Long before the human race developed written forms of communication—certainly centuries before books, newspapers, e-mail, Twitter, and Facebook—storytelling was the primary way to deliver messages, preserve history, and entertain an audience.
Few human behaviors are as universal as storytelling. No matter what cultural group, no matter what historical period, no matter what country of residence, the story has always been at the center of what links us to others, what draws us into a message, and what we remember and retell.
Overlooked in corporations for many years, storytelling has become the ultimate leadership tool–and a refreshing, authentic alternative to “data dumps,” nauseating lists of bullets, and PowerPoint bar graphs. Business leaders are now recognizing that the human brain is innately wired for stories.
That wiring does not mean speakers must ignore the data—but that both data plus stories present a huge, untapped potential to connect with an audience. As Carmine Gallo remarked in a Business Week article (September 28, 2008),
“Data satisfy the analytical part of our brains, but stories touch our hearts.”
On his blog (August 2, 2013), Shane Snow, CEO of Contently, maintains that “as we spend increasing amounts of time consuming content by the streamful, storytelling is a skill that every business—and individual—will need to master.”
How does such mastery begin? Can a corporate speaker successfully move outside that comfort zone of laser pointers, business jargon, and metrics? Or is relying on a traditional model more comfortable than developing a compelling storyline?
That reliance is understandable. Storytelling is often seen as too soft and too silly for a business presentation. Plus, as Stephen Denning in The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling (2005) recognizes, “Storytelling is a rare skill in which relatively few human beings excel.”
Part of the problem is that people don’t know how to tell a story correctly—or how to tell the correct story. To tackle the first problem, WD Communications suggests a four-element model: Character, Challenge, Connection, and Conclusion. In our presentation courses, we provide examples of each of these elements.
When selecting the appropriate story, a presenter needs to consider the purpose for the talk and the audience’s attitude. For example, if the audience consists primarily of skeptics or people resistant to a certain topic, telling a humorous anecdote about a commute to work that day may only intensify the amount of resistance or skepticism.
However, if audience members respect a certain leader or favor a particular decision, a story incorporating values or outcomes involving that leader or those decisions can lead to buy-in and commitment. When speakers miss the mark with a story, it is typically because they overlooked the purpose of the talk or the needs and attitudes of the audience.
Choosing the right story for the right circumstance and the right audience are all topics in academic institutions offering advanced degrees in folklore or storytelling. For people curious about these techniques but unable to devote weeks to learning, one-day “boot camps” are becoming popular options. And for those speakers attracted to storytelling competitions, a Google search will identify more than three million possibilities!
Where do speakers find stories? They are everywhere: on websites, in books such as Best Business Stories of the Year, in newspapers, on blogs, on television, and from everyday conversations. One speaker introduced a U.S. Senator by telling a positive story she overheard about him while standing in a grocery-store checkout line. By being on the alert to events of everyday life, speakers can uncover original stories that will engage listeners to want to hear more. And with some practice in delivering a story, who knows what may happen? People may start to listen more, retain more,
be involved more. And it may have all started with, “Let me tell you a story . . .”