How to Tell a Great Story

Writer 1Here is an excerpt from an article written by Carolyn O’Hara for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

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We tell stories to our coworkers and peers all the time — 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?

What the Experts Say

In our information-saturated age, business leaders “won’t be heard unless they’re telling stories,” says Nick Morgan, author of Power Cues and president and founder of Public Words, a communications consulting firm. “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,” he says. 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. “We are programmed through our evolutionary biology to be both consumers and creators of story,” says Jonah Sachs, CEO of Free Range Studios and author of Winning the Story Wars. “It certainly can be taught and learned.” Here’s how to use storytelling to your benefit.

[Here are the first three of several practical suggestions.]

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. Sachs says that 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,” says Sachs. “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,” says Morgan.

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,” says Morgan. 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,” says Morgan. 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,” says Sachs. “But when the storyteller talks about how great they are, the audience shuts down.” The more you celebrate your own decisions, the less likely your audience will connect with you and your message.

Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Carolyn O’Hara is a writer and editor based in New York City. She’s worked at The Week, PBS NewsHour, and Foreign Policy.

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