As stated by Dr. Howard Gardner, a research professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, “Stories constitute the single most powerful weapon in a leader’s arsenal.” This is because stories are how we connect as humans. When a CEO, founder, or executive dedicates time to learning how to tell a story, a loyal following of employees, customers, and investors naturally grows. However, telling a story is a skill that leaders must develop. It requires confidence in public speaking and an acute understanding of the structure and flow of successful stories.
Here’s exactly what a person needs to work on to learn how to tell a story properly:
- First, they need to understand who they are telling the story to.
- Next, the central message they are communicating needs to be clear and distinct.
- When telling a story, people should use the structure of the hero’s journey for guidance.
- Don’t be shy about conflict, strife, and struggle. This is what people relate most to.
- Never position yourself as the hero, but use your personal experiences as inspiration for the story.
- Study and replicate storytelling models from great speakers, experts, and teachers.
Learn more about why storytelling matters and dig deeper into each of these tips below.
Why Storytelling is Useful in Business
Think about the companies that rely heavily on telling stories to capture attention, engage with their audience, and build an authentic connection among those who encounter their brand. Take Apple, Disney, and Nike for example. They’re some of the most successful organizations in the entire world and have valuations worth several hundred billion dollars. Their success lies in making people feel a sense of belonging while being entertained. Steve Jobs is an excellent reference of a leader who understood why and how to lead with story. As he once explained, “The most powerful person in the world is the storyteller. The storyteller sets the vision, values, and agenda of an entire generation that is to come.” Science backs up this belief of storytellers having a huge amount of influence on others. According to Dr. Uri Hasson, a professor at Princeton University, when we are told stories, our brain waves sync up with the storyteller’s. It proves just how interconnected we become to someone when hearing a good story.
Beyond this purpose, a great story is also an immersion experience that never dies. It can live millions of lives been told and retold time and time again, influencing just as many people in the process of its life. For this reason, it is one of the most persuasive, influential tools a person can use to connect with listeners.
Additionally, storytelling capabilities are a strong indicator that a person is a great leader. This is because a storyteller and a leader live parallel lives. They both must be wise, persuasive, influential, motivating, inspiring, emotionally intelligent, and effective communicators. When you work on storytelling, you simultaneously grow yourself as a leader.
How to Become a Great Storyteller
While some people have a knack for storytelling and feel excited to learn more, others might automatically find themselves rejecting the idea because they’ve fumbled a time or two when telling a story. Truthfully, no one turns into George Lucas in a matter of weeks. It takes time and practice to tell stories in a way that strongly resonates with others. Use the tips below to help guide you as you work on learning how to tell stories.
1. Know Your Audience
The first step in becoming a great storyteller is to understand the people in your audience. For example, you wouldn’t tell a story about how the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolded to a group of kindergarteners. They would quickly lose interest in the speaker because they can’t relate to the topic, causing them to have no interest in it. The same goes for business leaders who have audiences full of adults. You have to know who you’re connecting with to connect.
Think about themes that people in the audience can relate to. For instance, if you’re the keynote speaker at a conference where work-life balance is the main topic, you might tell a story on work burnout. Ultimately, great storytellers find a problem the people they’re talking to care about solving. In this scenario, burnout is an issue every person in the crowd should relate to and have an interest in managing or avoiding.
2. Get Clear What You’re Communicating
Powerful stories have a clear, distinct message. For this reason, those practicing storytelling should consider honing in on the Four P’s: people, place, plot, and purpose. Obtaining more insight on these points should help a storyteller better convey crucial aspects of their narrative. When these aspects of the story are apparent, the audience can better identify with the story and emotionally connect to the storyteller.
Compelling stories have a meaning that is deeper than the story itself. Before using story as an influential tool, ask yourself, “If I had to boil this down into one sentence, what is it really about?” Once you have an answer, use this theme throughout the story to remind the audience of the core message.
Another good point for increasing your clarity as a storyteller is to “kill all your darlings,” as William Faulkner put it. He means take out the “non-essentials” of the story so that all of the focus is on the story itself. While you might really love a certain character or side story, if it doesn’t get the main character closer to their ultimate objective, cut it.
3. Use the Hero’s Journey as a Framework for Structure
One of the best resources for those interested in learning the foundational structure of successful stories is Donald Miller’s Building a StoryBrand. Miller covers every element that needs to go into a story. This ranges from outlining the beginning of a great story to ways to keep the audience’s attention and keep them interested until the very end. Once a person gets a grasp on storytelling using this structure, they can deploy it in many ways, including public speaking, written communication, and marketing. You can deploy it in public speaking like a speech outline, helping create the backbone of your story.
The book breaks down the hero’s journey in seven steps:
- Define a hero. Never make the hero yourself. It needs to be someone your audience can see themselves in.
- Present a problem. Every hero needs a problem they must solve. An issue doesn’t need to be huge to be relevant. For example, they could be as simple as finding more time to spend with their family or grappling with constant conflict at work.
- Introduce a guide. Heroes don’t go on their journey alone. They have a guide that helps them obtain success. For example, think about famous guides like Yoda, Mr. Miyagi, Dumbledore, and Gandalf. Usually, when storytelling for marketing purposes, you or your brand serve as the guide. However, this depends entirely on the story you’re telling.
- Outline a plan. The guide is responsible for providing the hero with direction. Their main role is to let the hero know what actions they must take to solve their problem.
- Call the hero to action. Once they have a plan, the guide calls them to act on it.
- Communicate what the success or failure of the plan looks like. The storyteller should paint a picture of both success and failure. Always communicate how high the stakes are for your audience.
- Err on leading your hero to success. While some stories do end in failure, it is normally to demonstrate a lesson. However, if the story is meant to inspire or motivate, lead the hero to succeed rather than falter. Unsuccessful endings aren’t gratifying for audiences. End the story by communicating a better picture of their life because the main character did succeed in solving their problem.
Learn more about the structure of story by digging deeper into StoryBrand.
4. Present a Relatable Struggle
Stories wouldn’t be interesting if the protagonist didn’t encounter any conflict in their journey. Conflict produces action, which keeps audiences engaged until the very end. Additionally, our life struggles make us human—one of the main reasons we’re able to connect with stories that mirror problems or circumstances we’ve experienced.
However, any old type of conflict won’t do. In business, storytelling is really about being relatable to those you’re trying to capture the attention of. For this reason, don’t create struggles your audience can’t identify with. This might look like talking about not making $30 million a year or buying a Ferrari if your audience is a group of mid-management marketing managers. People need to empathize with the hero, so giving them different struggles the audience can’t (or doesn’t want to) understand automatically sets the story up for failure. To really tell a great story, consider what problem your audience needs help solving, the different obstacles they have faced when attempting to solve it, and a legitimate plan for moving forward.
5. Don’t Be Afraid to Make It Personal
As author Vera Nazarian says, “Old storytellers never die. They disappear into their own story.” What she means is that experienced storytellers leave parts of themselves into every story they tell or write. Their stories are deeply personal, as great storytelling requires a high level of vulnerability. For example, if you’re telling a story about a person struggling to reach a challenging goal, use your own problems with this as a reference. Every character a storyteller develops is created from the speaker or author’s life experiences. If you’re willing to expose and share a part of your soul, people will take notice and feel comfortable connecting with you.
6. Take a Lesson Out of the Books from the Best Storytellers
As the author of Steal Like an Artist, Austin Kleon, writes: “Nobody is born with a style or a voice. We don’t come out of the womb knowing who we are. In the beginning, we learn by pretending to be our heroes. We learn by copying.” Creative people, including storytellers, are a culmination of all the people who influenced their style. With that being said, you need to figure out who influences the way you tell stories. Think about the movies, plays, books, and videos you love. What tools are the creators using to craft a good story? How can you do this?
It’s also important to note your influence doesn’t always need to be from famous people. Often, our favorite storytellers are family and friends. Do your dad’s hilarious stories get the dinner table rolling with laughter at Thanksgiving? How? Maybe it’s his hand motions, tone, or energy. Consider all these things and work them into your own form of storytelling.
Spend Time Practicing Your Craft
It’s not enough to know how to tell a story. For those doing it in front of an audience, you also need to nail the performance aspect. To do this, confidence and the self-esteem are required. This is what will ultimately allow you to get in front of a group of people, capture their attention, maintain it, and emotionally bond with them while you’re talking.
Additionally, if you want to be serious about telling good stories, you need to make it a tangible goal. For instance, say you’ve agreed to give a ten-minute speech next month in front of the entire company. Set yourself up for success by:
- Spending 20 minutes each day working on the speech.
- Mapping out the plot, characters, central message, and hero’s journey during the first week.
- Using the second week to revise the story and make it clearer.
- Practicing it out loud in front of the mirror each day and making edits as needed during the third week.
- Giving the speech to your family members or friends and implementing their feedback the week of the speech.
When it comes to reaching goals and experiencing personal growth, preparation is key. It’s no different for those who want to capture the hearts and minds of audiences through the art of storytelling. Open yourself up to doing the work, and you’ll wield one of the most powerful tools in business.
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