When most business leaders hear the word “storytelling,” they get that "deer in the headlights" look. To prepare for a presentation or meeting, they gather all the facts and stop there. And truthfully, it’s easy to spew out a bunch of facts, point to a pretty chart on a screen or do a “deep dive” into your KPIs. But if you want your listeners to really gain understanding, it takes more. It takes a story.
From sales and marketing templates to B2B think pieces to social media hashtags, the term “business storytelling” is everywhere. Yes, the “irresistible power of storytelling” is pervasive -- and yet, what does it mean, and how do you do it?
I wanted to find answers to these and other questions, so I went to work reading, listening, observing, and practicing myself.
In particular, I found value in Esther Choy’s "Let the Story Do the Work," Nancy Duarte’s "DataStory: Explain Data and Inspire Action Through Story" and Chris Anderson’s "TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking." I share these insights to remove the stigma around storytelling for business and show you how to tell stories with ease.
What is a story?
The word "story" scares us. But if we break it down, we will see that creating a narrative is not all that ominous. Simply put, a story is a telling of a happening or a connected series of happenings.
You tell stories every day, when:
- You tell your co-workers what happened on the way to work.
- You talk about how the local coffee shop became your “home away from home.”
- You explain how the data uncovered the next big idea.
We all share our lives, our experiences, our insights all of the time, but when it comes to doing the same when we present, we freeze. Why does this happen? Often, I believe we freeze because we don’t naturally associate storytelling with our professional lives.
For this reason, when working with business leaders, I tend to use the terms “metaphor,” “experience” or “example.” These words are synonymous with “story,” but because they are more familiar to many, they are more relatable. So, if you find yourself getting tongue-tied when you need to tell a story to convey an important message, try reframing it as a metaphor, example, or experience.
What is the value of using stories?
The truth is we are bombarded by facts and data all day, every day. This means unless something stands out in a meaningful way (i.e., unless it ties back to a story that resonates), it goes in one ear and out the other. Unlike challenging explanations or complex arguments, stories stick because everyone can relate to them.
Among other benefits, stories can help:
- Make the complex simple
- Offer an explanation
- Reveal a new idea or concept
- Reframe or position an idea
- Provide insight
- Disrupt old ways of thinking
- Humanize data
So, now that we’ve removed a bit of the stigma around using stories, let’s talk about how to develop a story and in particular, how to expertly wrap a story around data.
Business story development
You’re on board with the idea of business storytelling, but how do you tame all the information swimming in your head? It’s easier than you think. As Choy writes, “you don’t need to be a super hero to tell great stories.”
True, crafting a story to reframe, reveal or resolve takes more work than spewing out facts. But it is worth the effort if your goal is to create meaning, ensure listeners understand and are motivated to take action.
That means putting yourself in the shoes of your listener and considering how to talk about the circumstances, findings, and recommendations in a way that is easily understood. As Chris Anderson explains, your goal is to take the listener on a journey, one step at a time.
Anderson’s elements of a great story:
- A protagonist with goals encounters an unexpected obstacle: “Something doesn’t work.”
- The protagonist then attempts to overcome the obstacle: ”Need to find something that will work.”
- There is a climax and finally, a denouement after several unexpected surprises along the way: “Figured it out. Here’s what we can do.”
While Choy, Duarte and others talk about the elements of a great story based on the work of novellist Kurt Vonnegut and his description of plots, I am going to suggest an alternate approach.
This approach will guide you in developing a story for a specific need. After all, as one of my mentors (and member of CPAE Speaker Hall of Fame) Glenna Salsbury suggests, it’s not just about the story, it’s also about what you do with the story.
Here is the simple schema Salsbury recommends:
- Story: share the story, metaphor, parable, example
- Point: share the point of the story, i.e., what you want your audience to gain from it
- Application: share why it is relevant or applicable to what is being discussed
Let’s look at an example of a successful story to see how this schema works in practice (true story!). One of my clients, a C-suite executive, was preparing to present a new compensation plan to the board for approval. Some of the board members had helped to develop the existing plan and therefore felt a sense of ownership.
During our coaching sessions, I urged the executive to come up with a story that illustrated the current need in everyday terms, making the circumstances and recommendation relatable.
This is the story the executive came up with: Recently, he needed a new shirt for a high-stakes event. He shopped his favorite online retailer and saw a shirt he admired, thinking it was exactly what he needed. It looked great on the model; it was the right color; they had it in his size. It seemed perfect, so he ordered it. When it arrived, however, while everything about the shirt was as he expected, it just wasn’t the right fit. It wasn’t comfortable and he knew it wasn’t suitable for his need.
Here’s the point of the story: What you think is perfect, even if it worked for you in the past, may not be the right fit going forward.
And here’s the application: While the existing plan had its place and time, it won't serve us going forward…
The plan was approved that day!
While there are different approaches to storytelling, what is critical is that the story is meaningful, listeners hear the relevance, and they gain immediate understanding or insight because of the story.
But what about the data?
Of course, the goal of a business presentation is action, not just talk. And one sure way to inspire action is with well-placed, memorable data points. If the most important aspects of your work are quantitative, this is probably welcome news.
In fact, according to Duarte, transforming numbers into narratives is a crucial part of every leader’s job. Think about it: Not one decision could be made without understanding the story.
Granted, many stories are fairly straightforward, such as, “When the system failed, our team needed to find a work-around.”
But the crucial point is as human beings, we rely on data to tell us what has happened, and we use stories to offer insight by helping us understand what it means. So stories frame data, allowing decisions to be made faster and inspiring others to take action by appealing to their hearts and minds.
In chapter 4 of "Let the Story Do the Work," Choy offers a process to weave data and story together, including:
- Choose your words carefully to ensure retention of key numbers.
- Create meaning using emotion and data: Identify and emphasize the “so what.”
- Give the audience what they want, then tell them what they need: If you know there’s something your audience wants to hear give that to them first, then transition to focusing on the actions you need.
Notice that these three steps map really well onto Salsbury’s schema above. Share the story weaving in relevant data points; share the point or meaning of the story; then share how the audience can apply the lessons learned and take action.
When told authentically and expertly, the story is the point where you as a presenter can often sense your listeners shifting from plain vanilla interest to engagement.
With these insights in mind, start to think of storytelling as a valuable tool in your business presentation toolbox. The next time you prepare for a high-stakes business presentation or meeting, instead of spewing out facts, interpret the data to tell a story that sticks with your audience.
Stephanie Scotti is a strategic communication advisor specializing in high-stake presentations. She has 25-plus years experience of coaching experience and eight years teaching presentation skills for Duke University. She has provided presentation coaching to over 3,000 individuals in professional practices, Fortune 500 companies, high-level government officials and international business executives. Learn more at ProfessionallySpeaking.net and ProfessionallySpeakingBlog.com.