Originally published with the Forbes Coaches Council, September 2018.
We know the power of a good story. A story can help make an emotional connection, vividly illustrate a key point or grab people’s attention. And a story can help give context and make your audience really feel the impact of a problem or solution.
But telling a story in a business setting isn’t as easy as including a beginning, middle and end. When I speak to clients, I’m often asked, “How do I keep people from skipping to the last slide?” This is a common phenomenon. My response is the question: “Why do you think they go there first?”
Most people know the answer: “Because they want to see the summary first.”
In conventional storytelling, such as in a book or a movie, suspense is a great thing. We want to be drawn along, wondering what will happen next. We’re willing to spend time confused, in the dark and without answers because we’re relishing the narrative. But in a business setting, we hate being kept in suspense. If I don’t know what you’re talking about, I’m most likely going to tune you out.
So how do you tell a story effectively in a business setting? Here are six simple rules, and the first one is both the most difficult and often the most important:
1. Turn storytelling on its head. Give us the ending first to eliminate the suspense. Once you’ve done that, you can flash back and start from the beginning knowing that your audience won’t be distracted by trying to figure out where you’re taking them.
2. Make it memorable, but don’t forget your goal. Stories are powerful, and telling a great story is a wonderful way to make you or your idea stand out. But make sure your story serves the purpose of taking you to your goal. If you want to introduce yourself with a story, make sure it’s not only a great yarn but also a way to emphasize your leadership, your skills and your credibility. And don’t forget to figure out the goal before you think about the story. This seems simple, but the first step in developing a clear goal is an often forgotten one. Without an obvious destination, the journey is bound to go astray.
3. Think about your story from the audience’s perspective.The most powerful stories can also make you — or your audience — feel vulnerable. Make sure the stories you tell are appropriate for the formality of your presentation, the intimacy of the room and the personal preferences of your audience. Make sure you’re thinking about the needs of your audience, the value to your business and the path to your persuasive goal.
4. Distill your story. Can you get to the point of your story in a single tweet? If not, it’s not simple enough. Our attention spans are stretched to the limit. You need to be able to grab your audience’s interest and pay it off in as little time as possible. Yes, details can make the story sing, but too many will make it just a bunch of noise.
5. Find the problem first. What great story doesn’t have an antagonist? A problem can unite an audience in a quest for a solution, and if you make that problem vivid and real enough, your solution will look that much better.
6. Use the rule of three. Storytelling 101: Use three acts to frame your story, whether they’re beginning, middle and end or open, content and close. Within your content, think about offering three examples or three next steps. Three just happens to be the perfect number. It offers just enough detail to bring your audience in and give them concrete ways to understand your argument, but not so much that they lose track of the key points.
Humans are hardwired for stories. It’s how we understand each other and how we understand ourselves. Done right, storytelling has the power to make any presentation more persuasive — and the teller more memorable, more credible and more influential.