It is super-important that, in our roles as innovators, facilitators and change makers, we learn to use business storytelling to engage others, bring ideas to life and communicate brilliantly. Business stories can be about our innovations, products, services, brands, businesses, and about ourselves as leaders.
Tips and Techniques for Business Storytelling
This article is all about why business storytelling is such a powerful tool in your your innovation or facilitation leadership skillset. I also share some great techniques and approaches to help you make your business stories compelling and on point.
Read on to find out more about:
- Why everyone has a story to tell
- What is a story?
- Why are stories so compelling?
- Business storytelling and transformation
- How to construct a great business story
- Making an impact with business storytelling
- How to be a great business storyteller
Business Storytelling – Why Everyone has a Story to tell
You have a story to tell. You actually have multiple stories to tell, and you’ve been telling stories all your life!
If you think about company presentations, business articles, run-of-the-mill business performance updates, training courses and so on that you’ve experienced, I’m sure you might agree that they are so much more engaging when there’s a story involved.
This is because stories provide more meaning, and a more personal connection.
As humans we relate to stories. We tell each other stories all the time – for example sharing great or bad customer experience, what we did on holiday, the conversation we had with a client or the boss. All those daily anecdotes and catch ups we have are packed with mini stories.
Storytelling in business doesn’t have to be about major things. Sometimes those small, thoughtful or everyday anecdotes can really help in your meetings or business writing as well.
Drop in a story about what you’ve been doing, something that you’ve experienced or read to really bring your business communication to life. Share short anecdotes, or even centre your whole communication piece around a single story.
What is a Story?
Stories go beyond time and space, and they’re not just confined to writing.
We see stories in great art, film, music,film and photography. Stories are all around us.
Stories are fundamental to successful businesses and can be used to tell the story of how our product or service will help our target customers
Stories can be used to explain, to sell, to inform, to communicate, and to inspire. Stories are also what make us human.
No other animals on earth (as far as we’re aware) are capable of telling them!
So stories are really part of who we are, part of our evolution.
Stories help us to remember facts
There’s been some great work carried out by cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner, which demonstrates that if you want people to remember something or you need a fact to stand out and be remembered, tell a story about it!
Why are Stories so Compelling?
- Words, sounds and pictures
- How we communicate and connect with one another
Stories are a key characteristic of being human, they are part of who we are. Humans have been telling each other stories in the most primitive stages of our development as a species, in cave drawings, around the fire, in songs, passing on history and information about hunting, danger, skills, the environment and much more.
Benefits of Stories
Through stories, we create community.
Through stories, we use our imagination and our creativity. We can envision a world that doesn’t exist, put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes, and see life through their eyes.
Using stories we can think about different possibilities and play around with different options.
Storytelling is a shared communication, in which can ideas come alive and can light up our imaginations with collective engagement and wonder. Great stories are super powerful.
Pictures are Important in Storytelling
Our brains process images 60,000 times faster than text.
Andrew Huberman, biological neuroscientist from Stanford University, says that the eyes are part of our brain, the only part which is ‘outside’.
We’re constantly taking in and processing information very quickly, and working out what’s relevant and what’s not.
90% of information transmitted to the brain is visual, so images are hugely important.
Stories Stir Emotion
We want to listen to stories and know what happens next. We feel the ups and downs of the characters. This is why many of us would rather watch a movie on Netflix, rather than listen to a company presentation!
So how can we take some of those principles and apply them to our work lives? And how can we bring them appropriately and practically into the day-to-day?
One thing that we can learn from a Netflix blockbuster is shown by some research by the American neuroscientist, Anne Krendl.
In an experiment, Krendl had people watch a Clint Eastwood film, and tracked their hormones and their reactions whilst watching the film.
When the actor’s character displayed emotion, the viewers’ brains responded as if they, too, were feeling the emotion. This is because when you enjoy a story with an empathetic protagonist at its centre, your brain floods with the love hormone, oxytocin.
However, during a tense scene the stress hormone, cortisol, was released.
When you are telling your stories, take people on a journey and vary between exciting, dynamic, inspiring, thoughtful moments to really get everyone engaged and connected with your communication.
Business Storytelling and Transformation
We are all building a story about everything and everyone around us at every moment of every day.
If we don’t tell a story fully, the people listening will fill in the gaps for themselves.
Sometimes you’ll want them to do that, because you want them to be creative.
At other times, though, there may be a clear message that you want to get across, and it’s important then that you tell the full story so that your audience isn’t being left to their own devices to fill in the gaps, potentially with incorrect interpretations.
Take into consideration the different stories that your audience might be telling themselves, as well as the stories that you tell yourself, because all stories are about transformation of of some kind.
The aim of any business communication, from a high stakes presentation through to an update at a regular team meeting is to achieve a transformation. It could be as simple as giving people a small piece of new information, or inspiring them to take action and make significant change.
Because if not, then your communication at best is maybe mildly interesting, possibly entertaining.
So as you prepare to tell your business story, really think hard and ask yourself these questions:
- Why you want to tell your story, and why now?
- What is the transformation that you want to create and why?
- What do you want your audience to think, feel, say and do as a result of it?
How to Construct a Great Business Story
The Hero’s Journey Story Structure, also known as the Monomyth
There is a hero who is in the known environment, then something happens or something changes. And then that hero goes off into an unknown situation, something different, something that he or she hasn’t experienced before.
And during that journey into the unknown, there may be helpers along the way. But there are challenges, there are things that the hero needs to overcome. And that’s where it can be really quite nail biting and interesting and exciting. Will they do it, won’t they?
Now, the hero is someone that needs to be flawed, imperfect, but also with enough good in them to make us, the audience, empathize with them.
So this flawed character goes through challenges, usually overcomes them, and then goes back into the known world again, a transformed person with learning that can never be unlearned.
In every story when you think about it, whether it’s a Star Wars Story, your favorite soap opera, even a reality TV show, people are going through that sort of journey, and we see it repeated over and over again.
So you can take your team, the people you’re working with or your clients on on that hero’s journey through structuring your business communication by “borrowing” from the Hero’s Journey format.
The Mountain Story Structure
A complement or alternative to the Hero’s Journey method of structuring your business story is the mountain.
In the mountain storytelling structure you start off at your introductory position, the foot of the mountain, and the story builds and builds until you get to the summit, or the height of the story.
And then there’s a really big finish! Everything in the story has been building up to a massive ending, a crescendo.
The Sparklines Story Structure
The sparklines story structure reminds me of a roller coaster, because you’re taking people from the reality of where things are today and then lifting them to the potential vision and future that tomorrow could bring, and then you bring them down to reality again, and then lift them up to the future again.
You can see this in action in this extract of Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech.
“I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.”Martin Luther King, I Have A Dream Speech
Analysis of Sparklines
When you analyze Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech, you can see the sparkline format in action.
“I say to you today, my friends, even though we face the difficulties of today, and tomorrow, I have a dream.”
So he’s saying today, and tomorrow we have difficulties, but there is a dream. So we’re immediately going from here at the bottom of the roller coaster, and up again.
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
Again, the contrast continues about what that future could be.
And there’s a line in there, which is “I have a dream that one day, even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.”
So in Mississippi today there’s injustice and oppression, and it’s going to be transformed one day into an oasis of freedom and justice.
This is a really powerful example of the sparkline story structure in action, and it works by juxtaposing the reality of now with the future of tomorrow.
You can use this method to construct any business story about future change, showing the contrast between how things are today, and the benefits that you believe the change will bring.
The Medias Res Story Structure
Media Res is Latin for ‘in the middle of things’.
This is where you start a story not at the beginning, but partway through.
A great example of this is in Twilight by Stephenie Meyer, where she wrote:
“I’d never given much thought as to how I would die, though I’d had reason enough in the last few months. But even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this.”Stephenie Meyer
Isn’t that a great start? We don’t know what’s happened before, as this is our starting position. But we are intrigued and we want to find out more!
It’s different from the linear story structure, which is “Once upon a time there was … “, with events happening in a chronological sequence from the beginning.
So in your business storytelling, you could start in the middle or end, to get people engaged, and then build from there.
Making an Impact with Business Storytelling
Business storytelling is about engaging the head, heart and hands of your audience. Here’s what I mean by that…
For the people listening, it’s about the head. They need to recognize that the message you’re putting across is logical, rational and that it makes sense.
Storytelling also needs to connect with people’s hearts, because we are emotional creatures. We make our decisions based on emotion, on how we want to feel. Then we post-rationalize those decisions with logic after the event, even sometimes in seconds.
Plus your story needs to mean something to your audience. When we’re listening to a story, particularly when it involves a change, or some learning for us, we’re always asking how it applies to us and “what’s in it for me?”.
Finally, we come to the hands, which means inspiring your audience to take action. I love Brene Brown’s approach, as she says that when we learn something, we only really learn it when we use our hands, meaning that when we only truly learn when we put it into practise.
Steps for Applying the Head, Heart & Hands Storytelling Structure
- Step 1: Question – help the audience to reflect and think about the ‘why’
- Step 2: Story – help the audience to imagine; make the journey resonate: include the challenges on the way (Hero’s Journey)
- Step 3: Result – help the audience to see and remember the positive impact that will come
- Step 4: Call to action – guide the audience to what they need to do next
Tips for Business Storytelling
Look at the storytelling that happens all around us
Think, for example, about the Coronavirus pandemic, and all the storytelling that politicians, leaders, and the media have been doing throughout to manage the situation and communicate with people. They’ve been using stories to share the latest statistics, let us know how they think we should behave and why, and the actions we need to take to stay safe and save lives. Some of that storytelling has been brilliant, and some has been really lacking.
Whenever you see storytelling in action, look and listen closely. Think about what’s working well and what’s not, then build those lessons and insights into your own practise.
Are you ready to tell your business story?
Sometimes you’ve got a great business story to tell and it’s really easy to prepare for. At other times in business we have to deliver tough news. Make sure that you’re in the right place mentally and emotionally to get your message across in the most effective way possible.
The key thing is to be yourself, to be AUTHENTIC. Being authentic in leadership means being genuine, self-aware and transparent. Being authentic inspires loyalty and trust. In business, of course, trust is invaluable. Trust takes a long time to build and it can be destroyed quickly.
So always do what you say, be as honest and open as possible, and be authentic.
Empathy + Authority
Is also about achieving the right balance between having empathy for the audience, or where they’re at and what they’re feeling, and demonstrating that empathy.
Empathy is the ability to put yourself into somebody else’s shoes and to see things from their perspective.
You also need high levels of authority. In this context, authority is about credibility, confidence and clarity. When you’ve got empathy and authority working together, you’ll inspire confidence and trust.
If you’ve only got high levels of authority and low levels of empathy, you’ll come across as being cold and uncaring.
If you have low levels of empathy and low levels of authority, you’ll inspire neither confidence nor trust.
And when you have high levels of empathy, but you’re not credible, confident and clear, you’ll come across as being caring, but ineffectual.
So it’s important to have authority (which is defined as credibility, confidence and clarity), as well as a strong connection with the point of view of your audience, and to demonstrate that you genuinely appreciate their point of view, too.
Amplify the Signal and Minimize the Noise
There’s a lot of noise, distraction and interference that can get in the way of a message being received in the way that you intend it.
Nancy Duarte, as you may know, worked with Steve Jobs in presentation skills and storytelling.
And what she says is “Amplify the signal and minimize the noise”.
This means doing these things:
- Tell your story as clearly as possible.
- Remove anything that can get in the way, such as…
- Using words or phrases that could be misinterpreted
- External noise
- Focus on the things that you want to say, and say only those things. Sometimes we can say too much, and in doing so, we don’t get our message across. We actually communicate less than if we’d been more concise in the first place.
I hope you’ve got some great tips for your own business storytelling.
I run customised live, virtual sessions on this topic for clients, packed with examples and designed to help my clients craft their own specific business stories.
If that is something you’d like to know more about, then do get in touch and I’d love to help you.
Also, I have a free storytelling for facilitators toolkit available for download on my website as well as loads of other resources for innovators, facilitators, change makers and leaders.