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Storytelling at work—what, why, when, and how?


“Just one more chapter before bed!”

“How did you two meet?”

“Tell me about a time you had to deal with a difficult colleague.”

“How was the holiday?”


Whether we realise it or not, we are constantly seeking, sorting, and selling stories.


In this post, we’ll look at:

  1. What stories are

  2. Why they’re important in business

  3. When to use stories at work, and

  4. How to craft a good story


What?

Firstly, a story is an account of incidents or events typically told for entertainment, information or education. Since the beginning of time, stories have served as a powerful form of expression that help us make sense of the world around us.


In business, storytelling is about communicating, sharing an idea, and getting people aligned with a vision.


Unfortunately, a lot of organisations think storytelling should be left to the marketing department. These businesses portray a glowing story to the public, but operationally and culturally their story means very little.


Author and lecturer Robert McKee says, “Executives can engage listeners on a whole new level if they toss their PowerPoint slides and learn to tell good stories instead…”


Why?


Stories in business are memorable


In an information-rich society, data doesn’t always stick. Statistics alone have a retention rate of 5-10%, but when paired with a story, that rises to 65-70%.


Stories stick in ways that hard numbers, statistics, and reports often don’t.

Statistics alone have a retention rate of 5-10%, but when paired with a story, that rises to 65-70%.

Stories in business are persuasive


Public narrative is a persuasive presentation structure that was developed by Harvard lecturer Marshall Ganz in 2008. It is used by many leading politicians and business professionals, including Jeff Bezos and Barack Obama.


It is persuasive because it aims to turn values into action through storytelling. It’s based on the premise that we are persuaded by stories that highlight the values we have in common with the speaker.


So, if you want your staff to align with your vision, tell stories.


Stories in business build empathy (and make you likable)


Storytelling breaks down assumptions and builds rapport between speaker and audience. When we tell stories that show a weakness or struggle, the mirror neurons in our audience’s brains are activated. This causes them to empathise with us, making us more ‘human’ and, therefore, more likable.


Stories in business make us better presenters


In her book, Stories That Stick: How Storytelling Can Captivate Customers, Influence Audiences, and Transform Your Business, Kindra Hall explains, “When you tell stories, the audience engages with you and that automatically relaxes and energizes the presenter particularly during the first few minutes of a presentation.”


That’s why starting a presentation with a story is effective. Not only is it engaging, but when you see your audience enjoying themselves, it subconsciously assures you you’re doing a good job. As a result, you relax.


When?


Some ideas:


  1. Choose a theme for staff meetings. Open the meeting with a story that aligns with that theme.

  2. When pitching to new clients, frame your case studies as stories.

  3. When undergoing cultural or operational change, people are often in a state of fear or discomfort so tell a story that shows the ‘why’ behind the change.

  4. At some meetings, you could encourage staff to tell a story. (As a leader you should be eliciting more stories than you tell). This would also serve as a platform for them to practise their public speaking.

  5. During inductions, tell new employees the business’ origin story.

  6. Start presentations with a story.

  7. Explain/support complex ideas with a story.

  8. During ice-breaker exercises, get participants to tell a story.

  9. If negotiating a pay rise, tell a story that highlights the value you’ve delivered.

  10. When celebrating achievements, tell a story related to the achievement. E.g. when recognising the completion of a project, tell a story about the challenges faced along the way.


How?


Purpose


When incorporating stories at work, start by asking: Who is my audience, and what is the message I want to convey?


“The audience does not need to tune themselves to you—you need to tune your message to them. Skilled presenting requires you to understand their hearts and minds and create a message to resonate with what’s already there.” —Nancy Duarte, Writer, Speaker, CEO


It’s tempting to approach storytelling the other way around. For example, “Oooh, I’ve got this really good story about the time I bumped into Dr. Ashley Bloomfield in the sock department of Farmers. How can I make it fit this scenario?”

Understanding who your audience is and what it is you want to impart will help you decide what story to tell (and how to tell it).


The audience does not need to tune themselves to you—you need to tune your message to them.

See if you can summarise your key message into a single, specific sentence.


For example,

  • Hard work pays off.

  • We are stronger together.

  • Growth doesn’t happen in comfort zones.

  • Constraints foster creativity and innovation.

  • Progress over perfection.

  • Be more observant. Talk less and listen more.


Plot


Inciting incident


There is no one way to structure a story. Different plots warrant different structures, but all stories change. If there is no rise or fall in a narrative, it isn’t a story, it’s a series of events.


Did you know that every Pixar film follows the same plot structure? It goes like this:


Once upon a time…

Every day…

Then one day…

Because of that...

Because of that...

Until finally...


What stories typically have in common is an inciting incident. An inciting incident is something that changes the life of the main character. The rest of the story is focused on the fallout or consequence of that incident.


Less is more


When deciding what to include in your plot, as a general principle less is more.


As author Henry Green says, “The more you leave out, the more you highlight what you leave in.”


Ask yourself; does this detail or idea support the direction I’m wanting to take this story?


The more you leave out, the more you highlight what you leave in.

Draw out the moments


Find the important or memorable moments within your story, and draw them out. Make your descriptions rich. Activate the sensory cortex in your audience by focusing on smell, touch, sight, taste, and sound. Show don’t tell. In other words, instead of explaining what’s taking place, describe what’s taking place so your audience can’t help but feel transported into your story.


Example: Mike Rowe, Learning from dirty jobs



People


Describe the emotions


The difference between a good storyteller and a great storyteller is that a great storyteller describes what it’s like to deal with challenges that occur as a result of the inciting incident.


Similar to drawing out moments within the plot, instead of naming the protagonist’s emotions, describe how they physically felt.


For example, instead of “I was relieved”, you might say, “The lump in my throat disappeared, and I could finally exhale.”


Instead of, “I found the capital raise frustrating,” you could say, “The capital raise was draining our spirits. Both kinds.”


Example: Miriam Chancellor



Don’t make yourself out as the hero


Telling everyone how awesome you are isn’t storytelling, it’s bragging, and doing so is a turn-off.


CEO and author, Jonah Sachs, says,


“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.”


Rose-tinted stories centered around you, the hero, aren’t just boring, they’re unbelievable, and we follow those we believe.


Opt for dialogue over narration


Narration is a description of events. Dialogue is communication between characters. Stories that capture the voices of characters (dialogue) are more engaging.


Compare these two statements:

  1. She shouted that she'd had enough and that she was finally leaving.

  2. She shouted, "I've had enough. I'm leaving!"

The first uses the past tense and provides an explanation of the events. The second puts you in the action which creates a sense of immediacy.


Using dialogue also acquaints your audience with those in the story.


Example: Brené Brown, Listening to shame



Where to from here


Firstly, sit down and consider on your own journey. What events have contributed to getting you to where you are now? What stories could be developed from those events?


Practise your stories out loud. Delivery is everything. Ask yourself:

  • How can I vary my body language to better communicate this idea?

  • How can I vary my voice to better communicate this idea?

  • How can I vary my timing to create tension?

  • How can I use the stage/speaking area more memorably?

  • Who should I make eye contact with during this idea/moment?

That being said, your stories don’t need to be perfect before you start telling them. There is no better way to get good at telling stories to people, than by telling stories to people. So start!


Stories are memorable and persuasive, stories create empathy between speaker and audience, and stories make us better presenters. When we tell stories we unlock parts of our listeners’ brains and encourage them to respond in novel ways. Stories are about people, and what is business if not about people?



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