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3 Communication Tips For Leaders
Who Suck At Storytelling

Posted on November 10, 2015
Written by Hunter Thurman

Storytelling

ADVISING SOMEONE TO TELL A GOOD STORY IS LIKE SAYING, “BE FUNNY.” ANYONE CAN TELL A JOKE, BUT ONLY A FEW MAKE US LAUGH.

This article originally appeared in Fast Company

It’s advice we’ve all heard before: Want to be compelling? Tell a story. Tap into the eons-old human compulsion to craft a narrative, say what happened, spin a yarn.

That’s sound advice. But on a practical level, anyway, it’s like telling someone, “Hey, be funny.” And while just about anyone can go through the motions and tell you a joke, chances are you only know a handful of people who can really make you laugh.

It’s much the same with telling stories in business environments. We tell stories all the time in social settings, just for the fun of it. But those run-of-the-mill narrative chops don’t always serve us well when we step into meetings and give pitches and deliver presentations. And for leaders who’ve risen through the ranks for their analytical skills or happen to be second-rate storytellers even at cocktail parties, the challenge is all the greater.

These three techniques are for them.

1. ANSWER THE QUESTION, “WHY AM I TELLING THIS STORY?”

This sounds like a no-brainer, but try it and you’ll see that you might not be as clear as you thought you were on your objectives. Any story you tell needs to serve a purpose; it needs to make a point. Otherwise there’s no reason to tell it in the first place.

“ONCE YOU’VE CHOSEN A STORY AND IDENTIFIED ITS THREE CORE ELEMENTS, CUT OUT ANYTHING AND EVERYTHING THAT ISN’T CRUCIAL FOR CONVEYING THEM.”

The first step in deciding not only what story to tell but how to tell it in a way that drives your message home is to identify your audience—and not just in general terms. If you’re speaking to your company’s board of directors, great. Now think of an individual member of the board whose position and experiences best represents the board as a whole. Chances are that’s no one person in reality and your audience is much more heterogeneous, but no matter—write her name down and design your story just for her. The goal is to reach the individual people you’ll be addressing, not a crowd.

Second, what’s your desired result? How do you want your listeners to feel, think, or do after you’re done telling your story? If the best answer you can give to this question is, “Inform them of Q2 activities and results,” you might want to skip the story altogether.

2. STICK TO THE ESSENTIALS

TED talks—the darling of storytelling enthusiasts everywhere—are strictly limited to 18 minutes. As TED curator Chris Anderson explains, that time frame “is long enough to be serious and short enough to hold people’s attention.”

He’s right. Our brains can typically focus on a speaker for 20-minute intervals before our attention begins to flag. That’s why people start looking at their watches, checking email, and slumping in their chairs during the second halves of those ubiquitous hourlong meetings.

A second rule of thumb to keep your approach limited to the fundamentals is the law of threes. We tend only to be able to remember three key bits of information delivered verbally. Fortunately, stories have a beginning, middle, and end, and can be told in a way that touches on the past, present, and future.

That makes your choice simple: You can either decide in advance which three things you want your audience to take away, then build your story around them, or you can drone on and leave to chance the three things listeners will remember.

Once you’ve chosen a story and identified its three core elements, cut out anything that isn’t crucial for conveying them. Twenty minutes max for three key takeaways. Edit mercilessly.

3. GET VISUAL WITH STORYTELLING

This tip is as ubiquitous as so many PowerPoint slides plastered with watermarked stock photos. We’ve all figured out that an image is more compelling than bullet points. If you’re a crappy storyteller to begin with, a few lame, ill-chosen images won’t be enough to save you.

Neuroscientists know there’s a connection between emotions and decision-making. If you can’t offer your audience an emotional reaction, chances are they won’t feel spurred on to action—encouraged to make any real decisions—after your story concludes.

Smart visuals can help generate that reaction. Sight is one of our primary senses for determining emotional response. We can react to the outside world based on what we see, hear, smell, and so on, but few of our sensory inputs are as immediate as sight. If you’re speaking to a room full of people, sure, they’ll see you, but their information intake will primarily be auditory.

So why not widen your arsenal? If your audience can see your story unfold before them, they’ll have more material with which to shape an emotional response. That’s why pictures are so important. It’s also why they shouldn’t just play a supporting role and illustrate your narrative; the images you show your audience should comprise the story itself.

As a result, PowerPoint might not be the right medium with which to tell your story. Think of the elements of your story that are best conveyed visually rather than orally. Which pieces of information do you need to show rather than tell?

If your story has clear purpose, structure, and imagery, you’re more likely to make a powerful impact—even if you’re the world’s worst storyteller in other settings.

[Photo: Flickr user Open Data Institute Knowledge for Everyone]

3 Lessons From Hollywood That Will Improve Your Business Storytelling

Posted on October 5, 2015
Written by Miguel Rueda

Business Storytelling

We’ve probably all heard it by now: “We have to start telling better stories!” Simple enough, right? Great, then let’s get started. You go first. Tell me your best business story. Ready? Go!

If you’re having trouble figuring out what to say then don’t worry, most people don’t really know where to begin. Fortunately, you don’t have to start from scratch in coming up with a solution. Put simply, a business story is the transmission of information in a prioritized, simple, persuasive manner in order to enable smart decisions.

You may be thinking “That’s easier said than done,” but it’s really not as hard as it sounds. In fact, the world of entertainment can give us a head start. While Hollywood may not know anything about your business, it does know a thing or two about telling good stories. Here’s a look at how your business can communicate better, both internally and with customers, using one of the simplest storytelling tools in Hollywood’s toolbox: the 3 Act Play.

Act I: Set the Scene

Setting the scene is an old concept in business. Everybody is accustomed to seeing PowerPoint presentations that start with “Objectives” or “Methodology.” It’s pretty standard practice. However, that’s not what we mean by “setting the scene.”

Act I shouldn’t be about introducing yourself. It should be about introducing your characters, and illustrating the world they inhabit. In terms of Business Storytelling, the “character” in your story is typically your target customer. And whether you’re pitching an idea internally or talking directly to customers, Act I is your opportunity to demonstrate that you truly understand that character and her world.

The easiest way to do this is to paint a picture of her life, but without you or your solutions in it. What are her goals and objectives? What drives her? How does she determine her priorities? What does she WANT to do, versus what does she HAVE to do?

Setting the scene like this not only helps you gain credibility, but also helps your audience connect with your story. If there’s no connection, there’ll be no success.

Finally, at the end of Act I, you introduce the problem that needs to be solved: The obstacle that must be removed in order for your character to get what she wants.

Act II: Grow the Tension

Now that the problem has been introduced, it needs a bit of shape, size, and perspective. Sure, the aliens may be invading, but how big is the invasion? How powerful are they? Is humanity doomed?

For your story, you’ll need to make it clear why the business problem is a big deal for your audience. What will happen if this problem isn’t resolved? How will the problem prevent your character from reaching the goals you introduced in Act I? How many other people may be affected and what kinds of losses will they suffer? Why is the problem difficult to solve and what are the risks associated with taking the WRONG action?

Building the tension is critical to telling a good story. It provides the WHY. It’s WHY someone should care about what you’re saying, and WHY she needs to find a solution.

Act III: Resolve the Problem

Great job building the tension, the audience is on the edge of their seats! Now it’s time to bring the story home with satisfying resolution.

In terms of Business Storytelling, this is where your product, solution, or idea comes flying in to save the day. Show your audience that you can defeat the monster. How does YOUR solution connect to the problems and tensions you’ve introduced? What super powers, skills, or abilities can you offer to vanquish the foe? And, perhaps most importantly for Business Storytelling, how are you UNIQUELY qualified to deliver the value? What technology, asset, or capability sets you apart?

In short, Business Storytelling doesn’t have to be an ambiguous buzzword thrown around your office. It’s simply the process of helping people understand information and make smart decisions. Just follow the examples set by centuries of human stories and you’ll find it can be as easy as 1-2-3.

Action!