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.