Everyone can benefit from finding and telling better stories. Don’t be confused in thinking, however, that telling stories means regaling an audience with your latest adventure tale. In business it doesn’t need to be so grand. Telling stories is simply conveying your ideas, values, intentions by retelling something that happened that illustrates your points. Let me give you an example.
When I joined IBM in 1999, my first job was to organise a seminar on knowledge management (KM). After some searching, I discovered Dave Snowden, a colleague in the UK, who had a reputation as an entertaining speaker with a radical and refreshing perspective on KM. As luck would have it, he was planning to visit Australia the next February so we organised a seminar, in Old Parliament House in Canberra. It was a tremendous success. It was my first exposure to narrative techniques and complexity theory and it started me on a new and exciting career path.
This story of how I met Dave is an example of how you can introduce yourself using a simple anecdote rather than listing your interests and achievements. One short anecdote can be more effective than retelling your entire life history. My anecdote has a number of features worth noting:
There are many ways to use stories to communicate more effectively. Become aware of the anecdotes all around you and think, “How could these stories be improved? What can we learn from them?” Create and add to your own “library” of significant stories. The first step in retelling them is to know the message you want to convey. Then you need to find the most relevant anecdote among your collection, or recount the memory of another revealing event as a new anecdote.
Our minds are filled with stories but our memories are poles apart from library catalogues waiting to be searched. Rather, our memories need stimulation to remember the stories we know. Here are three ways to help remember stories:
Presenting your stories
Regardless of the number of people listening to your story, you should present it conversationally as if you were speaking to a single person. Avoid announcing that you have a great story to tell. Simply launch into the retelling with, perhaps, an introductory remark like, “That reminds me of when …” or “This example illustrates that point.” Better still, when someone asks a question like, “How did you get into storytelling, Shawn?” immediately start your anecdote: “When I joined IBM in 1999 …”
At the end of the story avoid telling the listeners what they should have gleaned from the story. Avoid saying things like, “The moral of the story then is …” or “The key points I want you to take away from that story are …” The power of storytelling comes from the story being told twice, once by the storyteller and once by the story-listener. If you tell the listener what they should have heard, you steal their opportunity to re-create the story for themselves. It’s this story re-creation that inspires people to take action, change behaviour and self-reflect.