Leaders often ask me, “How do we use business storytelling effectively in our presentations?” Smart, successful professionals know that stories can make your presentations memorable. Here are my top business storytelling techniques for presentations.
It is important that every story you relate links to a message. Otherwise, you are wasting your audience’s time by being self-indulgent. Your stories are there to help your audience connect and remember your messages, so use your stories purposefully.
There is a humor drought in most organizations. In fact, in any other context, a drought of this magnitude would be declared a global emergency. If you want your business storytelling to rock your next presentation, make sure some of your stories are funny. Watch any TED talk by Ken Robinson, who is a storytelling master. Even the most serious story should incorporate at least one funny line.
Magic happens when you share a purposeful, funny story that is also personal. This is a trifecta. The holy grail of business storytelling.
There is a scene from The Matrix, a 1999 science fiction film, in which Neo (Keanu Reeves) points to a helicopter and asks Trinity, “Can you fly that thing?” She replies, “Not yet.” Then she calls Tank and says, “Tank, I need a pilot program for a B-212 helicopter,” and he uploads it into her brain!
Isn’t this every presenter’s dream? Where your presentation is so good that people immediately get it and remember it? While we don’t have Tank’s program, using business storytelling well is our best bet yet. Stories are Velcro for your audience’s brain, sadly almost everything else is Teflon.
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Recently, I completed a stand-up comedy course at the School of hard knock knocks (I know!) No plans for a career change, just professional development that feeds into my speaking.
The first thing our instructor said was, ‘All comedy starts with writing.’ You could have heard a pin drop in the room. None of us ever thought that comedy starts with writing! Jerry Seinfeld writes a joke every day. He says that, at the start of every year, he hangs up a large year-at-a-glance calendar on his wall. Every day, when he writes a joke, he marks a red “X” over that day. Eventually, he creates a chain of red Xs. He says the idea is to never break that chain.
Storytelling is no different―it all starts with writing your story down. It sounds simple, but is a powerful step that separates amateurs (who try to wing it) from the pros. The trick is to write like you speak so your story isn’t stilted. Writing forces you to think, and disciplines you to keep your story short and stick to a structure (beginning, middle and end). Also once you have written your story down, you can then continue to tweak it and make improvements.
The other business storytelling technique that separates pros is they use personal stories to land a business message. Personal stories immediately engage a business audience. Yet, for a storyteller, personal stories in business take skill and confidence. It’s often challenging to find the right personal story that serves our purpose and our audience. We feel vulnerable when we share personal stories, yet we know instinctively that they pack a punch. Personal stories pressure test our risk capacity. It feels risky but with the right business storytelling training, need not be. And, as in life, the greater the risk the greater the reward. The pros know the power of business storytelling rests with personal stories.
Finally, pros make it all seem so effortless. When they share a story, it is like they are sharing it for the first time ever, even though we know this not to be true. So, what’s their secret? We had the opportunity to interview John Stewart, then CEO of National Australia Bank, who we were told was a natural storyteller. When we asked him, he laughed and replied ‘My most ad-libbed stories have been practiced for hours in front of the mirror.’ Just like in every other field (sports, music, public speaking, etc.), all pros practice.
So to be a pro at business storytelling: write your stories down, use personal stories and practice.
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Why are so many films about love, or the battle between good and evil, or ‘coming of age?’ Because these are universal themes with which people across cultures or geographies can connect. In a sense, they all speak to our human condition. Universal is that which resonates with all of us.
In Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence, author Lisa Cron describes it as, ‘The universal is the portal that allows us to climb into the skin of characters completely different from us and miraculously feel what they feel.’
But, whether it is a script for Hollywood or your next business story, the universal has to be packaged in the specific to become accessible. Specific makes it tangible for your audience. Specific―what happens to one specific person in a specific moment in time―is when we start to unlock the magic of business storytelling.