Telling Great Stories

Chapter 14: Telling Great Stories (an excerpt from Sally Williamson’s third book)

Listeners like stories in a business context because it helps them remember and repeat ideas. But when we asked people we surveyed about stories, they told us that they don’t hear stories often and, when they do, they don’t repeat them because the stories aren’t relevant or don’t align with the topic. They thought stories would be more memorable if they were more relatable and if the presenter was a better storyteller.

In order to solve for those expectations, we formed focus groups to watch and listen to people telling stories. Our goal was to observe how people tell stories so that we could identify commonalities and develop best practices. But what we found communicators had in common were the mistakes they make, not what they do well. The takeaways from these sessions validated a lot of what people had told us in our third-party survey.

  • “The stories themselves aren’t always interesting.”
  • “Many storytellers aren’t great at delivery.”
  • “Listeners get frustrated trying to figure out the point of a disjointed or rambling narrative.”

In short, our most consistent takeaway was that many people find it hard to tell a story well.

We also asked focus group participants about stories they hear in business settings. Here’s what they said:

  • “We tell stories about our brand; not about our people.”
  • “Stories that I hear and repeat hit me emotionally, not logically.”
  • “We talk about stories, but we don’t use them.”
  • “One in a hundred stories that I hear are worth repeating. But when I hear a good one, I use it over and over again.”

In the focus groups, we also tested whether participants could remember and retell a story.

One participant used a personal story to illustrate to a group of new hires that they were joining a great company. Here’s Craig’s story:

Five years ago, I’d been out of work for almost a year. My search for an IT management job took longer than I thought, and it was stressful on me and on my family. We were so grateful when I was offered a job here, and I started working in early November. I didn’t have my confidence back yet, so I was concerned when I was called into my manager’s office after just three weeks. Unbeknownst to me, each department here has a tradition of giving away a holiday turkey, and my manager had selected me. He seemed to know that my family had been going through a tough time, and it was a wonderful gift. That’s when I knew this is a company that cares about its people. You’ve made the right decision to work here.

The participants’ feedback? They wanted more emotion. They wanted to feel a personal connection to Craig’s stress level before landing a job.

Here’s how I retold the story:

I know as you sit here, you are a little unsure of what it will be like to work here. I can tell you that in short order, you’ll realize that you haven’t just accepted a job, you’ve joined a family.

That’s certainly how I felt five years ago. I was an IT manager who’d been let go from another company during downsizing. I had a solid skill set and thought it would be pretty easy to find another position. I was wrong. I was out of work for almost a year. If any of you have been through this, you know how hard it is being out of work that long. I’d passed the point of stressed out. I was beginning to genuinely worry about how I’d take care of my family.

It was a huge relief to be offered a role here and to get started in early November. Things were still a little stressful; we’d fallen behind on some bills and I was still playing catch up. But we had a way forward and I hoped the situation would improve by the new year. I didn’t talk about this with my new coworkers, but I always carried that weight with me. Three weeks later when I was summoned to my manager’s office, I could feel my stress neurons firing. Surely I hadn’t messed up already. What could he want?

Well. Unbeknownst to me at that time, the company’s tradition is to give away a turkey to someone in every department, and my manager thought it might make a difference for me that year. Boy, was he right! We were living week to week. Thanksgiving wasn’t even on my radar. That simple act of kindness was a big gesture to my family. The fact that my manager had noticed something was off and wanted to support me—that was a powerful signal to me that this company is an extended family. So the message I want you to hear today is: welcome to the family!

I asked the group again after my version and found that the group remembered the emotion in the story and connected with it more.

We continued the exercise of listening to stories and then I repeated each story. Each time we asked for observations based on the storyteller’s version and mine. Here are some of the groups’ observations:

  • The story took longer when I told it, but it didn’t feel long.
  • The people and circumstances were more relatable.
  • My story seemed to include the listeners.
  • My version of the story expressed more emotion.

As we worked with each group to rework their stories, we found three key elements that many of their stories were missing:

A Point: Many of the initial stories told in the focus groups left participants thinking, “So what? Why did you just tell me about that?” This matched what we learned from our survey participants as well. Listeners often feel that most stories don’t have a point or any direction at all. This is something most people have experienced at some point. Speakers fail to tell a story well because they get too bogged down in details or they add elements to a story that really aren’t relevant to the takeaway.

When we asked the focus group participants about the flow of their stories, we found that many of them were simply relating the events as the details came back to them. They had little structure in mind. That lack of structure is precisely what leads to rambling and disjointedness.

Listener Interest: Some of the stories did have a point, but either they were boring or the storyteller failed to make the audience feel like a part of the experience.

We then worked to retell the stories with more texture, more detail. Listeners in the focus groups confirmed that the details made a significant difference in what they remembered.

The storytellers were surprised at this. In my retellings, the added context came from questions we asked the storytellers after they had initially told their stories. It wasn’t new information; they just hadn’t included that level of detail in their stories because they didn’t perceive the need for it. This ties back to the risk associated with telling stories. Most speakers don’t know how much detail is too much or too little, or what kinds of details make a story interesting. When I retold some of the stories, I added texture by focusing on things we wanted the listener to relate to in the story.

It was another important proof point that stories can take a while to tell. Several of our storytellers were worried about this. They weren’t giving themselves permission to embellish the story enough to make it interesting.

Listener Response: Few stories actually drew a response from the listeners. While people were willing to listen, they didn’t have comments or questions afterward, unless to ask for clarification or because they had missed the point. The listeners didn’t give reactions, share similar experiences or seem impacted by the stories.

Our observation was that storytellers were simply sharing experiences and not working to make the experience matter to the listeners. If stories are told well, they are the elements of a presentation that will be remembered and repeated, because listeners relate to them. But the stories told in our focus groups weren’t accomplishing this.

In response to what we learned from these focus groups, we now had insights on common gaps in storytelling. But, we still wanted to capture best practices and see if there were commonalities in people who tell stories well.

So, we continued our research by asking companies to introduce us to their best storytellers. And the most common response we got was a blank stare. This seemed to have something to do with the aura that people attach to great storytellers and the lack of compelling communicators in company cultures. The term “storyteller” is loaded. People expect a master communicator, an entertainer. So we changed our question. We began asking for the people who bring ideas to life and who seem to put context around their thoughts. We compiled a list of storytellers from a number of companies and interviewed them to test the mechanics of storytelling we’d hypothesized.

Our earlier research had shown that people who tell stories find it easy. This new round of interviews reaffirmed this.

Many of the storytellers we interviewed had been telling stories for so long that their approach was more habitual than intentional. We had to dissect their habits to get at the principles that made their storytelling effective.

So with the challenges identified in focus groups and the habits we observed in good storytellers, we were able to identify three principles that are universal to good storytellers…

Excerpt Ends.

To learn more about our three principles of good storytellers, pre-order your copy of Storylines & Storytelling. Or, you can learn more about our Connecting Stories to Storylines program that introduces and coaches the fundamentals of a compelling storyline and a memorable story.

Chapter One: Why Storytelling?

It’s Thursday, 8am. Pretty early for someone who was up after midnight, but that’s common practice at industry conferences and large company meetings, because colleagues and peers mingle late into the night—networking, reconnecting, and building relationships that will prove fruitful in the months ahead.

You’re feeling a little sluggish as you head into the massive ballroom for the opening session, but the room is anything but tired. The pulse of the music is electric and infectious. A thousand audience members begin to fill the seats, their energy visibly rising with anticipation.

It’s your first look at the conference setup and it’s clear the coordinators have spared no expense. Screens wrap from one end of the massive stage to the other and splash light and color on the audience. The stage is set with sleek white leather chairs.

The bells and whistles are all in place. The music is interrupted as the host announces the conference will kick off in five minutes. You settle in with a fresh cup of coffee and high expectations, and begin perusing the conference app.

You might be surprised to know that the one person who is not as ready to go as the setting suggests is the senior leader. He’s backstage passing off changes to visuals and skimming the teleprompter script over the operator’s shoulder to ensure that he has remembered every detail. When the host announces that the conference is about to start, he moves toward the back steps and waits for his cue to join the MC on stage.

He steps up to the podium and launches into a keynote that covers the company’s plans for the year ahead, calls out the trends that he is betting on and the big wins they expect, and then unveils some new concepts that customers can expect to see soon.

This isn’t what you were hoping for. The dynamics of the room promised energy and entertainment—something memorable. But within the first five minutes of his speech, the energy in the room evaporates. You hear the details, but you don’t really feel moved by them. The speaker clearly doesn’t either. He’s reading sound bites off a screen on the floor and seems to be working harder to read it right than to say it well.

What’s worse, he’s not saying anything you didn’t already hear at his competitor’s conference last month. You mentally check out and scan the app to see what’s coming next.

The second speaker is Julie, a senior manager on the leader’s strategy team. You don’t know much about her, but the topic intrigues you so you resolve to be patient and see if the energy changes. You slouch a little further into your seat and skim through emails until the keynote wraps up. After what feels like an eternity, the speaker winds down and the MC brings back the energy with audience participation and the highly charged music returns. You adjust your posture as the MC announces the next speaker.

Julie’s posture is different from the moment she walks out. No slides appear behind her. She seems completely at ease as she scans the room and begins to tell a story about an experience she had six months ago at a conference just like this one. She expresses exactly how you felt this morning after the late-night networking and early morning call for caffeine. In short order, she makes you feel as if she knows how you are feeling at that exact moment.

From there, she seamlessly transitions into why certain strategy insights can reset the direction of managers just like you.

If you weren’t so engrossed in her talk, you might notice that you’ve shifted forward in your seat and begun to listen with a whole new level of attention. In fact, the whole audience looks rapt. She’s funny, witty, and at total ease with what she’s saying and what she wants you to get out of it. Julie’s not just a speaker; she’s a storyteller.

Instead of listing evidence to prove her point, she leads a room of 1,000 listeners on a journey to show why competitors are collaborating and what innovations she believes will change the marketplace. She weaves in industry examples and insights, but she never wavers from the journey. It’s clear where she wants to take you and, like every other listener in the room, you gladly go along for the ride.

Her presentation ends the way it started—back at the conference she attended six months ago. She takes a long pause, nails a closing tagline, and walks off the stage.

The lights come up, and everyone looks around. You overhear some audience members talking about the examples she shared and others talking about her. You can tell that others are thinking the same thing you are: it’s an interesting idea. It’s worth considering. Who in this room could make a difference in my business?

What you don’t hear is any mention of the CEO of the company who was the opening keynote speaker. His remarks were forgotten the moment they were spoken.

The speaker’s impact isn’t because she’s a well-paid professional speaker. It’s because Julie knows how to connect to people through storytelling. She’s a compelling communicator…and you will hear her name time and time again as her career advances.

There is a difference between a competent communicator and a compelling one. We don’t just look for the storytellers once a year at the industry conference. We hope for them in every meeting, on every conference call, and in the monthly town hall meetings.

Stories make information relevant, relatable, and applicable to what we do. They make it easier to pass along strategies and inspire others to get on board with changes or a new focus. And yes, we like to be entertained as we process all the information coming at us.

Storytelling is one of the oldest forms of communication known to mankind. Cavemen drew stories on walls; Egyptians depicted them in hieroglyphics. Before written history, cultures used stories to pass their customs from one generation to the next. Religious and political leaders have always used stories to build a following.

Stories are the common thread that link us to what has already happened and what is still to come. Stories throughout history have been able to make great things memorable. We remember that:

  • Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492…and started American history.
  • Santa Claus leveraged the nose of a reindeer…and delivered presents on a magical night.
  • The tortoise outran the hare…and taught us that slow and steady wins the race.
  • Martin Luther King pulled all of us into a dream…and we can still hear it today.
  • Scarlet O’Hara told us to “Think about it Tomorrow”…and helped us see hope in devastation
  • Rocky Balboa turned a boxing match…into a theme song for every physical challenge.

Through parables and fables, novels and ballads, all of us have learned lessons and shared them with others. Chances are you can trace many of your life values back to stories.

Yet somewhere along the way, communicators stopped using stories in business settings. That’s where our story picks up. As we did our research into the impact of storytelling in business settings, we were hit with a surprising truth: few business people use stories in their communications. Our research uncovered any number of reasons:

  • Some say storytelling places a higher expectation on a communicator……(it does).
  • Some question whether storytelling is appropriate in business……………….(it is).
  • Most say telling stories requires animation and vulnerability………………….(it does).
  • All say that storytelling has a clear pass/fail effect on a group…………………(it can).

Maybe that’s why it isn’t always easy to find great storytellers in the business world. Cultures that have storytellers lean heavily on them to set vision, drive influence, and empower others to bring their best talents forward. Our research participants thought that most storytellers are leaders. But the truth is, there are storytellers all over organizations. They just aren’t good at it yet. But they can be.

Storytelling starts with a basic concept. The role of communication is simple and difficult. Communication occurs when the speaker’s intentions connect to the listener’s needs and interests.

If you’ve ever presented to a distracted team or disenchanted audience, you understand the difficult part of communication. This is why most people aren’t likely to take the risk of adding storytelling to an already stressful situation.

Communicators understand the power of the listener, but they don’t always understand the interest. They’re told, “Be direct and get to the point,” and they take it to heart. It’s true that communication has to be clear, but our research shows that listeners also want those thoughts to connect to each other. They prefer thoughts to be woven together rather than listed point-by-point.

In our exploration of storytelling, the listener will be front and center because the more it is understood how others respond to communication the easier it is to deliver on those expectations.

At some point, you might wonder if storytelling is an art or a science. The truth is, it’s a little of both. In our workshops, we teach the science and structure of the storyline and we also teach the art of engagement—how to pull listeners in.

In the chapters ahead, you’ll read about both the art and the science of storytelling. You’ll also read insights from listeners about what makes information memorable and repeatable. You’ll read stories—of course!—about how managers and leaders have developed their storytelling skills over time.

But ultimately, I hope this book will inspire you and start you on your own journey to becoming a great storyteller.

Excerpt Ends. To learn the three-step formula to reach compelling communication, pre-order your copy of Storylines & Storytelling. Or, you can learn more about our Connecting Stories to Storylines program that introduces and coaches the fundamentals of a compelling storyline and a memorable story.