"Scratch the surface in a typical boardroom, and we’re all just cavemen with briefcases, hungry for a wise person to tell us stories," says computer pioneer Dr. Alan Kay. Recent research in neuroscience reveals that our brain is hardwired to respond to a story—we crave stories like a child craves candy.
And while there's no doubt that storytelling is one of the most powerful tools in your business communication toolkit, sadly, it's a tool that most people don't use.
Whether you're trying to position your brand in a crowded market, attempting to evangelize your vision or values to stakeholders, attempting to sell your products or services, or struggling to get your message across at staff meetings, you need to include storytelling in your repertoire. As Michael Margolis, CEO and founder of storytelling training company Get Storied, says in this video, "Story is your ultimate currency. You are trading on your story. This is why people buy your message, or buy your product, or even hire you to do a job."
Here are 11 tips to help you benefit from the power of storytelling so your voice is heard above the din of the crowd:
1. Let Simplicity Be Your Guide
One of the reasons businesspeople shy away from including stories in their communications with employees or customers is the mistaken notion that a story has to have a complex structure and has to be subject to some rigorous rules. Nothing could be further from the truth. At its core, an effective story structure is simple. Just tell people where you were, what happened and why you're telling them the story. End of story.
Once you get comfortable telling a few stories, you can graduate to include more sophisticated structures. In Business Storytelling for Dummies, authors Karen Dietz and Lori L. Silverman outline 11 story structures to help you deliver a memorable story to your audience. For example, “I’m Better Off” stories tell of a struggle and an eventual redemption—of losing everything and gaining something better in return.
2. Evangelize Your Storytelling
There's a native American saying that goes like this: "It takes a thousand voices to tell a single story." Similarly, it takes all the voices in your organization to tell your story. Don't be the only one who goes around telling the story of your company. Train everyone to tell the corporate story—turn them into storytelling evangelists. Storytelling is the antidote to complacency, so get people excited about telling your company story.
3. State Your Reason for Telling the Story
Your story needs to have a message—a clear takeaway for your listeners. It has to have a purpose and make a point. A story without a message is pointless in business. In some cases, you can also be bold and take it one step further by asking for the action. In his article, "Storytelling for Business," entrepreneur Chris Brogan says a business story "should end with a sense of what the 'reader' (who becomes a character of another kind) can do with what they learned in the story."
4. Prune Your Details
Because we fall in love with our own stories, we consequently end up including too many details. This will backfire as people start to tune you out, not understanding where you're going with your narrative. Guard against this by crafting your story, then walking away from it for a few days. Revisit it with fresh eyes, and start editing. Ask yourself if all your story elements really help to bolster your point. If not, prune out all superfluous details. Give people enough detail to set the context and to help them experience the story and see what you see. Giving too few details doesn't work either, as it prevents people from envisioning your story, so aim for the right balance.
5. Use Dialogue
Make sure you include dialogue in your stories. That is, don't tell a story in the third person. Repeat for your listeners the actual words the person in your story spoke. For example, replace "He was surprised about the error I made" with "He said, 'I can't fathom how you could make such an error.'" Dialogue personalizes your story, makes it more vivid and brings it to life. Above all, dialogue "causes additional brain regions in listeners' brains to light up," says leadership development consultant Ron Crossland in Voice Lessons: Applying Science to the Art of Leadership Communication. This means they'll pay more attention to what you're saying. As Crossland says, "Using dialogue significantly enhances a story's stickiness."
6. Polish Your Skills
We're all born storytellers—it's something we've been doing all our lives. But storytelling is an ability that improves with practice. If you need help getting started or taking your storytelling abilities to the next level, pick up a copy of Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins by Annette Simmons. The book includes some dos and don'ts for storytelling and exercises to help you craft your stories. For inspiration, also check out TED's extensive collection of storytelling talks.
7. Start Collecting Stories
As a business owner, you need to have a repertoire of stories in your toolkit. These include stories about who you are as a person or leader, what you stand for and what your values are. You need stories that bring your vision to life, stories that illuminate your purpose and let people know why you do what you do. In addition, develop stories that teach something, such as how to handle negotiations or conflict, or how to give respectful criticism.
Above all, you need a story that positions your brand in the minds of your customers and other stakeholders. Robert Rose, co-author of Managing Content Marketing: The Real-World Guide for Creating Passionate Subscribers to Your Brand, outlines a 10-step process in his article, "Brand Storytelling: 10 Steps to Start Your Content Marketing Hero’s Journey."
8. Master Transmedia Storytelling
Today, it's important to tell a consistent story across multiple media platforms. This is currently referred to as transmedia storytelling. It means your story needs to be shared on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Google + and other social media platforms, as well as YouTube. By doing so, you amplify your voice and presence wherever your consumers and your constituents are. This reflects the reality of your audience and the way they process information.
As the people behind FBC Global, a marketing communications agency, put it in their video, Cinderella 2.0: Transmedia Storytelling, "To stay relevant to our hyper-connected generation, being present in their minds and lives, we need liquid content adaptable in order to distribute it across all available mediums." Each medium will add a different level of depth to your story, each piece enhancing the story while constantly feeding the conversation. "Transmedia strategies create a strong emotional link with an audience," the FBC Global video says. "It generates buzz across all media ... and builds a sustainable audience around your brand." Don't ignore this important trend.
Here's a free social media marketing toolkit to get you started. It includes a guide for measuring the ROI of social media campaigns, a how-to-video and best practices.
9. Make Sure Your Story Rings True
The stories that pack the most punch are personal ones. These stories ring true. When you tell a story, speak in your own voice and drop the jargon and inflated language. Use colloquial language, and speak from the heart. You can't engage your listeners when you speak what Dan Pink calls "professionalese."
One tip in that regard is to check out your "About Us" page on your website. Does it tell your story? Does it even sound like you? This is an ideal place to start telling your story. Here are a few examples of companies and people whose "About Us" summaries tell a strong story: HubSpot, an inbound marketing software company; Canva, a free graphic design platform; author Charles Duhigg; entrepreneur Mark Cuban; image and wardrobe consultant Lizzie Edwards; and pastry chef and cookbook author David Lebovitz.
10. Use Storytellit
Dave Kerpen, founder and CEO of social media marketing software firm Likable Local, created Storytellit, a free tool that helps you tailor content to your business and tell your story. It pulls together all your social media accounts and gives you content to post. Here are five ways you can use Storytellit for your business.
11. Don't Read Your Story—Tell It
Don't ever read your story. Spend whatever time it takes for you to practice telling your story. It may not be perfect if you tell it without reading it, but nobody is looking for perfection. Your listeners are looking to be engaged, to be inspired, to be entertained. Speak directly to them to get them to lean in to hear more about what you have to say.
Stories grab our attention and inspire us. They can change minds and attitudes. A well-told, authentic story can make you more trustworthy and encourage others to want to collaborate with you. Above all, stories are the Velcro that makes your message stick. Don't let this age-old tradition pass you by. What's your story?
Bruna Martinuzzi is the founder of Clarion Enterprises Ltd., and the author of two books: Presenting with Credibility: Practical Tools and Techniques for Effective Presentations and The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow.
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