Storytelling for Business Made Simple: 5 Chief Guidelines

Posted by Bridget Beirne
September 8, 2015

by Bridget Beirne



Oh, September. Even many years on, I can't shake the back-to-school feeling I get when September 1st rolls around. Call it an unhealthy attachment to shiny office supplies, new shoes, and a smart lunchbox if you'd like. (Ok, I've traded my lunchbox excitement for a travel mug obsession, but I digress...You can catch up with more of my September musings in this blast-from-the-past blog post.)

What I really respond to is the feeling of new beginnings. Starting the cycle over again, fresh. But, as kids, before we could start the school year we would have to rehash "what we did on our summer vacation" for the inevitable essay. I remember thinking, "I have nothing to talk about here! It was summer, like any summer!" But once I put my mind to it, I could zero in on a specific story. I definitely had something to share. 

I experienced that same feeling as a newbie actor when a director would say to me, "Tell us a little about yourself." Beyond an elevator pitch, this had to be a good story. Something that really gave a great snapshot of "me." And again, for the first few go-rounds, my initial reaction was, "What do I say? I don't have anything to say that works!"

I've seen this reaction time and time again when it comes to corporate storytelling. People immediately think, "I have nothing to say. I'm all out of story ideas!"

Ah, but you aren't. And you do.

It's important that you embrace your innate ability and get those stories flowing. In this great article from Hubspot, Shane Snow puts it this way:

"Stories make presentations better. Stories make ideas stick. Stories help us persuade. Savvy leaders tell stories to inspire us, motivate us. (That’s why so many politicians tell stories in their speeches.) They realize that “what you say” is often moot compared to “how you say it.”... Sure, we need science and data to make the right decisions in life and work, but the best business books and keynote speakers use stories to help us retain to the points when the stats fade from memory."

Time to get started, right? School's in session with 5 storytelling for business guidelines, made simple. Follow these easy pointers to get your business story going in no time:

1. Use what you got: You know you need to share some stories in your corporate presentations (good for you!), but you're tapped for ideas. Start with the here-and-now. The time of year, your surroundings, that song lyric that's been stuck in your head — all of those have great story-starting potential. Give yourself some time to think about things like that as you're working on your presentation. Remember, not all stories have to be profound or life-changing — they just need to be yours.

2. K.I.P.S: Keep It Personal, Sweetheart!: It never fails, but someone asks, "Does it have to be storytelling for businessMY story?" Ok, there is no written-in-stone rule that states that you MUST have experienced your story first hand. But, know that it will ALWAYS be better if you have. YOU have a personal connection to your story that you don't to your friend Bob's awesome tale about that time he partied with Aerosmith...even if you've heard the story a million times. Your own personal stories will always make a stronger impact. And don't worry — you have one to tell.

3. Look for the metaphor: When you're looking for a story to tell, it will be easier to find one if you look to match your major presentation metaphors, themes, or messages. Step away from your content and "zoom out" perspective-wise. Break your piece into big ideas — what are you trying to say? If you're trying to inspire your listeners to persevere through some new challenges, reach into the personal files for times when you did the same (maybe those guitar lessons that eventually paid off?), or times when you wish you had (the time when you left that one job a bit TOO soon?). You can focus and narrow-down your options when you are clear about which big ideas you'd like to highlight.

4. Look for the "ins": There are a few obvious places to do some effective storytelling. You can begin your presentation with a story that winds through your entire talk. You can shine a spotlight on a crucial moment by inserting a story connected to a major point in your message. You can break up statistic and data-heavy sections of content by telling a story related to your findings. All of these are valuable "ins" to get a story into your presentation. Remember, stories help people personalize and remember information, while giving their brain a break to re-enter your content a bit refreshed. You're not wasting time; you're bringing meaning to your message.

5. Avoid "unnecessary broadcasting": Phrases like "Now, I'm going to tell you a story about..." or "I'd like to tell you a story..." are not needed mid-presentation. It's far more compelling for you to just jump in! These phrases are a way to ask permission to tell your story, rather than just telling it. You know storytelling works. Embrace it: "Picture this: it's 4 am. I'm still at my desk. And all of the electricity has just gone out." "I remember December 1984 so well..." "I got off the plane in San Diego three years ago, and knew my life had changed..." Like a good mystery story, everyone wants to know what happens next! Build the suspense and avoid any unnecessary broadcasting.

How do you get the story started? Let us know your best story ideas in the comments below!

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