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Businessman giving a presentation looking very uncomfortable

Once upon a time in an office near you a young businessman came to deliver a message. He had a wonderful idea to share. Alas, so dense with facts and statistical information was his presentation that he sent his audience into a deep sleep that would last for 100 years. The only way he could break this spell was to tell a good story.

“If only there was an article with storytelling tips for business presentations that could help me” the young man cried in despair. With that, a great flash of light struck his laptop screen and there before his eyes appeared this article.

“Mercy” he rejoiced as he feasted his eyes on the title ‘5 Storytelling Tips for Business’. “If I read this I could break the spell and fulfil the quest to deliver my message”.  And so he set his eyes upon the text and began.

a fairygodmother of storytelling points her wand at the businessman's laptoo

Why is storytelling so important in business?

There’s nothing better than a good old story. Indeed, no country appreciates this more than Ireland, where we have an historical talent for spinning yarns. Just take a seat in a Dublin pub and listen.

But what happens when we go into the board room or stand up to deliver a team presentation, a product pitch or a key note speech? For many people the instinct is to park their stories at the door. They hedge their bets instead by rattling off data and telling their audience what they need to know.

Here’s the thing: Facts alone are boring.

Storytelling is crucial in business because business is about people and people need stories. Academics have found that our brains are hardwired to process and store information in the form of stories. So, when we hear a story trigger such as “A long time ago in a far away land there was such and such a character with such and such a problem…..” our minds immediately attach to this imaginary scene and prepare to absorb and organise information as story.

Stories are, in fact, irresistible to the human mind! According to professional speaker Akash Karia this is because they stimulate our imaginations, giving us no choice but to follow the mental visualisations that spring to life in our heads. As a result, stories offer a powerful way for us to learn and communicate.

You can tell a child not to make a habit of lying because then no one will ever believe them when they’re telling the truth.  Alternatively, you can frighten the bejesus out of them with the tale of Peter and the Wolf. Which do you thick is a more effective lesson?

A well told story will stick in our memories far longer than any fact or figures or lessons. But we do need this type of information in business, so we need creative and effective ways of transmitting this information. That’s where stories come in. Think of a story as the secret sauce that brings ingredient information together into an easy to digest sandwich!

Storytelling, Marketing & Brand  

Stories are all about showing, not telling.

This communication strategy has not been lost on marketeers who have long strived to leverage the power of story telling to build brands. Look at Airbnb or Nike or Lego for excellent examples of brand storytelling by large corporations.

There are many different types of stories and ways to tell them in business – from product inventions and innovations to entrepreneurial feats, stories about customers, workers, ambassadors, cultural trends and movements. All of these stories can combine to form the overall story of your brand.

The kind of stories you want to share will depend on your personal and business brand and the messages you want to convey. However, there are some common elements and techniques that we can all use when constructing our messages to help leverage the power of storytelling in business to best effect.

The key focus in this article is on verbal storytelling – using stories in front of a business audience as part of a presentation or speech. I’m going to share 5 Storytelling Tips for Business that will make you and your brand more interesting, memorable and engaging. And hopefully there’s enough here to help the novice businessman reverse the spell of the 100 year slumber he cast upon his audience.

1. Plan your take-away message from the outset 

There’s no point telling a story for story’s sake – that’s just waffling. Stories are used in business presentations as vehicles for information and messages, so it is necessary to understand what point you want to make in advance of crafting a story.

The gravity of your message will of course depend on the circumstances of your presentation. If it’s a keynote speech at a large industry conference then you may need to convey the defining vision and ethos of your company, for example ‘celebrating individuality; or a ‘commitment to transparent factory processes in support of workers rights’.  Perhaps you are speaking at a recruitment fair and you want to send a message that your company is a fun place to work or actively engaged in addressing gender imbalances in your particular industry. Taking it in-house you may simply be pitching a new process to your co-workers that you feel would increase productivity.

There are suitable stories for every occasion and for every audience from employees to investors, partners and customers. However, you must be sure of the take-away message you wish to achieve. Start with this and then plan your story delivery around it. This will help you to laser focus your story and cut away what’s not required.

2. Understand the 4 Cs of Storytelling for Business

There’s lots of mention of the C’s in storytelling theory. The exact number of C’s there are – or should be – differs from critic to critic and from genre to genre be it children’s storybooks or science fiction or literature.

When it comes to business storytelling my opinion is that there are 4 key components that every story should have – Character, Conflict, Context, Conclusion.

For a sprinkling of flavour on top of these we could also throw on Contrast, Curiosity, Climax and Conversation.

But for now it’s enough to highlight the key elements. Let’s take a look.

Characters

There are no stories without characters. Make sure people are at the very centre of your story. Everything else, such as data, money, environmental or infrastructural elements, are part of the character’s world and not the other way round.

Conflict

If there is no conflict in a story then it’s not a story worth telling. Can you think of a film, for example,  with this plot: Boy meets girl. Boy and girl fall in love. Boy and girl live happily ever after? No, and rightly so because it would make for tremendously dull viewing.

A business version of this would be something like. “I studied business in college. When I finished I set up a business and ran it successfully until I retired”. Now, this might sound like music to the ears of a parent perhaps, but who’d want to go to a motivational seminar with that kind of content?

The truth is that we like to hear about challenges and how they were overcome, not about perfect heroes. It’s the reason why the world’s best known business leaders spend more time talking about their failures than their successes. It’s far more interesting.

Context

Stories don’t just happen in a vacuum. They belong to a particular place and time. Context therefore helps to ground a story. Social, economic, cultural, political, geographical, linguistic, environmental and historical contexts can each bring new meaning and relevance to a story, and it’s here where our stories begin to gain their depth.

Refer to the contextual elements that shape the story you’re telling. But be careful. You only need to outline contexts that are directly relevant to the story.

Conclusion 

What happens at the end? How did it work out for the main character? Were they successful or unsuccessful?

Regardless of whether it is ‘happy ever after’ or otherwise, every story needs an ending. In other words, we must resolve the conflict we established at the heart of the story.

Often enough it is the conclusion of the story where our main point will be made. It’s the punchline, the moral, the message, the take-away.

3. Think about story structure

Now that you’ve decided your take-away message and the story you’re going to tell it’s time to think about how you’re going to tell it. That means it’s time to think about structure.

If you want to deliver a memorable story to your business audience you must consider how to shape your storytelling.

There’s more than one way to skin a cat. And likewise, there are lots of different ways to tell a story. The classic narrative we’re all familiar with from essay writing 101 in school is ‘Beginning, Middle, End’ – and certainly chronological stories have their place.

However, if you’re going to use stories as a communication tool with any degree of frequency then you should  have a few more story structures up your sleeve.

Fortunately we don’t have to come up with these all on our own. There are lots of made to measure story structures out there that we can test out and play around with.

Here are three of the simplest business storytelling formulas to get you started.

Opening and Closing the Curiosity Gap

Opening with a question provokes interest in the audience because it stimulates curiosity.

“How did a small family owned bakery in rural France become the world’s largest distributor of bread?”

This is called an ‘inciting incident’. Tapping into curiosity will have the audience hanging on your every word for the rest of your story because curiosity must be satisfied!

S.H.A.R.ES. 

This stands for: Setting, Hindrance, Action, Results, Evaluation, and Suggested Actions. It’s self-explanatory and very easy to implement

Follow the Why

Following the why is a great way of leading an audience through different layers of a story and to the final resolution Call to Action.

Start with a problem and follow it with the question why? Then follow the answer with why, and the next answer with why? Eventually you will get to the answer to the problem – what are we going to do about it/how can we fix it!

4. Play on Emotions

A sure fire way to engage your audience is to emphasise the emotional swings in a story.

After you’ve chosen a story structure and reorganised your content to fit the formula try to find ways to bring opposing emotions into play.

For example, if a story follows the SHARES structure, could you emphasise differing emotions in the Hindrance and the Action sections, or maybe in the Hindrance and the Result pieces? Contrasting emotions highlight the twists and turns of your story in the most evocative and memorable way.

One way to evoke emotion is to coax your audience to empathise with your character. Ask, for example “can you imagine how he must have felt?”.

Another method is to employ vivid language such as metaphors and idioms that have emotional associations. Here’s some examples:

  • Over the Moon
  • On cloud nine
  • As happy as Larry
  • hopping mad
  • Seeing red
  • Like a bull
  • Heartbroken
  • Down in the dumps

5. Evoke VAK – Visual, Audio and Kinaesthetic Modalities

Stimulating the senses sucks your audience into a story faster than almost anything else. Flavour your story by describing what you or a character could see, hear, touch, taste and smell.

This technique is often used by psychologists and therapists. When the mind begins to imagine and think through emotional and sensory experiences, parts of the brain light up as if they’re actually happening.

Using these cues by describing the smell when you walked inside a factory for the first time, or the adrenaline racing through your body when you first realised you had hit on an innovative idea, or the harrowing sounds of distressed dolphins you witnessed on an expedition, will immerse a person from passively listening to your story, to feeling like an active participant.

If you can stimulate this active state from your audience then you’re rocking it as a storyteller! Beware, however, of smothering your audience with too much detail as this will reverse the effect you want to achieve. 1-3 sensory details at a time is enough to arouse your audience, any more is overkill.

Happily Ever After for your business storytelling?

The tips we’ve examined here will help you to craft better stories for business presentations. The thing to remember is that we can all harness the power of storytelling. It’s about craft,not talent.

Storytelling is something that we can learn, practice and improve and not a God-given talent as some people like to think! If you don’t have that natural flair for storytelling then you can literally piece your stories together using structural formulas and component checklists such as those we’ve touched on in this article. It’s like colouring by numbers and before you know it the stories will get easier and easier to develop and deliver.

 

happy businessman riding away from the office with cheers and applauseSo, what of our young businessman?

His eyes raced like fish as he read the article and when he finished he jumped up and once again faced the slumbering audience.

He told them a simple story. They woke up and listened. At the end they understood his idea and what’s more – they loved it.  Message delivered, the businessman rode away on his bike to tremendous applause.

As you can probably tell I love a good story. If you have any experiences or tips around the topic of storytelling for business that you would like to share then please feel free to get in touch or leave a comment below.

The End 🙂

Sinead Gillett

Creative Director