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How to Tell a Great Story

We tell stories all the time. We use them in business to persuade someone to support our project, to explain to an employee how he might improve, or to inspire a team that is facing challenges. It’s an essential skill, but what makes a compelling story in a business context? And how can you improve your ability to tell stories that persuade?

In our busy world, business leaders won’t be heard unless they’re telling stories. Facts and figures and all the rational things that we think are important in the business world actually don’t stick in our minds at all. But stories create “sticky” memories by attaching emotions to things that happen. That means leaders who can create and share good stories have a powerful advantage over others. And fortunately, everyone has the ability to become a better storyteller. Storytelling certainly can be taught and learned. Here’s how to use storytelling to your benefit.

Start with a message

Every storytelling exercise should begin by asking: Who is my audience and what is the message I want to share with them? Each decision about your story should flow from those questions. Leaders should ask, “What is the core moral that I’m trying to implant in my team?” and “How can I boil that down to a compelling single statement?” For instance, if your team is behaving as if failure is not an option, you might decide to impart the message that failure is actually the grandfather of success. Or if you are trying to convince senior leaders to take a risk by supporting your project, you could convey that most companies are built on taking smart chances. First settle on your ultimate message; then you can figure out the best way to illustrate it.

Mine your own experiences

The best storytellers look to their own memories and life experiences for ways to illustrate their message. What events in your life make you believe in the idea you are trying to share? Think of a moment in which your own failures led to success in your career, or a lesson that a parent or mentor imparted. Any of these things can be interesting emotional entry points to a story. There may be a tendency not to want to share personal details at work, but anecdotes that illustrate struggle, failure, and barriers overcome are what make leaders appear authentic and accessible. The key is to show your vulnerability.

Don’t make yourself the hero

That said, don’t make yourself the star of your own story. A story about your chauffeured car and having millions in stock options is not going to move your employees. You can be a central figure, but the ultimate focus should be on people you know, lessons you’ve learned, or events you’ve witnessed. And whenever possible, you should endeavor to make the audience or employees the hero. It increases their engagement and willingness to buy in to your message. One of the main reasons we listen to stories is to create a deeper belief in ourselves. The more you celebrate your own decisions, the less likely your audience will connect with you and your message.

Highlight a struggle

A story without a challenge simply isn’t very interesting. Good storytellers understand that a story needs conflict. Is there a competitor that needs to be bested? A market challenge that needs to be overcome? A change-resistant industry that needs to be transformed? Don’t be afraid to suggest the road ahead will be difficult. Smart leaders tell employees, "This is going to be tough. But if we all pull together and hang in there, we’ll achieve something amazing in the end.’” A well-crafted story embedded with that kind of a rallying cry means you don’t have to demand change or effort. People will become your partners in change, because they want to be part of the journey.

Keep it simple

Not every story you tell has to be a surprising, edge-of-your-seat epic. Some of the most successful and memorable stories are relatively simple and straightforward. Don’t let needless details to detract from your core message. One of the biggest mistakes you can make is putting in too much detail of the wrong kind. Don’t tell your audience what day of the week it was, for instance, or what shoes you were wearing if it doesn’t advance the story in an artful way. But transporting your audience with a few interesting, well-placed details — how you felt, the expression on a face, the humble beginnings of a now-great company — can help immerse your listeners and drive home your message.

Practice makes perfect

Storytelling is a “real art form” that requires repeated effort to get right, says Morgan. Practice with friends, loved ones, and trusted colleagues to hone your message into the most effective and efficient story. And remember that the rewards can be immense. Stories are the original viral tool. Once you tell a very compelling story, the first thing someone does is think, "Who can I can tell this story to?" So, for the extra three minutes you spend encoding a leadership communication in a story, you’re going to see returns that last for months and maybe even years.

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