Whether you’re trying to persuade someone to support your project or motivate a team, storytelling is a fundamental business skill. So what makes a compelling narrative, and how can you improve your ability to influence an audience? According to Janine Kurnoff and Lee Lazarus, founders of The Presentation Company and co-authors of the book Everyday Business Storytelling, “Great storytelling is a skill that anyone can learn. In every company that we’ve ever worked with, we’ve seen how storytelling is an essential ingredient in building mastery of ideas, audience connection, and the power skill everyone wants—executive presence.” Here are seven storytelling techniques that are sure to boost your career.
Understand your audience
Compelling storytellers always seek to understand their audience first. Kurnoff and Lazarus suggest feeding your curiosity and learning everything you can about your boss, co-workers, clients, and companies you admire. Discover what’s important to them, keeps them up at night, and how you are a possible solution to their challenges. Knowing your audience’s pain points and what they value will help you choose the right narrative. Think about your intent and desired impact.
Begin by asking yourself some key questions:
- Who is my story for, and what is their current situation?
- What do I want or need them to do?
- What do they need to think or feel to take that action?
Really understanding whom you are talking to is a crucial first step in your storytelling journey.
Focus on structure
One of the most impressive skills of a talented communicator is combining ideas, facts, and data to make them flow. Kurnoff shares the four key structural elements of every powerful story:
- Setting: the setting provides the context (often backed up with data and trends) that helps build critical focus for the audience and gets everyone on the same page.
- Characters: characters establish an emotional element and include customers, suppliers, partners, or key stakeholders.
- Conflict: conflict gives your audience a reason to care and allows you to illuminate a current problem.
- Resolution: resolution is the last element of your story where you can unveil a new opportunity or idea.
Identify a central theme
“We’ve seen that stories that fall flat usually fail to have a central theme,” adds Lazarus. “Before you interact with any recruiter, hiring manager, or cross-functional partner, always be prepared to offer a single, simple theme you will leave with them. For job hunters, this overarching theme or big idea should encapsulate precisely what you will bring to a company. And to really make it stick, this key takeaway should be woven into all your written and verbal communication. Bring in your theme early and repeat it throughout the process.”
Balance the use of data, text and visuals
Slides with data give the story credibility, and visuals bring it to life. Every piece of data, text or visual element should connect to your big idea. And while there’s no exact science to the right mix of data and visuals, it’s a good idea to offer a variety. Kurnoff suggests these best practices:
- Don’t be repetitive: if one visual category seems to dominate your narrative, rethink your choices and look for ways to mix things up.
- Keep it simple: you don’t need to use every visual display or PowerPoint trick.
- Use text in moderation: slides crowded with text are difficult for your audience to take in, so less is more.
Keep your storytelling simple
Some of the most successful and memorable stories are relatively simple and straightforward. When you craft your narrative, eliminate any details that don’t move the story forward or develop the characters. Storytelling is about keeping the audience’s attention, so less is more. If they don’t need to know what color jacket you were wearing when you climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, don’t tell them. But if a few well-placed details help to transport your audience and drive home your message, by all means, include them.
Make your storytelling personal
The best storytellers communicate their message through memories and life experiences. Think of moments when your failures led to lessons that you’ve learned. Leverage a personal story that makes the topic real and authentic. Look for that emotional entry point through anecdotes that illustrate struggle and barriers you’ve had to overcome. This approach will draw listeners in and make you more relatable.
Practice makes perfect
Some leaders believe they are effective storytellers, so they don’t bother preparing in advance. Don’t wing it. Storytelling is an art, and practice makes perfect. After you’ve strategically selected the right narrative, take time to rehearse it out loud to yourself and others. Lazarus adds, “remember, 90% of information transmitted to the brain is visual, so how you come across to others can help (or hurt) your story. Work up the courage to record yourself on your laptop or smartphone. Pay attention to subtle visual cues that could be distracting your audience.” Use a conversational tone to help your audience relate to you as a person, even in a business setting. It will go a long way in establishing a genuine connection.
You can use storytelling techniques in many ways: to inspire the organization, communicate a vision, teach important lessons, define culture and values or explain who you are and what you believe. When you experience a memorable life lesson, write it down. You never know when it will turn into your next great story.