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.