Storytelling for Business

by Nick Owen

Your audience

Individuals take in information in different ways. We use our senses to understand our experience, but we each use the senses available to us in different proportions. Stories naturally blend visual description with emotional engagement, tonal variety, and the beauty of words. Good storytellers often weave in the spice of smells and tastes to add extra piquancy to their descriptions.

Stories naturally overcome people’s hemispheric preferences in the upper part of the brain. Some people prefer logic, reason, structure, sequence and the solidity of words. Others prefer emotion, imagination, rhythm, silence, colour and non-verbal elements of communication. Stories elegantly interweave both, encouraging both conscious and unconscious processing.

Stories appeal to those who focus on getting tasks done – the content, structure and conclusion of a story takes care of that. They also appeal to those who find relationships and emotions more satisfying.

Choose the right bait

If you want to catch a fish, you’re unlikely to be successful if you just heave a naked hook into the water. You’ve got to make it attractive with some juicy titbit. But different fish need different bait to get excited enough to bite. And so it is with audiences. You need to sense into their needs, their current knowledge, their mood, their attitudes, their level of sophistication, their beliefs and values... and meet them in their reality.

Once you know what you want to achieve (your purpose), ask yourself what they want and need. And how do they need to hear it?

Now choose your story in the service of what you want and what is appropriate for them. Start where they are in their reality and build a respectful, trusting relationship. They will then be much more likely to join with you when you invite them follow you in new directions.

Even when delivering a tough communication to a distrustful audience, you may find that using a personal story – for example, a Who Am I? story (see Story types and structure) – can disarm them and help them to recognise that you understand their situation, can empathise with it and are prepared to be totally straight with them.

The more you are connected to your values, your personal authenticity and your sense of higher purpose or service, the more likely it is that the audience will connect with you. They may not agree with you, but they are more likely to respect you and open up to you.

At the same time, in challenging contexts you need to respect the audience’s values, and – where these are different from yours – agree to disagree. It is also possible to remain true to your values while not making them explicit. No need to tell an ardent Liverpool fan that you are a supporter of Everton. Just support their right to be passionate about red.

Observe how the fish respond

Above all, stories create space for listeners to connect what they are listening to with their own lived experience. As you tell a story, watch as people naturally move from outer to inner experience. They will listen to what you are saying, then go off on an inner journey to connect with something inside themselves. But soon they will return to listen once again. People don’t need to hear everything you say. And what they don’t hear, they will fill in for themselves. It’s a natural process and even the best storytellers can’t prevent it. In fact, it serves them. The story becomes a shared one, binding the listener to the teller.

Using stories generally means you don’t need to be concerned about different people’s learning styles. Stories automatically take care of this for you. This is just as well, because if you’re telling a story or giving a presentation to more than one person, the audience is already complex.

However, when connecting to large audiences with different values, levels of knowledge, expectations and so on, it’s usually a good idea to use stories which are more universal than particular. Let each person make sense of what the metaphor means to them.

Example

When my old friend Cookie left university, his first job was as a junior manager at what was then known as the Yorkshire Water Board. One day, his line manager asked him to take a message to the company’s senior water engineer, who happened to be working at home that day. Cookie went to the house on the outskirts of Huddersfield and knocked on the door. ‘Come in, Cookie lad, would you like a cup of tea?’ While the engineer brewed up in the scullery, Cookie looked out of the back window expecting to see a typical English garden. He was surprised to see fish tanks. Huge ones, stacked on top of each other, and in each tank a different species of fish.

‘I didn’t know you kept fish,’ said Cookie. ‘Nay, lad, I don’t keep fish,’ replied the senior water engineer, ‘I don’t keep fish; I keep water.’

The message was not lost on Cookie, who happened to be studying for his MBA at the time. ‘That’s a great message for leaders,’ he thought to himself. ‘Different fish need different conditions. Look after the water and the fish will look after themselves. Keep the bigger system healthy and functioning and everything in it will thrive naturally.’

Another context in which you could tell this story is when you want to challenge leaders who like to micromanage.

What are the best times to fish?

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. Read more about this in Preparation and practice.

Frame the topic before you begin. This means that your listeners will understand why you’re telling the story, and how you want them to connect it to some aspect of their experience. For example, you may want to address the issue that your team are leaving too many things till the last moment and a fire-fighting culture is developing. Bring this to their attention. Then tell the team you’re going to give them an example of what you’re driving at. Read more about this in Frames and reframes.

Story

It’s like the story of the farmer who noticed a lily had appeared in his lake. He checked on its progress from time to time and saw that it doubled in size every day, so he made a note to do something about it. It didn’t seem too big a problem. After fourteen days it only filled a quarter of the lake. But on the fifteenth day he had a shock. If he hadn’t left his tax return to the last minute, he would have sorted it out then. On the sixteenth day...

You can start a meeting or presentation with a story. The story itself can then serve as the frame. People will be curious as to why you are telling a story. When you finish, you can say something like ‘You may be wondering just why I’ve told that story. Let’s think about ways in which we in this team are like that farmer. What might the implications be for us if we continue in this way?’ A story can be a very powerful tool for getting listeners involved in inquiry. Encourage them to come up with their own stories from their experience of this very theme.

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 choosing the time to tell a story is simply to pay attention to what is being said; when a story comes to mind that is appropriate and relevant to the topic under discussion, improvise it there and then. This can be done around the coffee machine or in a meeting as well as in many other contexts. As your confidence develops, you will discover that you are finding and telling appropriate stories more and more.