Storytelling for Business

by Nick Owen

Preparation and practice

No excellent storyteller was born an excellent storyteller. It is a learned skill. Practice is important. But of course there is little point in practising what is not useful. What follows are some practical hints in developing effective storytelling skills. When, through practice, you have become familiar with and mastered these ‘rules’ you can break them. All good rules have a purpose. Once you know the purpose and can achieve it, you can break any rule in the service of a different or higher purpose. The important thing is to know and pursue the purpose.

Choosing your stories

Look for stories in newspapers, books, TV, radio and movies, and especially in anecdotes from your own life. Experiment with telling the same story in different ways and making changes in a story to achieve different results and responses.

Choose stories that are meaningful to you, so that the reality of each story, and your emotional contact with it, naturally allow you to use the tonalities of your voice, with the energy and range which are appropriate to each part of the story. The same is true for volume and pace. This will tend to occur naturally as you experience the story while you tell it.

Always bear in mind that the power of effective storytelling depends on several key factors:

  • The frame you put around the story
  • Your willingness to withhold your own interpretation, so that others can freely supply theirs
  • Your commitment to, and involvement in, the telling
  • Knowing that the meaning of any story depends upon the context in which you tell it, who you are and who you tell it to.
Example

Under the hot sun, a little boy is watching a man shaping a large block of stone with a hammer and chisel.

‘Why are you doing that,’ says the boy.

‘Because,’ Michelangelo replies, ‘there’s an angel inside and he wants to come out.’

Seating arrangements

Before you start, if it is possible and appropriate, arrange the seating to create the best possible relationship between you and your audience, and one which supports the meaning and intention of the story. The ‘psycho-geography’ makes a powerful contribution to how we are affected by the space around us. The temperature, lighting, furniture arrangement, visual stimuli and social relations, both within the audience and between audience members and the storyteller, all impact on how we feel about the story, the storyteller, ourselves and each other.

  • A circle creates a space where everyone can feel equally engaged and involved. There is also no hiding place.
  • A horseshoe gives a similar effect, except that it heightens the power of the one at the mouth of the horseshoe: the storyteller.
  • In a boardroom table set-up, the focal point tends to be either at the head or foot of the table.
  • In a lecture theatre or classroom-style arrangement, listeners tend to revert to teenage behaviours, including thinking patterns.
  • If you sit behind a table, it creates a barrier. Do it only when you want to exert strong authority (support yourself with a Gucci attaché case and your Montblanc pens) or to protect yourself from hostility. Barriers are not usually advisable: they suggest you have already lost it.

Rehearsal

Before telling a story the first time, rehearse it quietly a couple of times during the previous days, using a story skeleton (see below). Just before telling it publicly, run a quick movie in your head, watching yourself as the star of the movie telling it to your audience.

The story skeleton

An excellent way to make a story your own is to create a skeleton of the original story and use it as the basis of your own interpretation. Here’s an example based on the story of The Two Monks used in the page on Frames and reframes.

  • Two monks
  • Women: no talk/touch
  • Flooded river
  • Woman
  • Older monk – carries her
  • Younger – betrayed
  • One hour non stop
  • Finally
  • I... You...

With a couple of rehearsals, your brain needs nothing more than this to trigger the memory and structure the story. Probably, the emotional and intellectual process of selecting which words to use in your skeleton will be enough to fix the story firmly in your memory. Do not be tempted to put too much information into the skeleton.

When telling the story the first few times, you can have this skeleton by you on an unobtrusive record card, or write it large in big bold letters and put it on the wall behind your audience, where you can see it easily, keeping your eye contact out, not down.

If you have only this skeleton, you will have to trust yourself to find the linking ideas and words fresh each time you tell the story. It will then be IN YOUR OWN WORDS. This will ensure your story is full of vitality. You will be searching for the words and ideas and this will slow you down. As if you were crossing a river on stepping stones, your delivery will be full of changes of direction and moments of drama. You will make natural pause breaks for thought, and you will now have time to connect to the reality and emotions of your story through visual, auditory and emotional processing.

Another solution is to read a story, but the downside is that you can easily lose contact with your audience. You can, however, practise the skill of looking at a sentence in silence, then expressing it as a paraphrase to your audience as you connect with them. Pause again; scan the next sentence; re-establish eye contact and then express the ideas in your own words and so on.

Eventually, you will realise that making a skeleton is the most elegant and least time-consuming way of preparing to deliver a story.

Before your start

Remember to make sure any materials you need, or props, are to hand before starting.

Get in the right state

Take time to compose yourself before you start. Aim to put yourself in a state that matches the mood you want at the opening of your story. If you want calm, think of a time – any time – when you had that kind of calm. It can be in any context, provided it was a time of calm. As you connect with that memory, take time to see the pictures and hear the sounds of the memory. The sights and sounds will trigger the feelings of the calm you had then, right now in the present.

Practise this so that just a quick thought of what you saw or heard brings back the feeling instantly. Of course, you can use the same technique with excitement, curiosity, energy, anticipation or any other emotional state. This is a technique many top performers use in business, the arts and sport (see Anchoring).

Also pay attention to the state you want to put your audience in. Will the story excite them or calm them, make them curious or challenge them? Or all of these at different stages of the story? What is the purpose of your story at an individual, social, cultural, educational and political level? When you are clear about the purpose of your story, you are more likely to achieve the results you want.

Before beginning, develop a centred breathing pattern, right down into your belly, while maintaining a relaxed sense of wellbeing in your shoulders and upper chest. Breath is the centre of life and also of your voice. You will have access to greater vocal and emotional range when you are breathing well. It will also slow you down and give a sense of rootedness and control (see Voice Skills).