One core skill for every business leader is the art of corporate story telling. As humans, we are drawn to compelling stories, we learn lessons from stories that are told well and actively share them with our colleagues, networks, friends and families. To many business leaders – particularly those who are more comfortable with numbers and spreadsheets than words sentences and paragraphs – storytelling is seen as ominous. But it doesn’t have to be.
Before you begin, remember that easily understood stories have a greater impact on your target audience, so use a structure and language that everyone can understand. Help your audience link your story to a greater context (e.g. a restructure, a merger, a change in market focus, etc.). Keeping you stories simple increases the likelihood they’ll be retold and shared, which is essential in today’s social-media savvy world.
In addition to clarity, there are a few key principles to keep in mind when developing your story. First, be sure to be clear about the lesson you want to convey and repeat it several times using examples of day-to-day work situations.
Once you’re satisfied that your story is simple and the lesson is clear, make it a point to practise your presentation to a smaller, low-risk audience before going out to the entire organisation. Choose an audience that will give you candid feedback, but also one that includes a representative of the target audience. Watch their faces as you present to them to see if they’re reacting as you would have anticipated and, if not, modify your story accordingly.
In some cases you may need to have more than one version of your story in order to appeal to the interests of different audiences or to conform to certain time limitations. Also, repeat your story at strategic times (a new hire, a new promotion, a restructuring, etc.) so that you create a sense of comfort and familiarity with the story among your teams.
Types of Stories
Learn what kind of story to tell for different situations. There are six main types of story that you can use in the workplace:
1. "Who I Am" Stories – When you start leading a team, members of your new team sometimes make automatic judgments about who you are. They may see you as controlling, mean, or "out to get them" without really knowing you. If you tell a "Who I Am" story when you first become a team leader, you can give a powerful insight into what really motivates you. This can break down walls and help your team realise that you're a person just like them.
Your goal with a "Who I Am" story should be to reveal some type of flaw about yourself or mistake that you've made. Why? Because by revealing a flaw, you show your team that you trust them with this information. Revealing flaws can also make you more approachable, because it demonstrates that you're only human. (Just make sure it's a small flaw!)
2. "Why I'm Here" Stories – These are very similar to "Who I Am" stories. The goal is to replace suspicion with trust, and help your team realise that you don't have any hidden agendas. Show that you're a good person, and that you want to work together with them to achieve a common goal.
3. Teaching Stories – It can be very hard to teach without demonstrating, and that's the whole purpose of teaching stories.
There's no better example of this than Aesop's fables. Remember "The Boy Who Cried Wolf"? This story alone has taught millions of children not to yell for help unless there's a real need for it. Although it's simple, like most fables, it has done an effective job for centuries.
Use Teaching Stories to make a lesson clear and to help people remember why they're doing something in the first place.
4. Vision Stories – Tell these to inspire hope, especially when your team needs occasional reminders of why they're doing what they should be doing.
Vision stories are meant to stimulate action and raise morale. Find a story that reminds everyone what the ultimate goal is, and why it's important that everyone reaches that goal. This type of story should be told from your heart, with emotion.
5. "Values in Action" Stories – When you see the word "integrity," what do you think of? Honesty? Doing the right thing for the right reason?
Every value can mean something different from person to person. If you want to pass on values to your team, start by defining what those values mean to you. So, if you want your team to demonstrate a high level of customer service, then tell a story that reveals exactly what customer service means to you.
6. "I Know What You're Thinking" Stories – The world of business involves frequent bargaining. The advantage of telling this type of story is that you can recognize another person's objections, and then show why those objections aren't applicable in this situation. You can show respect for the other point of view while convincing the person that you're right.
Keep these suggestions in mind when telling your stories:
- Be authentic – The best storytellers talk from their hearts, so don't try to fake an emotion that you don't feel. Your listeners will probably see through this, and your story will crash and burn.
- Pay attention to your audience – Stories that are too long are generally boring. Tell the story well, but don't go on forever.
- Practise – Try to practise before you tell the story. Even if you tell it to yourself just once in front of a mirror or video camera, this can help you when you're in front of your real audience.
- Create an experience – Remember that when you tell a story, you're creating an experience for your listeners. Don't just use sound (words), but the other senses as well. Show your listeners the picture you're painting, don't just tell them.
- Try to engage the five senses in every story: taste, touch, sight, hearing, and smell. They'll make your story come alive.