Perfect stories told perfectly are suspicious. This is especially true in organisations. Business people feel more comfortable with imperfect stories. They are better received. Here’s a small example.
I recently heard a government employee tell a story about a work-related change he was experiencing. Mid-story he said, ‘… and then there were some big policy changes. Mind you, I’m not a policy person, so take this with a grain of salt …’. It was honest, and authentic. It wasn’t rehearsed. Rather, this footnote just popped into his mind. It felt real to me.
I’m happy with stories where the teller hesitates, backtracks, misspeaks, adds an unprompted sidebar – all those ticks and imperfections tell me that I’m hearing what this leader really experienced. But, I do have some caveats.
The minimum requirement for effective business storytelling is a clear point. Ideally, the teller prefaces their story with the point they want to make, so the audience knows why they’re listening to the anecdote. It might sound something like this: ‘One thing I’ve learned is that small things can make a big difference. A couple of years ago …’ This simple tactic immediately reduces any anxiety the listener has, as they’re not left wondering why they are listening to the story. It also helps the teller stay on track and jettison extraneous material – those unnecessary details that don’t serve the point of the story.
Next, an effective story needs moments, those small slices of time where we get to see something specific happen. Here’s an example I heard while I was working with a city council.
The head of parks and recreation – we’ll call her Sally – told us how she was out at one of her city’s recreation centres, in a park, and right next door there were netball and tennis courts that had been fenced off and padlocked, with a sign saying people could get the key from the rec centre. When Sally asked the rec centre manager, ‘So how many people have asked for the key since you started working here?’, he told her he had never been asked for it.
So Sally rang park maintenance and got them to remove the fence fronting the courts, so anyone could freely enter and use them. A couple of weeks later, Sally took her family to the park and as she pulled up, she saw people everywhere, with lots of them, especially kids, playing tennis and basketball on the courts. The place had a real buzz.
There are a couple of moments in this story. The first is when Sally asks the rec centre manager how many people have requested the key and he says none. Dialogue is always a moment. And then there’s when Sally takes her family to the park and sees everyone using the facilities. These moments help us see the story.
A story is when something happens. A good story is when you can see it happening. And a great story is when you can feel it happening. Most importantly, business storytelling works best when it’s invisible.
So don’t perform your stories to perfect them. Keep them conversational and revel in their imperfections. Better to get your experience out there in a way that makes a point than to rehearse a prepared story and have it hit your audience as false.
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About Shawn Callahan
Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one 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:
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