For the last several years, my corporate clients have asked me to integrate storytelling into the presentation excellence programs I customize for them or to enhance individual presentation objectives. One marketing department requested a storytelling workshop to align their team’s messaging on how their roles and services added value to their internal customers. For another corporate group, the days of attaching excel spreadsheets to describe data analytics are over — where telling the story behind the numbers has become the new norm.
Storytelling in business has become big business!
When information is crafted into story form, audiences are more likely to understand what would normally be outside their knowledge base. Evolutionary biologists say that stories have been around since ancient times: and that they are hardwired into the history of the human species. Stories invite listeners to engage in right brain and amygdala processing. Hearing information in story form supports listening attention and information retention.
Leadership author, Scott Bedbury, says that stories create “the emotional context people need to locate themselves in a larger experience.” Business leader Tom Peters suggests that stories are probably “the” way to empower employees to take initiatives, and Gloria Steinem adds that media is the new “storytelling campfire.”
What Is Storytelling?
Storytelling is a performance art in its own right, and one I admire and respect. How can “once upon a time” pertain to business? Company leaders are not expecting their employees to become professional storytellers. They want them to learn a few storytelling techniques they can integrate into their presentations to make their messages more appealing, compelling and ultimately, better understood. For technical professionals hired for their “behind the scene” skills, this can be a major challenge. These employees have been given notice that they need to come “front and center” to present their expertise succinctly in both informal conversations and formal presentations.
What types of stories can be integrated into business presentations?
The challenge of storytelling begins with establishing a clear definition. For business purposes, I like to define storytelling as a narrative, or personal anecdote. It can also take the form of a metaphor or comparing something complex and unfamiliar to something more commonplace and easily understood.
Personal Anecdote: Beginning your presentation with a personal anecdote is a great way to integrate story into your talk, especially since listeners are most attentive at the beginning of a presentation. Often, this personalization is just enough to get people to pay attention to the information that follows. Compare the following anecdotal Opening A to the traditional non-story Opening B:
Opening A: When I left my presentation last week, I worried about how much participants actually absorbed. A week later, immediately after I arrived for part two of the program, I was approached by a woman who was excited to share how she had integrated imagery and a storyline into her presentation. That bit of feedback helped me realize the value and impact of the process. Sometimes patience is the best teacher. Today I ask you to be patient with yourselves as you learn a few storytelling tips to help your audiences better understand your messages.
Opening B: Today’s agenda is storytelling. We’ll define the terms, offer examples and ask you to practice some skills.
Analogy and Metaphor: To explain a business function, use analogy to compare something complex and unknown with something that is second-nature and familiar. For example:
To illustrate the Compliance Department’s services and value to upper management, a presenter compared the function of compliance in the organization to driving: obtaining a license, understanding rules, penalties and consequences. Comparing something familiar with something unknown helps create the link to understanding in a way that makes sense, “sticks” and sinks in.
Branding: Apple is an excellent example of how to use storytelling in branding. When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone in 2007, he did not talk about the engineering and technical details of the product. Instead, he introduced “3 revolutionary products in one device” an iPod, a phone and an internet communication device. The rest is history.
Parables: Fairy tales, biblical stories and ancient wisdom broadly fit into this category. A parable is a simple story used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson. For business presentations, a parable will often be followed by a transition or link to a comparable business situation. For example: The story of King Midas illustrates how greed can backfire. Isn’t this similar to what happened to us during the financial crisis of 2007-2008 when excessive borrowing, risky investments, and lack of transparency by financial institutions created a breakdown in the economy?
There are many types of storytelling techniques that business professionals can easily use to get their message across in a more dynamic and interesting way. Learn one and feel the presentation connection!
If you’d like more information how to use storytelling techniques in your presentation, consider attending Story & the Presentation Connection, a workshop on July 24 in Princeton, or attend remotely.