“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...” – the classic opening to Star Wars, one of cinema’s greatest stories, puts a sci-fi twist on the more traditional fairy tale “once upon a time.” It sets the tone, gives some context to the setting and begins to let you know what you’re in for. It’s a perfect example of the way you tell a story being just as important as the content of the story itself.
In business, stories are incredibly powerful tools. The human brain struggles to remember facts, figures and concepts when they’re presented as abstract information. But, when the same data is presented as a story, with a narrative the mind can engage with and relate to, people are far more likely to remember. However, this works best if the story is interesting and told well – otherwise they’re likely to switch off and ignore the important information.
The best stories have structures that hold people’s attention the whole way through, are told in an engaging way, and have some relevance to the audience to make them want to listen. By following the steps outlined below, you can improve your own storytelling skills and wow audiences in and out of the workplace.
Finding your stories
The first step to telling a good story is to have a story to tell. Stories are everywhere and we all live through them every moment of the day. Not all are going to be particularly dramatic, but every conversation and every action can be reframed and retold as a tale with a narrative. When something particularly interesting happens to you, make a note of it, it could be a useful story to tell later.
However, not all stories have to be personal experiences. Stories that other people tell you, or you overhear, can all be useful and serve a purpose. Just make sure you give credit when it’s due and don’t pretend to have experienced something you haven’t. Saying “this happened to a friend of mine,” shouldn’t undermine your story, but being caught in a lie will.
Similarly, every time you watch a movie or tv show, read a book or listen to the news, you’re hearing and seeing stories. Some are true and some are fictional, but you can use all of them as long as you’re mindful of the message you’re telling.
Give your stories meaning
Not every story you tell has to have an obvious moral or a lesson attached to it, but there should be a reason you’re telling it – and a reason you’re telling that specific one. For example, if you’re pitching to a potential new client, a story about how you helped other customers can help paint a picture of what you could do for them. If you’re talking to employees about recent financial troubles, you might tell the story of how it happened and how it’s being fixed, in order to reassure your team that things are going to be ok. It should be obvious that neither story would be appropriate in the other scenario.
You should know whether you’re aiming to inform, persuade or simply entertain. A comedian telling a story is usually just trying to make you laugh, whereas newsreaders often bring a larger national or international scale event down to personal stories – to make it relatable.
It also helps to understand your audience, their needs and their expectations. When presenting to a serious C-level audience, often they’ll want you to get to the point quickly and won’t want a long drawn out story or an unnecessary piece of comedy. Whereas, a friendlier and more relaxed audience might enjoy it.
Great stories need a good structure and flow, which keeps the narrative moving and the audience listening. A long rambling story that goes off track halfway through will lose its audience and ultimately lose its message. Strip it down and take out anything irrelevant or which unnecessarily slows it down. If your story is about what happened to you in a shop, people probably don’t need to hear about everything you bought, but just the notable thing that happened as you were paying.
Stories should be set up with a clear time and location, for example “Yesterday, I was on the train...” This helps establish context for the events of the story. They should also have a clear beginning, middle and end. The beginning sets the scene and the characters, the middle is what happened, and the end should wrap it all up and showcase the point, moral or punchline of the story.
In a business presentation, a commonly used structure is to start your story with the problem or question you faced, in the middle discuss what you did – what went right and what went wrong – and end by talking about the results, next steps and lessons learnt.
Make it unexpected
The best stories have something unexpected to them. The classic example is that there’s nothing particularly exciting about the tale of “dog bites man”, whereas “man bites dog” is much more surprising and interesting.
So, when making a presentation, try to think about what the big surprises are and what will stand out as different. Rather than just saying “year-on-year profits have continued to increase as predicted,” try thinking about the part that stands out, such as: “Our annual profits have continued to increase, which is surprising as our new products were so heavily delayed.”
It’s all in the telling
Nothing ruins a good story quicker than a poor delivery. The same rules of delivering a good presentation apply. Use your voice and body language to enhance the story.
When you’re telling your story, your voice, tone and speed should work with what you’re saying. Consider how people tell stories to children – giving each character a slightly different voice, speeding up at the exciting parts and slowing down to increase the tension. In a more corporate setting, it probably isn’t appropriate to go quite this far, but the principles are the same. The way you tell the story will make it more dramatic, exciting or emotive – or make it dull, flat and monotonous.
This is also true for body language and gestures. They can help paint a picture of the situation, drawing attention to certain aspects of what you say. You can also change the way you’re standing, sitting or moving to embody the characters you’re talking about.
Most people do these things naturally when they’re talking, but by taking a more mindful and deliberate approach to them, you can improve the impact they make.
Make storytelling a habit
The best way to improve your storytelling abilities is by practicing telling stories. The more you do it, the more you’ll understand and develop your own style. You’ll see what you do that makes people interested and you’ll notice when people zone out.
By becoming a more natural storyteller, you’ll also start being more confident at recognising and remembering stories. This will increase your repertoire, which will make your stories more adaptable to more situations.
You should also make a habit of actively listening to other people when they tell stories. You’ll see what you like and don’t like about the way they do it. Notice which parts draw you in and which parts are slower and less interesting, and then use this insight to improve your own delivery.
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