By Aimee Hansen
Forbes has called it “the new strategic imperative of business.” Oral storytelling may have started around the fire, but today it’s trending hot on the list of sought-after leadership competencies at the boardroom table and in the C-Suite.
While storytelling may be innate, it doesn’t mean we’re all equally skilled in wielding the power of storytelling. But it turns out that being an engaging and persuasive storyteller is far less about raw talent than you might think and more about getting fluent in the structural ABC’s (or rather, IRS) of storytelling.
theglasshammer.com spoke to Esther K. Choy, Founder and President of Leadership Story Lab and author of the book Let The Story Do The Work: The Art of Storytelling for Business Success.
Why We Don’t Tell Stories
“Storytelling in a business context is a pivot from something we are doing naturally and intuitively,” said Choy, “but it’s adding a different application. I think it would be a pity if we (women) don’t make full use of what comes natural to us.”
Choy observes that we tend to be more reserved about telling stories at work than we need to be.
“A lot of people have a certain misconception that when you tell stories you assume the spotlight and you are talking about yourself… And this is something that many of us have been socialized not to do,” says Choy. “The other thing is that if you haven’t been trained how to tell stories strategically in a business setting, it can take a while,” states Choy. “These days people’s attentions spans are very short.”
The need to be persuasive and concise is why immersing yourself in the anatomy of effective storytelling is so important.
An Expansive and Emotive Leadership Art
In addition to speaking to and from the heart, telling and receiving stories is also a more expansive mindset skill than analytical or rational argument.
“When we listen to a story, it involves 40 to 50 different regions of our brain. When you are perhaps using the analytical side of your brain, it’s far more limiting.” states Choy. “That’s why we have the saying that people forget facts, but they never forget a good story. You can try to forget a good story, but it’s really hard. The reason is that it’s such a whole brain experience. It’s sticky. It’s memorable. It gets us feeling. It’s almost as if we were there, inside the story.”
We are not only rational beings, even when making basic decisions. “Every single decision, big and small, must involve an emotional process to make a decision and act on it. That’s just the way we’re wired,” states Choy. “That’s why no amount of sheer analytical presentations and data can actually persuade someone until and unless their emotions are tapped somehow.”
Storytelling is a way of showing versus telling that guides the listener along on an intentional emotional experience. It creates a synchronization between speaker and listener. The result, often, is a trust that is conducive to building consensus.
“When you’re the storyteller and I’m the listener, our brains actually begin to synchronize,“ states Choy. “Because the story that you are telling me, that you are painting, I am also trying to imagine and feel. The storyteller’s brain and the listener’s brain begin to hum and synchronize. That’s why we feel an incredible connection.”
Storytelling Starts With Listening
“In order for any of us to become great storytellers, we must first become story collectors,” states Choy. “So before we set out to tell great stories, to razzle and dazzle and influence and persuade other people, we also need to learn how to get other people to tell their stories.”
While this partly mirrors the principle that if you want to write, you need to read, it also comes from the need to create receptivity and two-way communication. This is especially true when negotiating friction with colleagues.
“In a business setting, when you’re trying to persuade other people, it’s really hard for others to even begin to open their mind and ears unless they feel heard. That has to go first,” states Choy. “We don’t have to agree with them, but we have to acknowledge them and make them feel heard. That is the only way to get them to open their minds and their ears to hear our story.”
In order to effectively persuade, even storytelling has to be a conversation.
The Craft of Connection (IRS): Intrigue, Rivet, Satisfy
It’s not true that some people just aren’t storytellers.
“I think 80% of what makes a good storyteller can be boiled down to process. It’s more a matter of willingness, not ability,” states Choy. “If you’re willing to learn the process, to practice it and get feedback – then no matter your confidence and creativity and natural ability – you will be a great storyteller.”
Choy’s story toolbox and strategic structure is IRS. The beginning must be Intriguing. The middle should be Riveting. The end should be Satisfying.
Act 1 – Intriguing: The shortest part of your story should begin with time and location and end with a hook. The hook can be based upon conflict (any tension of opposing forces), contrast, or contradiction (contradicting the expectations of your audience).
One thing you should not do, says Choy, is to begin with “let me tell you a story,” which can raise skepticism. Focus on intriguing. We often need to dig out the hook of our story and bring it to the front.
Act 2 – Riveting: This is “the meat of the story” – the overcoming of obstacles, challenges, setbacks, more setbacks, and triumphs. When we’ve lost our audience, it’s often because we began with Act 2, rather than setting our story up or effectively wrapping it up.
“That’s why some stories feel flat or feel like they go on and on with no end in sight,” states Choy. “But if you set up the story right, then you’ve earned the right to tell your stories.”
Act 3 – Satisfying: This is the climax and final resolution, which delivers on intentions and takeaways, either open-ended (such as provoking discussion) or close-ended (such as closing a deal). The same story can have either open-ended or close-ended intention, based on how you resolve it.
“Whichever path that may be,” states Choy, “you should think ahead of time at least to what you would like to see happen after you tell that story.”
Ultimately, storytelling, like many skills that are important to leadership, are a matter of both craft and practice. Storytelling is one area in which it can be both professionally and personally rewarding to develop your proficiency.
Author Note: Aimee Hansen leads women’s writing and yoga retreats on Lake Atitlan, Guatemala (Nov 25 – Dec 3 2017, Jan 27 – Feb 4 2018) and other locations and dates in which we explore the power of storytelling when it comes to owning our voices and self-expression in all areas of our lives. Find out more about her events: www.thestorytellerwithin.com