Written by Karin Pendley Koser Tuesday, October 23 2012
Storytelling through the ages has provided entertainment, as well as serving to pass down history and to teach values and ethics to future generations. Today, we’ve got so many places and ways to tell our stories: in person, online and offline. It’s no surprise in our media-saturated world that the best and most memorable messaging utilizes the ancient art of storytelling. Good storytellers are masterful at developing a lead character, a conflict or challenge and a resolution. They are good at building suspense.
The best stories have you on the edge of your seat quickly and cause you to think about them for years. In a business or organizational setting, stories can change lives, build community and impact the bottom line – but not without forethought and not without you being ready to get personal, get real and share unique aspects of yourself and your business acumen. First, consider the constraints of the medium you’ll be using, the interests of the audience to whom you’ll be speaking and whether your story is really worth sharing.
Each medium and audience requires tweaking your message and your delivery. In-person audiences may be the most captive and provide the most intimate opportunity for people to connect with your story. Online audiences provide the best opportunity for sharing the story with a wider audience. The flipside is the more limited attention span of an online viewer or reader.
If you’ve got a story to tell, select a topic that you’re passionate about, gather an audience, seat them comfortably and begin. But first:
Do a little detective work about your audience.
What do they care about? What’s their current mood or state of mind? What level of understanding do they already have about your topic? Don’t dismiss age, gender and level of education. If your business is a highly technical one and you’re addressing a more general audience, avoid industry jargon and technical terms. In other words, put yourself in the shoes of your audience.
Next, find a hook – a reason why people want to hear or read your story.
Are they already personally interested in the subject matter? Do they know anything about what you’ll be talking about? Your hook might contain a relevant reference to something current in culture, music, entertainment or news. Referencing quotes by people currently newsworthy or particularly pertinent to your audience can give you credibility as long as you don’t overuse that tactic. Keep your hook short and simple. Some effective speakers get started with a joke; if you don't have great comedic timing, be sure to practice your joke in front of someone you trust to give you honest feedback before you try it out on an audience.
If you’re giving a public speech or writing a story or an article, it’s usually a good idea to start by telling your audience a little about what you’ll be telling them. Once you’ve gotten them a little intrigued, the next step is to engage them.
Consider why they need the information you want to share. In business writing, whether it’s for speeches, brochures, collateral, advertising, websites or videos, this is where emotion comes in. You can engage your audience with humor or with compassion and empathy. The engagement step may be where you tell a short story about yourself or someone impacted by your service or organization. Engagement includes being authentic, both if you’re the storyteller yourself or using a story to promote a service, product or idea. Have a sense of humor? Use it to break the ice, to show that you are not all that different from the people in the audience. Some of the best storytellers I’ve heard have the audience rapt with their ability to create empathy or intrigue right off the bat. My list of favorites includes author Anne Lamott, former President Bill Clinton, former professor Randy Pausch and Diane Sawyer.
As you build toward capturing your audience with your message, start to weave in facts, details and possibly statistics to support your main point. Facts that relate to your story but are not about you or your company can enhance your credibility. Think current mortgage interest rates if you are a real estate broker or executive talking to a group about home ownership. The meat of your story is in the facts, and the color is in the detail. As a University of Georgia (UGA) graduate, I’m reminded of our great sports broadcaster Larry Munson, who called the UGA football game plays with great gusto and passion, while his more subtle sidekick Loran Smith provided a factual accounting of what was happening on the sidelines. As a solo communicator, it will be your job to do both. Merge facts with colorful details.
As you lay out your story, consider the traditional structure taught in school when hopefully we all learned to outline.
Outline your lead, the engagement and main sections, as well as each supporting point or topic and, last, your conclusion. What do you want your audience to remember most from your story or communication? If you want to call them to an action, tell them so. Make that very clear and simple.
If your story will be told in person, remember to use your whole body, including posture, gestures, eye contact, vocal inflection and a style that emphasizes certain words or sentence fragments (often the verbs and/or action words). One of the most popular speakers on the speaking circuit is Linda Ellerbee, former journalist and breast cancer survivor. She makes you laugh and cry and often punctuates her talks with pauses, self-effacing jokes and plenty of hand gestures and moving about. As an avid TED talk viewer, I find that speakers who move around the stage keep my interest better than those who don’t.
Visual accessories that illustrate or expand on your story are important as well – whether it’s your own body movement or a few well-chosen images, a short video or props. In online and print storytelling, pictures are a must.
The greatest measure of whether your story resonates with your audience is whether they want to share it. I believe person-to-person word of mouth is still the most positive testimony, but it’s clear that social media sites have amped up the reach of our mouths, cursors and keyboards. Is your story ready to be shared?
More communication advice:
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In business, humility is not necessarily your friend. Learn how to toot your own horn and communicate your personal leadership brand effectively.
Executive presence is a buzzword among corporate leaders, but what exactly is it? Sally Williamson helps define the concept and gives strategies for how to achieve it.
Karin Pendley Koser is CEO and president of