Storytelling for Business

by Nick Owen

Common questions

  1. Can you give me some compelling reasons for using stories in a business context?
  2. What’s the best time to tell a story?
  3. Won’t telling stories give me a reputation for being fluffy and lightweight?
  4. How can I be sure a story will work?
  5. Where can I find stories to tell?
  6. How can stories shift people from their existing patterns and thinking frames and open them up to change?
  7. Will telling stories improve my communication skills?
  8. How do I get connection and engagement with an audience when telling stories?
  9. I’m useless at telling stories. What can I do?
  10. Do I have to learn stories by heart before telling them?

 

1. Can you give me some compelling reasons for using stories in a business context?

There are many reasons for using stories.

  • Stories are the most natural form of communication. We use them all the time, even when we are not aware of doing so. Our brains are hard wired to pay attention to them and store any learning from them in our memory.
  • Stories make immediate sense of reality because they are contextual, experiential, and multi-sensory.
  • Stories open the listener to new possibilities and ideas – things that hadn’t been thought about before.

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2. What’s the best time to tell a story?

Any time is a good time to tell a story, but you will have to manage a number of things to ensure that your audience is receptive, both to you and to the content of your story.

  • It is essential that you have the listeners’ complete attention before you start: the beginning of a story is important.
  • Frame the topic before you begin.
  • You can start a meeting or presentation with a story.
  • Stories can be used at the end of a meeting, presentation or one-to-one session. Here, they can serve the purpose of a powerful ending that summarises the key points you have made during the meeting.
  • One of the best ways of finding the right time to tell a story is simply to pay attention to what is being said and, when an appropriate story comes to mind – one that is relevant to the topic under discussion – improvise it there and then.

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3. Won’t telling stories give me a reputation for being fluffy and lightweight?

If the culture in which you operate considers such excellent leaders and communicators as John Harvey Jones, Peter Senge, Jack Welch, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, the Buddha, and Jesus Christ fluffy and lightweight, then the answer is probably yes.

Great leaders and communicators all recognise the simple fact that power and strength are actually enhanced through connection to one’s own humanity and vulnerability. A story demonstrates something of who you are as a person and is an invitation to your listeners to join with you in a relationship.

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4. How can I be sure a story will work?

You can’t be. But if you are willing to prepare and practise, to pay attention to the tips given in the page on structure, and to develop ways to read your audience and respond to their changing relationship with the story and with you, the storyteller, while accepting that you will not be perfect all the time, then you have an excellent chance of making your stories work for you.

With most of the important skills that you have developed in your life, you did not achieve excellence the first time round. The skills come with a modicum of diligence, dedication and discipline. If you believe using stories and narratives in business contexts will raise your profile as a leader and influencer, and will improve your skills as a communicator, then you will find that becoming a skilful storyteller is really quite easy.

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5. Where can I find stories to tell?

Stories are everywhere: in books and newspapers, in the movies, in everyday events, in dreams, in the minds and mouths of people and above all in our own lives.

The best stories to tell in business contexts are often stories that come from your own direct work experiences or those of people you know or have heard about. But there are many other resources.

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6. How can stories shift people from their existing patterns and thinking frames and open them up to change?

Resonant stories are essentially reframes. Like putting on different pairs of glasses, stories allow us to look at life and experience in ways that can shift our perspective, range and focus.

Stories and business narratives offer us a way of seeing and understanding our world in a new light, from a different angle. Stories are an important and powerful tool to generate creativity and greater choice in our lives and those of others.

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7. Will telling stories improve my communication skills?

Absolutely! Storytelling is a performance art. And so is presenting, running a meeting and communicating effectively in general. There are many ways to perform and storytelling doesn’t have to be high octane, though it does require some energy.

Only three elements are essential for effective storytelling, and these are exactly the same as for high level communicating. When these elements are present in your communication you will be compelling and engaging to others.

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8. How do I get connection and engagement with an audience when telling stories?

There are a number of effective ways of doing this, techniques that work in other important communication contexts as well as storytelling.

  1. Breathe.
  2. Pause.
  3. Engage first with self, then with others: if you’re not engaged with yourself, no-one’s going to engage with you.
  4. Connect to your emotion. Don’t act it, just feel it and tell it naturally.

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9. I’m useless at telling stories. What can I do?

If I want to develop a skill I’m not particularly good at, I look for a model that will help me learn it in a step-by-step way. The model could be a person I know, or someone I can discover through a book, a CD-ROM or something else. But I want to learn from someone or several people who know what they’re talking about.

The same works for stories. If you only pay attention to the basic messages in this topic, you will learn all you really need to start you on the path of storytelling. Once you begin, starting to notice those things which are working for you and those which are not, you will be able to coach yourself to develop your skills.

Don’t expect to become the world’s greatest storyteller overnight. Take time and be patient. Learn from what goes wrong as well as what goes right. No-one was born a storyteller, it is a learned skill.

Perhaps the biggest tip to help improve the telling of business narratives is the art of editing. People are busy and don’t have too much time to listen, no matter how good a story or a storyteller is. In most business narratives, you need to keep information in the story to the bare minimum. Ask yourself what must be kept in, and what could be left out. Then practise until you have a really good elevator story – one that you could tell to the CEO between the 2nd and 17th floors.

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10. Do I have to learn stories by heart before telling them?

Professional actors will tell you that one of the hardest things they have to do is learn lines someone else has written.

It is far easier to make a story skeleton. When you tell your story using a skeleton, it will sound fresh, alive and slightly different each time you tell it.

Another solution is to read a story, but this actually requires more skill than using a skeleton.

Play around with different ideas. You will probably discover that a skeleton is the most elegant and least time-consuming way of preparing to deliver a story.

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