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Ten ways to use stories in business

Sarah Lloyd-Hughes

“Let me tell you about the time I texted my mother-in-law by mistake…” 

A story that’s out of place can feel bum-clenchingly awkward. This could have gone down like a lead balloon in an important client meeting. 

But what if this texting faux pas had led to the development of a pioneering piece of technology? An invention so magnificent that it could transform the future of telecommunications. And what if, sat in front of you, were big chiefs at a global mobile phone company? It might be just the moment to share this embarrassing blunder. 

You see, that’s the problem many people face when it comes to storytelling in business situations. They know they should be telling stories, but they don’t know when to use them. It means people continue to trot out lifeless PowerPoint presentations and snooze-inducing corporate talks – because it feels safer. 

We all know, playing it safe is neither memorable nor likely to spark change. If you want to stir your audience into feeling, and more importantly doing, something as a result of what you say, then mastering storytelling is key.

“Stories are up to 22 times more memorable than facts and figures alone.”

Jennifer Aaker, Professor, Stanford Graduate School of Business. 

Great storytelling isn’t about saying how undeniably brilliant you are (that’s just boasting) or hogging air time (some of the most powerful stories are just a few sentences). Great storytelling is about sharing some kind of journey for you or someone else by bringing emotion and experiential evidence as human beings into the picture. That’s when your audience connects with a message because it resonates with them personally. 

Think about business situations where you could add colour, depth and meaning by using stories. Here are ten ideas to get you started…

 1. Sales pitches

How can you show evidence of success? For example, you could zoom in on one individual whose life has been improved because of the product or service you offer. What was it like for them beforehand? What was their pain? And what’s the transformation?  

 2. Team talks

No matter what their role is or where they’re located, stories can help unify a team behind a common purpose. As a leader, you can share stories about the impact of your work, your shared values, or a personal experience which drives the focus of the company. Ask ‘what are we in this for?

 3. Standout presentations 

Think TED-talk and you’ll have seen the power of ‘one idea worth spreading’. Simple, poignant storytelling can have a huge influence on your audience. Establish a problem and show why it matters and what can be done about it. Share a defining moment in your career, or how your own perspective has changed. More tips on TED-style speaking here.  

 4. The role model

Show others how to bring storytelling into a business context by sharing your own stories. Like, how you juggled a family crisis with your business priorities; how you said ‘no’ to an opportunity that was against your values; or why you stopped checking your emails after 5pm! When your team witnesses you role modelling this behaviour, they’re more likely to feel empowered to do the same. Make it accepted, encouraged and celebrated.

 5. Challenging messages

Used sensitively, stories can be a powerful way to deliver challenging information, such as team restructures or shifts in direction. Tell the story of what’s at risk if the difficult decision doesn’t  get made. Or humanise your leadership team by telling the story of what made you come to a challenging conclusion. Giving the human context behind facts and figures, shows others why change is necessary and is more likely to win their hearts and minds.

6. Thought leadership

For subject matter experts, stories can transform complex ideas into a form that others can understand, buy-into and pass on. From a biologist telling a story about how micro brewing can save the world and populate Mars, to the oncology specialist sharing how her teenage son’s treatment in a children’s ward didn’t cater for his needs, stories can become the very thought leadership that raises your profile.

7. Bringing data alive

Share a load of facts and figures and you might sound brainy but your audience is likely to forget what you said. We resonate more with the skinny little boy sweeping monsoon rainwater out of a train more than knowing the fact that 86 million people are living in poverty in India. Bring data to life with stories and you’ll supercharge your impact. There’s more on this in our recent blog.

 8. Interviews

Whether it’s being interviewed for a job or talking to the media, there’s no better way to add colour to your responses than by sharing a micro story. Used sparingly, this can help evidence the quality of your work and showcase your impact on others. Put us into a situation where you added value and tell us what happened. 

 9. Lessons learnt

All stories are about a journey of some kind, but great storytellers focus in on the lesson learnt. What did you discover, who changed your perspective, how has it impacted your vision/life/work? The leader who shows his or her failings, uncertainties and process in getting to where they are will inspire more than the ‘finished article’ – like Steve Jobs’ Stanford address where he encourages us to ‘stay hungry, stay foolish’.

 10. Brilliant leadership

How you communicate defines your success as a leader, and storytelling skills go hand in hand with your ability to engage and inspire teams, stakeholders and the public. What’s your personal story, who has inspired you, what keeps you awake at night or makes you jump out of bed in the morning? And why is it relevant to those around you? This talk on the role of tech in education by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, shows how leaders can raise the stakes by telling stories.

These ideas are just some of the opportunities where you can start to bring stories into everyday business communication. If you want to perfect your storytelling skills to find, develop and practice using stories in any situation, get in touch to find out how we can support you and your teams.

Sarah Lloyd-Hughes

The UK’s leading inspiring speaking expert & best-selling author. Sarah Lloyd-Hughes is a multiple-award winning public speaking coach, founder of Ginger and author of “How to be Brilliant at Public Speaking” (Pearson).

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