Storytelling for Business

by Nick Owen


Storytelling is a performance art. And so are 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.

Three elements are essential to effective storytelling, and these are exactly the same as for high-level communicating.

  • Connect to your values and beliefs. If it matters to you it is much more likely to matter to your listeners.
  • Be yourself. Choose stories that appeal to you and integrate them into your own authenticity. You don’t have to perform a story in a theatrical way. In fact, one of the best ways to tell a story is to think of yourself as the vehicle through which the story emerges.
  • Connect to your highest purpose. Who or what are you serving by telling this story or by giving this presentation? What vision are you bringing to life? Let your passion connect with your audience.

When these elements are present in your communication, you will be compelling and engaging to others.

If you limit your concerns only to getting the behaviours and skills right, following the steps in a mechanistic way, you will be no more than a competent technician.

As you develop as a storyteller by practising and paying attention to feedback from yourself and others, you will also develop the confidence to engage with your audience and notice the quality of the relationship you are building with them.

Do I have to learn a story by heart?

Professional actors will tell you that one of the hardest things they have to do is to learn lines someone else has written and make them sound fresh and newly minted at every performance.

It is far easier to make a story skeleton (see Preparation and practice) as a simple holding structure and then improvise upon that, trusting you will find the words you need when the moment comes. This keeps your brain alive and connected to your heart and gut. It will give you a sweet combination of the required amount of energy and adrenaline. Your story will sound fresh, alive and slightly different each time you tell it. This will make it more fun for you too. The best stories, like jazz, are produced by improvisation dancing lightly upon structure.

Similarly, where possible, tell a story rather than read it. An effective storyteller brings life to a story through their own identification with it. Reading a story well is a much more challenging skill because it requires you to interpret someone else’s story rather than your own.

The performance

Mark the transition from the previous activity into a story with a moment of silence and inclusive eye contact. A story needs ritual and it is important that listeners appreciate that a change of context is imminent, that something is about to begin. Aim for a frisson of tension like that before the start of a Grand Prix, or the curtain rising in the theatre, or a space rocket taking off. The excitement and anticipation is in those moments before the activity starts.

Slow down

You will have to speak slower than your natural talking speed and this will feel uncomfortable for some of you. There are several reasons why a slower speed than normal is desirable. Unlike readers, who can go at their own speed and re-read a paragraph if they don’t understand it, listeners to a story have to process at the speed of the speaker.

In our stories, we want our listeners to paint pictures in their mind’s eye, to hear the voices of our characters in their mind’s ear, to connect with their emotions as each narrative progresses from section to section. And for this they need time. The time you offer your listeners, through silence, pause and pace allows them to think back over what has been said and connect it with their own experience, to consider how they are feeling about it now in the present, and to anticipate the future – what will happen next. And so you bind a greater and deeper connection between you, the teller, and them, the listeners.

Eye contact

Maintain eye contact with all your audience, sometimes sweeping across the whole of the audience, sometimes holding eye contact with an individual for between three and five seconds. This connects you with the listeners and gives you feedback about how you are doing. With eye contact in groups, less than three seconds is often not noticed. More than five seconds can be an embarrassment.