Do you tell stories with emotional power that move audiences? When it comes to storytelling in business, here's how to excel.
Once there was a CEO in the transportation industry whose private firm had recently acquired a public company. That meant conducting quarterly earnings calls with analysts—something the CEO dreaded like a tractor trailer on fire. This is the story of how he overcome his fear, found his voice again, and became good at business storytelling.
I can vouch for all of this because you might say I was present at the creation.
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Let me share how this leader, my client, discovered the magic of business storytelling.
Taking the Wrong Road Can Still Lead You Home
In his anxiety, my client made a mistake that cost him something in the short run, but ended up bringing him home—where he was comfortable, competent, and charismatic. Those goals must have seemed a long way off to him when he first contacted me.
It was just after his first earnings call with Wall Street analysts, which he'd conducted with his CFO. To his horror, it went as badly or even worse than he'd anticipated. Fortunately, he'd taped his side of the conversation and we were able to listen to the audio.
Naturally, he focused in the call on the data: projections, share price, movement in the market, industry trends, and stock prices the company was aiming for in the next quarter. He just forgot how to put it all together as a good story he could tell the analysts.
The interesting thing was, he was known as a colorful figure in his industry who told interesting stories. I learned that from the public relations professional who had brought the CEO to me. Together, we realized that all we really needed to do was to let our client loose—to make him feel like himself, comfortable with telling stories about his industry and the people in it. There was a natural connection, of course, with prices, trends, successes and failures, and all the other things that go with running a transportation business and interacting with others in the field.
Once we were able to help our now-mutual client get his voice back, i.e., unleash the natural storyteller in him, he felt that he was on solid ground again. In effect, he learned how to reduce anxiety when speaking to those analysts. As soon as that happened, he started coming across as his colorful self—the guy who told great business stories. The PR expert and I had a mutual goal: to get the analysts to be eager to conduct earnings calls with our client, a colorful storyteller. I think we got that to happen.
6 Storytelling Tips to Tell a Great Business Story
What was happening with my new client was a common occurrence in business. Speakers too often obsess about data and content (and often PowerPoint bells and whistles), to the detriment of the conversation they're supposed to be having with listeners. Does that sound like you?
Here are six business storytelling tips that will help you engage and even excite your audience. They are essential techniques, ones I've learned over the years as a speech coach to business people, multinationals, diplomats, nonprofit professionals, and TEDx speakers, among others.
You'll notice that they involve considerable planning and preparation. That's because thinking hard about what you're doing puts you on the right wavelength, which is connecting with the audience. Common storytelling advice about the hero's journey and archetypes are fine. But you're better off asking yourself questions about this group you're talking to, and how you can reach them where they live. When you start and end with your audience's needs and desires, everything you say will live in the right space.
1. Find the Interest. Who is this group? What turns them on about this topic? Just as important: what do they need? It's a common mistake to try to 'be a great storyteller." That's like capturing the golden prize without undertaking the necessary quest to find it (sounds like a story, doesn't it?) When you start with an audience's needs, you have a direct line to what you really should be talking about. Once you're there, the story tends to write itself.
2. Ask Yourself, 'How Can I Weave My Data Into a Story?' Let me introduce you to a mind-numbing array of numbers, statistics, trends, ROI, agenda items, bullet points, graphs, formulas, etc., etc. Now let me tell you about a company that was facing an existential problem. The company's products were first-rate and they'd always been an industry leader. But an extraordinary change had taken place in the industry in the past year. . . Are you getting interested, or should I show you those agenda bullet points again?
3. Create a Story Related to Your Audience. Now you're not focused on what Theseus did in his fight with the Minotaur (and trying to graft your story onto the classic hero-battles-a-monster blueprint). Having zeroed in on what this audience wants and needs to hear, you can present it in their terms from the start. Since you began fashioning your story in terms of these listeners, you'll now find everywhere events, references, personalities, industry challenges, and other elements that are closely and directly related to your audience.
4. Describe Events in Terms of Human Behavior. All you have to do at this point is consider how the events you're talking about reflect human behavior. That is, we all respond to challenges and threats in ways we are programmed to as a species. You can mention a fact or an outcome and leave it at that. But as soon as you explain how that event affected people's responses and their subsequent actions, your story becomes human and interesting. This is where you should think about the inherent drama in these events, because all good stories embody it. Focus on the conflicts and the struggles that led to success. Drama gets the pulse racing. Use it!
5. Speak Emotionally. What you're aiming for are emotional responses on the part of the audience. Data in itself is not typically engaging. But the benefits of those data—maybe the excitement of it and the emotional satisfaction it can bring—usually are. Hint: to create emotional responses, you must use the language of emotions. "We were pleased with the outcome, which wasn't what we expected" is a bloodless version of "We couldn't believe what we were seeing. I remember looking around and seeing the astonishment on everyone's face." And don't forget the power of the pause to aid both emotional response and drama.
6. Use Humor (Including Everyday and Self-Deprecating). Business and profit (and the emotional responses of prosperity and well-being linked to them) are serious. But nobody likes a grim recitation of the facts, even if there's a story involved. Humor lightens the moment, provides entertainment, helps an audience like you, and shows that you have a balanced outlook toward the subject. Avoid jokes, which weren't written for the occasion and are usually a zero-sum game. Humor is all around you, waiting for you to see it and grab it. Some of it is related to the story you're telling. Notice it, savor it, then give your listeners a taste.
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