I thought I wanted to be a playwright because I was interested in stories and telling stories. – Francis Ford Coppola
Note: This post was originally published on Oct 13, 2015. I was reminded of it during a recent speaking engagement I had, so I’m republishing it today with an updated intro for those who may have missed it and/or would like a refresher.
I was asked to speak at an evening event for recent graduates of a healthcare financial professional certification program. Current graduates and other members of this notable group were in attendance and I was asked to provide an educational piece related to my recent book.
When asked by the meeting organizer what I thought these younger healthcare financial professionals might need, I suggested a way for them to learn how to tell effective stories about the analysis and insights that they create with their work. My goal was to figure out how to help them craft effective messages to others based on the often very sophisticated technical work that they did. This proposal was embraced and I made the presentation recently.
I will admit that I had some trepidation as to whether or not my message would resonate with a crowd that ranged in age from late ’20s to even some retirees, but the response was excellent.
We discussed things such as:
- The critical need to be able to not just do their analytical work, but to be able to distinguish themselves by selling the insights they gleaned from their efforts;
- How this is helpful to them in their networking efforts; and
- Using stories to convey key accomplishments or challenges overcome in their potential job search work as well in the future.
People followed along and developed ideas for their own stories as we went.
The highlight of this evening was when I asked for a volunteer to tell a story about a professional success of theirs. A gentleman told the story of how, as a lower-level Army officer, he was plucked from a base in Germany to go to Iraq to teach the highest echelons of our Armed Forces about a software system he’d never seen. But he was ingenious and resilient and was able to get through it.
My preparations for this engagement made me reflect on the many stories I tell in my work with my coaching clients. I actually thought of them as more like anecdotes or recollections that illustrate certain ideas or topics I often discuss. But I realized that stories are a critically underutilized form of communication in business.
It is estimated by the time a child is four, they will have heard over 30 million words, many of these in the form of stories or nursery rhymes that are told by parents and family. In other words, we are immersed in stories our whole life.
The bottom line is we are hard-wired for stories but I don’t think we recognize what a huge reservoir of insights, lessons learned, and experiences we have to share with others.
The Intent of a Story
Storytellers are, by nature, collaborative and giving and can have three major choices in terms of the intent of telling their story: to inform, to inspire, or to provoke.
I have performed three different stories at various venues in the Chicago area in the last four months. Most of these are of a personal nature about my experiences with family or friends, but this weekend I really started to consider how important stories would be for my clients as key leaders in their organizations.
Stories are by their very nature more memorable and easier to relate to than a list of bullet points on a PowerPoint slide. You connect with people intellectually, emotionally, and even physically, when you consider the style and the body language of a storyteller.
I believe leaders in organizations need to employ the use of stories more in their communications. The question is how do you do that? How do you construct a good story you can use as a key resource in your bag of leadership tools?
Constructing a Great Business Story
What follows are 4 key steps to constructing a great business story:
Step 1: Make a list of people
Write a list of the most interesting and memorable people you have worked closely within the course of your career. The interactions can be either positive or decidedly negative, it doesn’t matter. These can be either your favorite people or the ones you came to avoid or even despise; there are stories with both. Start now and try to identify at least 10 of these people. Whatever pops into your mind.
Step 2: Make a list of settings
If you can’t think of many people, consider memorable settings: key negotiations, a major trial, mergers or acquisitions, a major sale, a big presentation, a major project completed, or any honors you may have had bestowed upon you. Write down as many of these key memories as possible. Whatever pops into your mind.
Note: When going through this process for a storytelling class I took, I came up with 24 people and 10 settings in about four minutes. It’s much easier than it sounds. Upon reflection, I identified nine potential topics for future stories. Now granted most of these were of the personal nature, but 25% were about business. This is a brainstorming approach to identifying possible storytelling topics.
Step 3: Write down problems or challenges
From all of the settings and the people you have identified, think of a problem you worked on with them or a challenge you had the opportunity to pursue. Again, write down whatever comes up. And I do mean WRITE IT DOWN.
Step 4: Write down lessons learned
What was the solution you came up with or how was the issue resolved? Be sure and ask how this experience changed any of the characters in your story. What were the lessons learned that you think may be potentially meaningful to others?
If you take 10 minutes to complete all 4 of these steps, you will have developed the foundation for a story that probably begs to be told.
In summary, the steps are:
- Who – are you thinking of;
- Where – and under what context did this occur;
- What – was the issue or opportunity;
- Result – what happened;
- What’s changed or lessons learned – the moral of the story.
If this intrigues you, then follow the steps and begin writing your story. Don’t worry about getting it right the first time or making it perfect. Once I develop an idea or topic, I do the outline, flesh out the idea, and work on various sections over a period of time, often while walking.
Before I perform a story, I may spend 4 to 5 hours getting it right, usually over a week or so. Good storytellers work hard at their craft and if you’re going to tell a meaningful story in your work world, it requires the same level of effort.
I am a story-teller, and I look to academic research… for ways of augmenting story-telling. – Malcolm Gladwell
Final Tips on Storytelling
A couple of final thoughts:
- Keep your story between 5 and 7 minutes long. Although it might be very interesting to you, any longer than that and you will start to lose your audience.
- Less is more. Strip away any extraneous information. Interesting anecdotes or observations can actually be a source of clutter to a good story. If anyone could wonder about the relevance of any of your points, take them out. I’ve had feedback about stuff I thought was pretty cool that others could not discern the relevance. Out that went.
- A good story is NOT solely about the storyteller. You are the vehicle for sharing the insights, experiences, or lessons learned. Your feelings or the impact on you do matter but go well beyond just your perspective.
For so many of you that I’ve known over the years, you are incredibly rich sources of stories, lessons learned and insights to share. They should not go untold.
- Will I spend the time to develop a good story? You’re in no hurry so you can do this over as much time as is needed.
- For each story you intend to tell, what are you informing, inspiring, or provoking others about? If you don’t know, don’t tell the story.
- Are you worried about whether or not you can be a good storyteller? Don’t worry about it because you’ve been telling stories your whole life. You just can be more purposeful.
If you get stuck, feel free to contact me.