What challenges do professionals have when they join a training session on storytelling in business?
Gary: Typically its people feeling that they aren’t creative enough and wish they were. They like the idea of using stories in a work context, and are interested in the training, but they feel that either they don’t have a story in them, or they don’t have a story that matters. They’ve seen others use stories effectively and they’d like to learn how to do that – but they just don’t know where to start.
Scott: I completely agree. Most participants do see the value and in many ways we are working with the converted. Generally, participants are looking to use stories in a presentation or at an upcoming event, but the biggest challenge they face is where to start. I often hear “I don’t have a story “or “I have a cool story but it’s not really for our regional sales teams”. So how have you approached that from a training perspective? In the training, how do you get people to find their stories?
Gary: When we train storytelling skills my very first goal is to show them that they are surrounded by stories and that everyone can tell a story. One of the ways I start is by asking the participants to share something that has changed them or others. This could be a simple business experience that made a difference to them or shaped them. It could also be something from their private life. I’ve found it is easier with participants who have stronger emotional intelligence, but everyone can find something. The challenge then is getting them to slow down and see it as they tell it. It’s not unusual to see people rushing through their story and speaking in bullet points. This has a lot to do with nerves, but is also connected to wrongly believing that the others won’t be interested in listening to them. When we model the activity it always helps.
Stories are at their most powerful when they get inside people and either connect with an emotion or trigger an emotion. This is the starting point – at the end of the story how will your audience feel? And what will they know and do?
Scott: I do something similar, “tell us about a moment you are proud of” or “tell us about a moment you regretted”. Anything that taps right into a feelings dimension rather than just narrating factual events.
Gary: When I first started training storytelling in business, I was concerned that when people talked about a moment that shaped them that they would be a little bit light emotionally. I was expecting people would gloss over it or “present” it. But I find that this isn’t true and that people tend to really dive in and quickly tap into their emotional memory. This then impacts the listeners. They leave this activity with a few big wins – firstly that they can actually tell a story, secondly that they have stories to tell, thirdly that they can convey emotion without having to explicitly talk about it and finally, and perhaps this motivates them the most, that people want to listen and do quickly connect.
Scott: I think if the storyteller tries to obviously connect their story to the listeners experiences it doesn’t always work that well. The audience is often put off if you try to get too personal too soon. Pulling people into your story beats pushing a message. Every time we train storytelling skills there is always one person who, in the first 30 minutes of the day, will share an experience that unexpectedly hooks the other participants.
Recently we were delivering training a ½ day session on “Storytelling skills for internal trainers” in a European investment institution. The first warm-up task of the training was to share a story with your table about something that impacted you in a way you had never anticipated. One French lady shared a story about her family going to lay a “stolperstein” at the weekend in front of the house where her great-grandparents had lived. Obviously, the context of the story had everyone paying respectful attention, but it was the unexpected joy and warmth in her story, and the way she described her family reconnecting, that had the room in silence and actually grinning. She pulled people into her story by telling it naturally, not over-structuring it, and tapping into her emotional memory. When we started looking at their organizations greatest learning moments and the managers practiced telling stories aimed at reinforcing their culture, we reinforced 3 key points from her first story – tell it naturally, tell it simply and see it as you tell.
Gary: Once we’ve shown participants that they do actually have stories, the next challenge is finding the right story for the situation. There’s a simple and effective model we use with 3 concentric circles, and the key is to start with the emotion. The central point of this circle is “By the end of story what do you want them to feel, know or do?” Occasionally we need to help out by sharing a list of emotions to get people thinking. Feel comes first, and then comes what do you want them to know and what you want them to do. We train our clients to build stories from the inside out.
It’s worth highlighting that sometimes that feeling isn’t going to be a positive feeling … and that is okay. There is a place for warning, shocking, etc. as long as the intention is positive. I remember a CFO wanting to shake his peers up and confront the arrogance he saw within his organization head on. He knew he wanted his listeners to leave with a sense of humility. Once he had identified this, he quickly found his story. I still remember his presentation years later. He showed an actual cutting from a newspaper with the photo of a farmer saying, “If they’d asked us locals, we would have told them that this area floods heavily every few years. So why did they build a motorway here?”. Once he had got their attention, he could then talk more about how he wanted things to be going forward.
I often use this “farmer” story when training storytelling because it really does reinforce the importance of starting with the emotion, and being honest with yourself about which emotion you want, when you are choosing and building a story.
So what do you do if somebody can’t think of a story? In every training group there’ll often be a few participants still struggling.
Gary: Yes, this can be tricky because there are some people who feel that they just don’t have it in them. If that’s the case, we have prepared training aids with “classic stories” that managers need in their pockets. For example, you need the story of when you overestimated yourself, when you failed to prepare, what you stand for, what is important to you when working with new hires, a story of vulnerability, a story of learning from your mistakes etc etc. There are similar “templates” for sales professionals, service desks, L&D managers etc. I find that this “cookie-cutter” approach helps people get going, but I also find that very quickly they begin to leave the “template” and they make things real and personal. The aid just gets them going. Stories that follow a template are a safe place to start and then we push people to tap into their own experiences …. And everything becomes far more powerful.
Scott: Absolutely, “typical stories that you need in your pocket” help get people past staring at a blank piece of paper. Even the process of just asking “What about this one? Have you got that one?” gets them thinking. And then its all about delivery, and here is where we bring in LOTS, which means “language of the senses”. Using plenty of language of the senses such as “heard, saw, sensed, touched, felt” brings your listeners into your story. Speed and pace is important too. Getting them to slow down, speed up, use pauses for effect. But the key is to live the story and see the story as you tell it. To tap into your emotional memory. We’ll expand on this in another blog post.