Hall Event. He told the students he would pay each of them 100 thousand dollars for 10 percent of their future earnings — because he considered them as $1 million assets.
Buffett then shared the importance of personal communication skills. He said that should students commit to working on their speaking and overall communication skills, and he would pay them 150 thousand because each would increase their future earnings by 50%, becoming $1.5 million assets.
6.) Historical Notes
Story-bites of history are very satisfying to the curious brain. For example, suppose you were discussing what can happen with a fierce focus on the customer. In that case, you might use this:
James Casey was a high school dropout in Seattle who started the American Messenger Company with one bicycle in 1907. He built that business relentlessly focused on the customer, which would become a multi-billion-dollar global enterprise, United Parcel Service (UPS).
7.) Humanizing a Presentation
A few years ago, I met with a construction project team to help them dry-run their presentation for a big hospital project in New York.
After watching the first run, I said, “There’s too much information and too much detail. There are no patients–no physicians, and there’s no story.”
David, one of the most animated engineers, piped up and said, “The client expects us to get into the nitty-gritty details. Otherwise, we’ll sound like we don’t know what we’re discussing!”
“How is it that you are one of only three companies allowed to pitch this business?” I asked. After some prodding, my friends admitted they were on the shortlist because they enjoy a reputation for extraordinary work and honest dealings. The purpose of the presentation was not to qualify themselves. Nor was it to faithfully march through slides, putting the client’s brain to sleep. It was to share their vision of a facility built for the patients and the physicians who treated them. It was to tell the story.
After brainstorming with the team for a few hours, we cut the information in half. We added faces to the data and created an open theme, surprising moments, solutions, and a satisfying close. They connected with the hearts and minds of the decision-makers during their presentation and won the business.
8.) Openings and Closings
When you begin or open your presentation, all eyes are on you. The attention in the room is high. Listeners are open to engaging as they form an impression of you as a speaker. So how can you leverage that window and hold your audience’s attention? One answer is to jump right into the language of the story by using one of the examples we’ve covered here.
This is one of the most effective ways to capture people’s attention. The key takeaway of the story is a perfect way to set the stage for the content to follow. If all you use is an opening story, remember to circle back, at a minimum, at the end of your presentation to the critical message and suggested action.
Data, economic benefit, or analysis is an awful way to begin or end your time with people. On the other hand, storytelling can make your opening and closing engaging.
Want to work on your storytelling?
At Interact Studio, we wholeheartedly believe in the power of storytelling. Using a strong, authentic story in your presentation is the quickest way to connect to the hearts and minds of your audience. Mastering the art of storytelling is what elevates good communicators to greatness.
Are you ready to step into your greatness? We are ready to help you tell your story.
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