A practical guide to storytelling in business

People have always told stories and they are a vital part of our communication. Today, storytelling has become accepted (and sometimes expected) in a professional context. We’ve seen a rapid demand for our practical storytelling training solutions. Whereas 8 years ago there was sometimes a need to convince people that a storytelling approach was valid, we rarely get any pushback today. This change in attitudes can be partly attributed to the power of the TED talk format, partly to our push back against death by PowerPoint and people speaking to us in bullets … and mainly because storytelling never went away. When done well, storytelling connects with people in a way no other communication approach can. This post outlines the essentials so you can get started.

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What is a story? And why should I use them?

Every story has …

  • a plot
  • a beginning, middle and end
  • often involves overcoming a problem, challenge, obstacle, dilemma
  • but above all …. a story connects on a human /emotional level

This last point is the key. A story is not a series of events or a case study. It should connect with people and create an emotional reaction.
This connecting makes stories easy to remember. When done well stories bring meaning to information and have the power to move people. Depending on the story and the skill of the storyteller our brains …

  • produce cortisol during the tense moments in a story, which allows us to focus
  • produce oxytocin, that promotes connection and empathy
  • release dopamine which makes us feel more hopeful and optimistic

If you are interested in the science behind these statements, these two HB articles explore the science behind storytelling and what makes storytelling so effective for learning.

This means you can choose to use a story in a wide range of situations. We often use stories when presenting, influencing, teaching, leading or just in day-to-day discussions. Consider using stories when you want to aid memory, celebrate, challenge assumptions, connect, convince, encourage, energize, entertain, explain, impress, inspire, motivate, persuade, reinforce values or beliefs, scare or shock, sell, support, teach or warn.

How do I build a story?

Learning to build a great story is a skill, and it can require practice. If you want to build a story you need to start with your audience. Your first question has to be “What do I want them to feel?”. Sometimes the emotion you arrive at may surprise you. Secondly ask yourself “What do I want them to understand? think? do?”. Then think back over the situations you’ve been part of, or have observed. It is far easier and far better to tell stories that mean something to you and are your stories. You can share other people’s stories but make sure you have the information and the understanding to bring it to life. Again, a story works because it connects on a human /emotional level.

This post goes behind the scenes with 2 of our staff, discussing the challenges some professionals have when building a story and how they approach this in a training environment.

If you are struggling to build a story, then try using the IDEAS approach:

  • Identify the emotion you are trying to create. Then identify what you want your listener to understand and do.
  • Decide which story would best accomplish this and connect with your listener
  • Expand your story. You have the bones, now put the flesh on them.
  • Anticipate their questions and reactions. Now choose to deal with these within your story or intentionally leave this out to provoke discussion once you’ve finished telling the story.
  • See the story as you tell it.

Finally, don’t assume you can just get up and tell it. You need to practice your story, if you want to make it matter.

How do I actually tell my story?

If the story means something to you, you will already have the content and the structure. Make things personal and tell tough stories. If your story is tough and personally matters to you, you will naturally find the pace, the tone and the body language you need to make your story captivating. When you are developing and practising your story, follow these 3 great pieces of advice:

  • Invest time in building it
  • Practice out loud
  • Make it personal to you

When you are delivering the story …

  • see the story as you tell it
  • use outer and inner language. Outer language is what physically happened, while inner language is how the person was feeling thinking. An advanced tip is to avoid eye contact when you are sharing the inner language.
  • use plenty of LOTS (language of the senses). This includes what you saw, heard, smelt, tasted, tough or felt
  • take your time. If your rush your story, you will rob it of its richness. You wouldn’t want to read a story structured into bullet points, would you?

And if you want to get really good …

  • use memory devices e.g. words, phrases or images repeated in different places
  • use a tangible object or image as a starting or closing point
  • when doing dialogues adopt a different voice/body/position for each person
  • consider your space – roam the room or sit on a chair – BUT actively think about it!

What should I not do when telling a story?

Telling a story is NOT the same as making a presentation. A lot of the techniques you’ve learned on presentation seminars are story-killers and using them will rob your story of its emotional content. For example:

  • Don’t put your key message up front
  • Don’t tell them what you’ll tell them, tell them, tell them what you told them
  • Don’t start with the structure, start with the emotion
  • We would also suggest you avoid the phrase “Let me tell you a story”

Storytelling is a learnable skill! It starts with identifying your goal and understanding your audience. You need to know the emotion you are looking for. From there you start hunting for the right story, which you then craft through practice. Don’t rush it, do not “present” it, and have the courage to just tell a story person to person. You’ll be surprised at the impact you can make.

And if you’d like support, whether it be coaching or training then do get in touch. We’d love to help you be even better at storytelling.

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