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I need to tell more stories. Chances are, you do too.
A quote from the late actor Alan Rickman drove the point home.
“The more we’re governed by idiots and have no control over our destinies, the more we need to tell stories to each other about who we are, why we are here, where we come from, and what might be possible.”
You could hardly argue with the notion that we’re governed by idiots. (Pick your party—there are plenty to choose from on every side.) And with COVID, crime, and climate change swirling around us, the notion of controlling our destinies sounds quaint.
So yes, I’ll buy the idea that we need to tell stories to each other now, whether to make connections or just to make sense of it all. Certainly, stories make our business lives more interesting and make us more successful.
How to tell those stories well, though, remains a question. I don’t know about you, but I’ve heard more than enough boring, blathering business stories. (Can you hear my eyes rolling?)
In the interest of telling my own stories more often and more effectively, I’ve been checking in with some experts on the subject. Here are half a dozen suggestions.
Have a clear message, a point of view, a moral-of-the-story.
Unless you’re in the entertainment industry, and maybe even then, you’re not sharing a story just for something to say. You’re out to convey your expertise. Or tout a client’s success and your part in it. Or offer a cautionary note to people who might make the mistake of not working with you.
So, choose a story that makes your message clear. No, you don’t have to spell it out in so many words, but the take-away for your audience should be obvious to us as we listen to you.
And honestly, when I’m speaking, sometimes I am very obvious about, “Here’s what this means for you.” I want to make it clear: I’m not just up there yammering about myself—there’s something for them in that tale.
Structure makes a difference.
Writers often base their books on the Hero’s Journey or the Fichtean Curve or some such. For most of our business story-telling a simple Beginning-Middle-End is a good step toward a structure an audience can follow.
The Middle should include some kind of change or pivot. Something that makes the whole story more engaging than, “First this happened. Then that happened. And finally, this other thing.”
Personally, I’m not even committed to starting at the Beginning. I’ve been known to jump into the middle of a story and then back up to fill in what had happened earlier. That often makes a story much more interesting.
Whether you’re telling your story in chronological order or not, it’s important to make an impression from the get-go.
The storytellers at The Moth say you need “a great first line that sets up the stakes and grabs attention.” In the news business, they call that the “lede.” (And yes, many of them still spell it that way; I usually label it the “lead.”) Every story has some sort of lead.
It might take a while for the thought-balloon to show up over your head. I learned, writing radio copy on a tight deadline, not to sit with fingers poised above the keyboard, searching for the killer lead to captivate listeners.
Sometimes I had to just plunge in and start writing. Then that great first line would come to me as I typed. (Okay, it wasn’t always great. Usually better than average though.)
Yes, it might feel awkward or uncomfortable. Personally, I’ve been known to go way out of my way to avoid conflict. And the truth is that most meaningful stories include some kind of conflict, often intense conflict.
The difference of opinion, the obstacles in the path, the tough-to-talk-about topic … these are the things that draw an audience in, capture their attention, and keep them engaged.
Even if you’re headed for a happy ending, you’ll do well to include those curveballs to spice up your story.
Use your voice.
Writers use “voice” metaphorically to refer to a person’s style, the quality that makes their work unique. It’s the way word choice and sentence structure shape the way we, as readers, understand the writer’s personality, thought patterns, and quirks.
That all applies when you’re telling your story in a meeting, presentation, or ordinary conversation. And in those cases, “voice” is also literal. The sound of your speech can create as much impact as the words you say—maybe more.
That means people make meaning from your tone of voice, the pace of your speech, even the volume at which you speak. You can enhance the story you tell with some attention to how you talk.
If you know you could give your stories more impact by using your voice more effectively, we should talk about some coaching.
Yes, it’s a one-word suggestion. Appropriate for pointing out that less is very often more when it comes to telling your story.
Delete unnecessary details. Ditch the long-winded descriptions. Spare us everything we don’t need to know to appreciate the point you want to make.
Haven’t you felt your eyes glaze over as you listened to someone go on and on about something you may not have cared much about in the first place? Noticed that your attention has wandered, and you’d just as soon it keep wandering?
Remember that feeling when it’s your turn to tell a story. Your audience and your story will be better for it.
Now I’m eager to hear from you. You might even tell me a story about how you’ll put these tips into practice.
Good advice. I know a few very good storytellers (and highly amusing people who use stories to build up to and tell good jokes). My grandfather’s brother was one of the best…..we chalked it up to his natural instincts, personality and Irish wit…..indeed, the best way to capture and keep your audience engaged. Happy New Year!
It would be hard to overestimate the value of that Irish wit, Lauren. Happy New Year to you too. Here’s to a more harmonious 2022!
Wondering where you are based and if you do workshops or story circles with community organizing? I’m in CT.
Good to hear from you, Sarah. I’m in Chicago and no, I haven’t done workshops on story-telling–it might be a good idea though. I bet you could find plenty of story-tellers in Connecticut who do run programs like that. And you might check out The Moth. They’re based in New York and they run programs all over the country.