We often see people making one of two mistakes in their storytelling. They either don’t tell a story at all, or they go overboard and turn it into something you’d read in a Stephen King novel. The danger of either mistake is that your audience will lose interest.
So how do you make sure that your story sits perfectly between the two extremes, in the sweet spot?
First, check out this short clip from the sitcom Modern Family, which nicely demonstrates both ends of this spectrum:
Talking about the story
Mitchell has obviously heard Cam’s ‘Punkin Chunkin’ story before. You’ll notice that when he tells his version, there are few details. He says, ‘Once, Cam and his friends tried to slingshot a pumpkin across a football field. Three seconds. That’s all you need to tell that story’. This story holds little interest. There’s no element of surprise here, or an ‘Ah-ha!’ moment. All Mitchell has done is talk about the story rather than tell it – and there is an enormous difference between the two.
Going too far
Then Cam tells his version of the story. It’s layered with unnecessary imagery that just isn’t natural in casual conversation, like ‘the fog was rolling in over the mountains like an ominous blanket’. It’s so loaded with pointless information that the telling of the story becomes more notable than why it’s actually being told in the first place. As a result, the climax earns Cam little response from his audience, other than a sarcastic ‘Wuh, wha’ from Mitch.
Cam’s version doesn’t land well because it falls into what we call the ‘Uncanny Valley’ of business storytelling, described in detail here. When you overuse the language and techniques favoured by screenwriters, playwrights and novelists, your storytelling can appear artificial, forced and unappealing.
In business, just as we want to tell stories instead of just describing them, we also want to avoid falling into the Uncanny Valley.
Here are some tips on how to avoid making the two aforementioned mistakes:
1 Have a point. The first tip is that you need to be clear on your business point. What message are you trying to get across to the people who are listening to your story? In business, storytelling can help you deliver a clear message to your audience in a way that saves time. However, if you’re unsure of what that message is, you will tend to add unnecessary details that reduce the clarity of what you’re saying and waste your audience’s time. Zeroing in on what you want your listeners to learn from your story is the key here.
2 Practice. Identify a person in your life who you know will give you honest and critical feedback on your story and tell it to them. Ask them to let you know what does or doesn’t work, and whether or not you’re too much like Cam or Mitchell. You should practice your story a minimum of three times – by then you should understand the amount of detail required to get in the sweet spot. A good way to get feedback is to pay attention to your audience. Body language is a huge giveaway for how people are receiving your story. So while you should be engaged in telling your own story, you shouldn’t be so caught up in it that you miss vital cues from your listeners. These cues indicate to you if they’re actually enjoying listening to your story, or if you’re having a ‘Wuh, wha’ Cam moment. For more information on how to get valuable feedback, check out this blog post from Shawn.
3 Variety. Don’t be a one-story wonder like Cam – it’s obvious from the clip that Mitch can mimic Cam as he tells the story. Even if you have a fantastic story, telling it over and over just makes it less effective. In business, your task is to have many examples that you can call upon. Here are a few ideas to help you build your personal repertoire of stories.
Clarity and practice
When you have a clear point and practice your story a few times, you will be much closer to the sweet spot of business storytelling – where your audience is engaged, they understand and remember your point, and it all takes very little time (our suggested length for most business stories is 90 seconds).
To be an effective business storyteller requires practice. Our programs are designed to work in a no-nonsense way in a business setting combined with lots of practical tools and tips and ways to practice. Learn more here
About Mark Schenk
Mark works globally with senior leadership teams to improve their ability to communicate clearly and memorably. He has been a Director of Anecdote since 2004 and helped the company grow into one of the world’s leading business storytelling consultancies. Connect with Mark on: