It’s advice we’ve all heard before: Want to be compelling? Tell a story. Tap into the eons-old human compulsion to craft a narrative, say what happened, spin a yarn.
That’s sound advice. But on a practical level, anyway, it’s like telling someone, “Hey, be funny.” And while just about anyone can go through the motions and tell you a joke, chances are you only know a handful of people who can really make you laugh.
It’s much the same with telling stories in business environments. We tell stories all the time in social settings, just for the fun of it. But those run-of-the-mill narrative chops don’t always serve us well when we step into meetings and give pitches and deliver presentations. And for leaders who’ve risen through the ranks for their analytical skills or happen to be second-rate storytellers even at cocktail parties, the challenge is all the greater.
These three techniques are for them.
1. ANSWER THE QUESTION, "WHY AM I TELLING THIS STORY?"
This sounds like a no-brainer, but try it and you’ll see that you might not be as clear as you thought you were on your objectives. Any story you tell needs to serve a purpose; it needs to make a point. Otherwise there’s no reason to tell it in the first place.
“ONCE YOU’VE CHOSEN A STORY AND IDENTIFIED ITS THREE CORE ELEMENTS, CUT OUT ANYTHING AND EVERYTHING THAT ISN’T CRUCIAL FOR CONVEYING THEM.”
The first step in deciding not only what story to tell but how to tell it in a way that drives your message home is to identify your audience—and not just in general terms. If you’re speaking to your company’s board of directors, great. Now think of an individual member of the board whose position and experiences best represents the board as a whole. Chances are that’s no one person in reality and your audience is much more heterogeneous, but no matter—write her name down and design your story just for her. The goal is to reach the individual people you’ll be addressing, not a crowd.
Second, what’s your desired result? How do you want your listeners to feel, think, or do after you’re done telling your story? If the best answer you can give to this question is, “Inform them of Q2 activities and results,” you might want to skip the story altogether.
2. STICK TO THE ESSENTIALS
TED talks—the darling of storytelling enthusiasts everywhere—are strictly limited to 18 minutes. As TED curator Chris Anderson explains, that time frame “is long enough to be serious and short enough to hold people’s attention.”
He’s right. Our brains can typically focus on a speaker for 20-minute intervals before our attention begins to flag. That’s why people start looking at their watches, checking email, and slumping in their chairs during the second halves of those ubiquitous hourlong meetings.
A second rule of thumb to keep your approach limited to the fundamentals is the law of threes. We tend only to be able to remember three key bits of information delivered verbally. Fortunately, stories have a beginning, middle, and end, and can be told in a way that touches on the past, present, and future.
That makes your choice simple: You can either decide in advance which three things you want your audience to take away, then build your story around them, or you can drone on and leave to chance the three things listeners will remember.
Once you’ve chosen a story and identified its three core elements, cut out anything that isn’t crucial for conveying them. Twenty minutes max for three key takeaways. Edit mercilessly.
3. GET VISUAL WITH STORYTELLING
This tip is as ubiquitous as so many PowerPoint slides plastered with watermarked stock photos. We’ve all figured out that an image is more compelling than bullet points. If you’re a crappy storyteller to begin with, a few lame, ill-chosen images won’t be enough to save you.
Neuroscientists know there’s a connection between emotions and decision-making. If you can’t offer your audience an emotional reaction, chances are they won’t feel spurred on to action—encouraged to make any real decisions—after your story concludes.
Smart visuals can help generate that reaction. Sight is one of our primary senses for determining emotional response. We can react to the outside world based on what we see, hear, smell, and so on, but few of our sensory inputs are as immediate as sight. If you’re speaking to a room full of people, sure, they’ll see you, but their information intake will primarily be auditory.
So why not widen your arsenal? If your audience can see your story unfold before them, they’ll have more material with which to shape an emotional response. That’s why pictures are so important. It’s also why they shouldn’t just play a supporting role and illustrate your narrative; the images you show your audience should comprise the story itself.
As a result, PowerPoint might not be the right medium with which to tell your story. Think of the elements of your story that are best conveyed visually rather than orally. Which pieces of information do you need to show rather than tell?
If your story has clear purpose, structure, and imagery, you’re more likely to make a powerful impact—even if you’re the world’s worst storyteller in other settings.