In what has become the most watched TED talk of all time, Ken Robinson tells the story of a Gillian, a little girl who couldn’t sit still at school. Her teachers were frustrated with her, and she was sent to a specialist for assessment. After speaking to Gillian and her mother, the specialist asked her mother to step out of the room with him, and as they left he switched on the radio. As soon as she was alone, the little girl started moving to the music. The specialist showed the mother and said, “Mrs Lynne, Gillian’s not sick – she’s a dancer.” Her mother sensibly sent her to dance school, and Gillian became a successful dancer, then a choreographer for Andrew Lloyd Webber. A less fortunate child might have been medicated, punished, or written off as a lost cause, but Gillian’s natural abilities, liabilities in a traditional classroom, made her rich, famous and fulfilled.
This is a story that celebrates individuality. Robinson is arguing for a more flexible education system. He uses Gillian to show how natural talent can be destroyed by a culture that over-values conformity. It’s a moving story of an underdog triumphing over the odds; a story of rescue by a hero; a story of tragedy averted. It’s so powerful a story that it doesn’t occur to the audience that not every fidgety child has a world-class talent. His point is made.
Robinson’s well-chosen stories and gentle delivery are far more effective for convincing an audience than hours of forceful, data-based lecturing would be, and the same is true for business presentations. The ability to tell stories at work is more important than ever, because they persuade without dictating. As management best-practice moves from rationalistic command-and-control to more collaborative models, your ability to make a compelling case will become crucial. After all, it takes two to tango.
Don’t be A Wallflower
You may think that when it comes to stories you have two left feet. Some people are uncomfortable with using stories to convince and persuade. Their presentations are loaded with facts and figures, but empty of anything that triggers an emotional response - unless they’re really scary figures. But stories help to create human pictures out of data. Even the driest material can be structured so that it forms a kind of narrative flow. Knowing how to harness the power of good structure and storytelling will enhance your ability to engage and convince an audience.
3 Ways Stories Work at Work
Stories create memories.They create images in the mind, and they encourage an emotional response. We’re far more likely to remember things we see, even if we only see them in our mind’s eye, and we’re also likely to remember how we felt about something long after the exact words have been lost. Couching a business point in a story means your message is more likely to be retained by your audience.
Stories create meaning.A story encourages us to think and feel a certain way about the outcome. Humour or a serious tone tells us the expected response. But more than that, stories have traditionally been humanity’s way of making sense of the world. And story is how cultures communicate and negotiate their values – true for civilisations, true for companies.
Stories create action.A meaningful story engages our emotions, and our emotions drive our behaviour. If your presentation coldly dictates a set of actions, commanding your audience to obey you, you invite rebellion, defiance, or losing their goodwill and energy. If you use story to inspire, empower and empathise, you’re creating an atmosphere of collaboration that leads to better engagement.
That’s just three ways that stories can work for you in a business setting. There’s a reason we use the word ‘relate’ as a synonym for ‘tell’: telling stories is how we relate to each other. Empathy is part of the equation, but the other part is trust, loyalty, and the creation of a bond, both with you and the organisation you represent. Stories, and indeed all emotive elements of a presentation, speak about values and identity. You can forge a stronger team by letting them engage with you on a warmer level.
Enjoy the Journey
Your ultimate goal in any presentation is to have your audience dance with you down the paths of your argument, smelling the flowers, admiring the local architecture, and deftly sidestepping any potholes along the way. You and your audience arrive at your destination together. Even if you don’t sweep them completely off their feet, at least they’ll have enjoyed the exercise. An encounter like that builds respect and confidence in you beyond your current presentation, making your audience more likely to listen to you in future.
Can I Do It?
You already do! Evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar estimates that up to 65% of our communication is stories about ‘who did what with whom’ – commonly known as gossip. So not only is story-telling natural, we are constantly doing it. In fact, story is fundamental to the way we communicate with each other.
Find Your Spotlight
At The Pickering Group we can help you step into your spotlight. Our storytelling courses will help you mine your experience for effective stories and shape them into powerful communication tools. You don’t have to be a world-class choreographer to get an audience dancing to your tune. Learn more about our courses here, join our mailing list below, or join us on Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter for inspiring, thoughtful content.