Once Upon a Time…

“Humans are not ideally set up to understand logic.They are ideally set up to understand stories.” - Roger C. Shank

In our information-saturated age, business leaders “won’t be heard unless they’re telling stories,” says Nick Morgan, author of Power Cues. “Facts and figures and all the rational things that we think are important in the business world actually don’t stick in our minds at all,” he says.

Data can persuade people, but it doesn’t inspire them to act; to do that, you need to wrap your vision in a story that fires the imagination and stirs the soul. That means leaders who can create and share good stories have a powerful advantage over others. Telling stories is essential to master powerful and effective communication, to engage people and ensure they remember facts, or to break down barriers of isolation within or between groups. The good news is that telling stories can be taught and learned. Here are a few tips to get you started.

Start with a message

Begin by asking yourself, “Who is my audience and what is the message I want to share with them?” Leaders should ask, “What is the core moral that I’m trying to implant in my team?” and “What is the important lesson I want to convey?” For example, if you’re trying to convince senior leaders to take a risk by supporting your project, convey that most companies are built on taking smart chances. First settle on your ultimate message and then you can figure out the best way to illustrate it. Once you have settled on your ultimate message, don’t preamble. Draw your audience immediately into the action to capture attention and set the tone. Avoid opening with “I’d like to tell you a story about a time when I learned….” Instead, drop them into the action and draw the lesson out later.

Find inspiration in your own experience

The best storytellers draw on their real past experiences and the lessons they’ve learned from them in order to illustrate their message. Personal anecdotes that show the struggle between your goal and the obstacles you faced in pursuing it, possible failure, and barriers overcome are what make leaders appear authentic and accessible.

Be central; not the hero

That said, don’t make yourself the star of your own story. You can be a central figure, but the ultimate focus should be on people you know, lessons you’ve learned, or events you’ve witnessed.

Highlight a struggle

A story without a challenge simply isn’t very interesting. Good storytellers understand that a story needs conflict. Don’t be afraid to suggest the road ahead will be difficult. Smart leaders tell employees, “This is going to be tough, but if we all pull together and hang in there, we’ll achieve something amazing in the end.” People will become your partners because they will want to be part of the journey.

Keep it simple

Not every story you tell has to be a surprising, edge-of-your-seat epic. Work from the principle that “less is more”, but do illustrate your story with a vivid example to help immerse your listeners and drive your message home.

Practice makes perfect

Storytelling requires repeated effort to get it right. So practice honing your message into the most effective and efficient story that you can. Choose first and final words carefully. Great leaders don’t memorise the full story, but they know the first and final words by heart and can deliver them without hesitation.

Final words

Know your AIM. Who is your Audience, what is your Intent, and what is your Message? This ensures that the message is clear, captures the audience, and motivates your desired action. Most importantly, relax and be yourself. Develop your own style, one that you are comfortable with!

For an example of storytelling within a presentation, look at Mark Bezos’s 2011 TED Talk: A life lesson from a volunteer firefighter.