Avoid the s-word – storytelling in business

| May 18, 2016

A senior leader stands in front of his people to give a presentation on the company’s new direction. He says, ‘I would like to share a story with you’.

If you were in that audience, what would you think or feel at that moment?

When I pose this question to my workshop participants, they groan and wince. They say things like, ‘Here we go’, or ‘Don’t treat us like kids’, or ‘Just get to the point’, or ‘What trick are they trying to pull?’

Now imagine that instead of, ‘I would like to share a story with you’, the senior leader says, ‘Something important happened a couple of weeks ago that I’d like to share with you. It’s going to affect our business’. Hearing that, what would you think? Most people think, ‘Jeez, what happened?’ They are ready to listen.

In both cases the leader is about to tell a story, but in the first one the audience is put off by the s-word—story—which still has a negative connotation in many business settings. People don’t want to be told they are about to hear a story. Worse yet, they don’t want to be told they’re going to hear a funny story. They want to be the judge of that.

So I tell leaders taking part in Anecdote programs to avoid the s-word. I tell them to instead talk about an experience, something that happened, or to just jump right into the story with a time marker: ‘Three weeks ago, while I was at the Mildura plant…’ People love to hear stories. They just don’t like to be told they are listening to one.

Why you shouldn’t dramatise business storytelling

Let’s say there are 150 people seated in rows on hard, uncomfortable chairs. This is your division and it’s time for you to address them. You walk to the middle of the stage and welcome everyone, then thank them for all their recent hard work. Then you launch into a story. Suddenly, your whole demeanor changes. You are clearly acting out the story. It’s more than miming—it’s a pantomime. People shift nervously in their seats. When the story finishes, you revert to your normal self. Everyone is left wondering: ‘What in the hell just happened?’

I’ve seen this kind of performance, and it’s embarrassing. People often make the mistake of thinking that they need to dramatise their stories, to set them apart from the rest of their presentation. Nothing could be further from the truth. When you share a story, you are not performing but rather simply illustrating a point. Remember this and your business storytelling will improve no end.

The best communicators are conversational. They make you feel like you’re being personally engaged in a dialogue, even if you’re just one face in a sea of faces. And they move seamlessly from statements to stories, as you would in an informal chat. Unless you have been trained in business storytelling, these stories remain undetectable.

Gestures and voice

I’m often asked what’s the best way to tell a story. Some people want to know what gestures to use, while others are concerned that they talk in a monotone. I always say that the key to storytelling is to not overthink it. Simply by including stories in what you are saying, rather than trying to make them stand out from what you are saying, you take care of both gestures and voice.

My starting point is to remind people that in business, it’s best to focus on the small stories—the real-life, everyday anecdotes that sit at the opposite end of the storytelling spectrum from the meticulously crafted big stories of screenwriters and novelists. After they have found a story to tell, I say, ‘Now, when you share this story, imagine it actually happening’. When someone imagines a story happening as they tell it, they project the emotion contained in the story to their audience. It’s amazing to watch. The person’s eyes begin to sparkle, their voice modulates, their gestures match the story, all without giving any of these things a second thought. Of course, these emotions will only come through if your story has moments that your listeners can see in their mind’s eye: good stories are visual and evoke emotions.

The best advice I can give about delivering a story is to not try too hard. Just act naturally and relive the story.