There are many reasons you might want to tell a story. You could tell a story to entertain, to inform, or to get a laugh. You could tell a story to a friend, write it in a blog post, or include it in a presentation.
While there are many situations when a story can be a powerful communication tool, for now I want to focus on one particular use of a story. This is a particularly powerful use of a story and one that I’m confident, because you are reading these words, is important to you.
As a professional and a communicator, you should strive to be a professional communicator; and professional communicators are intentional about what they are communicating, why they are communicating and how they are communicating.
The “what” and the “why” often leave us with the fact that we, as communicators, must influence our audience. When this is true, a story is often an important “how” in the communication toolkit.
Stories have been used through history for all of the purposes I listed above, including being influential. So how can you put their power to work for you?
Here are some important ideas to help you do that.
Remember the Goal
You must always start with the goal for your presentation, the outcome of your communication. Consider these questions:
- What is your goal?
- What do you want your audience to do, or be persuaded about?
- What action do you want them to take?
The first big mistake people make is that they have a story they want to tell, and they decide to tell it because they like it, because they heard someone else tell it, or they can’t wait to try it. The story must be completely connected to the goal.
Start with the goal. Write down what you want your audience to do as a result. Once that is clear, then, and only then, do you look for or select your story.
Stay Audience Focused
Communication is always about the message and the audience. Don’t lose sight of this fact because you are suddenly thinking about telling a story. You can’t effectively communicate anything without remaining audience focused, but this is especially important in this situation because you are specifically trying to influence others.
Actually you aren’t trying to influence others, you are trying to influence individuals — one by one. Will everyone be influenced by exactly the same things? Does one story really fit all?
In short, no and no.
Match your story to the experiences of the audience. If you are talking to an urban audience, a story about rural experiences may not connect well. Make sure you are thinking about stories that people feel are relevant or connected to them.
If you are a leader trying to influence inside your organization, you have an advantage — you know the culture and likely the actual people you are trying to influence. If you are speaking outside of your organization, to a group of vendors, potential customers, or members of a community, this job might be harder. Either way, getting ultra-clear on your audience and their perspectives and beliefs is important before you select your story.
Pick Your Story(ies)
Now, and only now, can you begin to decide on your story.
With your goal firmly in mind, and all love affairs with particular stories forgotten, think about your audience some more. Don’t try to find the perfect story, because for any situation there are likely multiple possible stories that would work in reaching your communication goal (again you aren’t influencing one person but a group of individuals). Consider these questions:
• What do you know about them that suggests a particular story?
• What will resonate with them better?
• What will be more memorable to them?
Remember – depending on your situation, one story may not be enough. Do you have a second story that will trigger different emotions, cater to a different part of your audience or help you create a more complete picture? If so, continue this process thinking about multiple stories!
Craft Your Story
- What are the key points?
- What parts of the story aren’t needed?
- What details will build drama memorability or otherwise increase the influence the story provides?
You want to sharpen your story, remove the unnecessary parts from that ball of clay and refine it to deliver exactly the message and memory and evoke the emotions that will help influence your audience.
How do you do that?
When telling your story you want to capture people’s attention and imagination. What words will transport your audience into the story? Choose adjectives carefully. Include details that will make a difference. Use sensory language to tell the story – how can you include the senses of sight, sound, taste, and touch into the story?
And when crafting your story remember that length matters! You are telling a story. Not a monologue. You are trying to reach a communication outcome, not recite the Great American novel. Your story will be most powerful when your telling of it never loses sight of the goal you have for it. Cut deeply, adding back details and descriptions only to reach your desired outcome. Remember in this case that less is definitely more.
Practice Your Delivery
If you want your story to have the influence you want you must practice it. Tell it in your car. Tell it to your dog. Tell it to people who care enough to listen. Practice your words, pace, and timing. Practice connecting the story to the rest of the message. Practice how you close your story in the context of your goal. There is art to telling a story successfully, and part of the art comes in practice. Most people don’t practice enough. Remember that the story doesn’t stand by itself, but will soar with good delivery.
Successful story telling is both art and science. Taking the steps outlined here will improve your confidence and results; they will make you a more effective presenter, a more powerful communicator, and more persuasive and influential whenever you apply them.
photo credit bptakoma