Often people mistakenly think oral stories are about words when in fact good oral stories are about pictures and emotions. When you hear a story and can see it happening you’re transported to the place where it’s taking place and you relive it with the teller. This natural and effortless collaboration between teller and listener is one of the reasons stories are so engaging.
I’ll often ask workshop participants to share a story of when they experienced good leadership. More often than not their first attempt is a broad description of a leader and the type of things they do. I remember one guy, let’s call him Steve, who told his table group about how his leader was always there to help him through tough situations and how his boss was a great coach. I asked Steve whether he could recall a moment, a specific instance, where his boss helped him out. He paused, gazed upward searching his memory banks, and then said, “yes, I’ve got one.” Steve then shared a story about being in the car with his boss and the specific things his boss said and did to help Steve with his next sales call.
As Steve recounted this experiences his demeanour changed. His eyes twinkled, his voice sounded more natural with life and bounce. You could tell he was reliving the moment he had with his boss and his audience were reliving it with him. They were enthralled. They leaned in. The general description Steve started with was true no doubt, but it was not half as engaging as the specific story.
So how do you get that sparkle?
It’s all about moments.
Find a moment to share
When looking for a story to tell try and find one or more moments where your listener can really see your story happening in their mind’s eye. Better still, help them feel it happening.
It’s best to start with your own experiences. Say you want to illustrate how important it is for new managers to help employees understand the company strategy. Your first attempt at finding a story might be a generic one such as, “When a new employee starts here, I always sit them down and take them through our ‘Winning Ways’ strategy and help them learn the strategic story. It really helps them make strategic decisions on a day-to-day basis.”
Not much imagery in that description.
Let’s now find some specific instances, moments, that illustrates the idea. You might say, “Can you think of one specific person you helped understand the strategy? What happened?”
They might share a story something like this: “A couple of months ago Sarah started with us in logistics. When she arrived we sat down in my office and I told her our strategic story and helped her learn how to tell it. She had a go at telling it back to me. She’s a natural. I made it clear that the focus this year was on stock turnover. I got the thumbs up as she walked out the door. Actually last week I heard Bob from product development was bending her ear to make a change to our process. It would have killed our stock turnover targets but she stuck to her guns. The issue is now with the senior leaders upstairs, which is exactly where it should be.”
Perhaps you can see Sarah in her boss’s office or see her telling the strategic story. The thing is you can see it happening and as a result it’s memorable.
It’s important not to go overboard with your descriptions. You know you have gone too far when you hear yourself saying things like, “Sarah stepped into my mahogany panelled office wearing a blue pant suit …”
Help them see that moment
I’m often helping leaders find moments. When I hear a broad story my first instinct is to ask for a specific instance. This works half the time but when it doesn’t I start the discovery process by helping them conjure pictures in their mind that might trigger a memory.
For example, if the leader says, “We have terrific people who are self motivated and take responsibility.” I’m thinking this is great. So I ask, “Can you share an example, a specific instance that illustrates self motivation?” If they come up blank I move to plan ‘B’, pictures.
So where do most of your people work? “Oh, they’re out in the warehouse.” What does the warehouse look like inside? How is it setup? The leader responds with a description of the warehouse. He mentions the stacker and picker and just as he does a light bulb goes off. “I’ve got an example of self motivation for you.” And off he goes to tell that story. Our stories are not on the tip of our tongue ready to be told. They need to be triggered.
I then tell the leader he needs to share that story with his people with the clear message that he wants more of it. At the same time he should now be on the look out for more examples of specific moments that reinforce the desired behaviour of self-motivation.
Help them feel that moment
If seeing is believing then feeling is what inspires people to action. Finding stories in the workplace that move people is much harder but the right ones can make or break your work culture.
Ed Catmull, the co-founder of Pixar, said that ‘Toy Story 2’ was a train wreck for the company. And to get the thing back on track everyone had to work crazy hours for months and months.
One morning in June, an overtired artist drove to work with his infant child strapped into the backseat, intending to deliver the baby to day care on the way. Some time later, after he’d been at work for a few hours, his wife happened to ask him how the drop-off had gone–which is when he realised that he’d left their child in the car in the broiling Pixar parking lot. They rushed out to find the baby unconscious and poured cold water over him immediately. Thankfully, the child was okay …1.
That story and other experiences of employees hurting themselves through over-work (stress, RSI) made it clear to Ed and his executives that they would never have their people work like that again and that employee health was paramount to their identity.
There are certain stories that have a very strong emotional resonance. I mentioned some of these in a recent post, but to quickly recap they are: death, safety of children, power and sex. It also turns out that disgust is a powerful emotion.
Sex might be difficult to build into your business storytelling repertoire but stories of power, used well or abused, is compelling. As we have seen above, stories of children in danger and stories of people in mortal danger also resonates with us at a deep level. Of course there are many other emotions such as love, surprise, anger, and happiness to keep a look out for.
The best indicator of an emotional story is to be aware of how you physically respond. If the hairs on your arms spring to life or a tingle goes down you spine then take notice. Something has happened that could be relatable.
Start finding moments today. As a little exercise, think about what you had for lunch and picture the place you had it and what is tasted like and the sound that was buzzing around as you ate. Become aware of the moments and when you find yourself sharing an example, help your listeners picture it. And if they can see and feel it there is a good chance they will remember the story, and remember you.
1. Catmull, Ed, and Amy Wallace. 2014. Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration. Random House.
About Shawn Callahan
Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on: