Overcoming the fear of sharing business stories at work

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —July 8, 2020
Filed in Business storytelling, Communication, Leadership Posts

“I haven’t prepared anything. I wanted to just speak from the heart…” So began the speech, from groom to bride, at the wedding I attended earlier this year. You could hear a pin drop.

People love to hear your real thoughts, off the cuff, and without notes. Add your real-life experiences and your audience will lean in, not wanting to miss a thing.

And it’s doubly true in the workplace. We want to hear what our leaders really think, and we want to know what has happened that makes them think that way. That’s why storytelling, the art of sharing what has happened to explain a point you’re making, is such a vital skill in the modern workplace.

I was lucky to fall into the world of business storytelling more than 20 years ago while working at IBM. My job back then was like being a corporate anthropologist. I would collect anecdotes, sometimes hundreds of them, from a company. Then we would use these anecdotes in workshops to figure out the patterns of behaviour that were in play in that business. Our mantra was simple: if you want to change a company’s culture, you need to change the stories told. So, we discovered the stories that were being told and then helped leaders design interventions to change behaviours and create new stories.

It taught us a lot about what stories sound like in companies. For the most part, business stories are told as small anecdotes, not beautifully crafted epics.

I want to share some tips to get you started with business storytelling, just a few simple tactics to try and see storytelling’s power. With practice, sharing your experiences to make a business point will make what you say more memorable, enticing, and, on the off chance, inspiring. And if you want to learn more, I’ve just created a new online course called 7 Tips to Be a Better Business Storyteller.

The fear of not doing it right

What holds people back from sharing stories at work? I would say fear. The fear of looking silly. The fear of not doing it right.

A few years back, I coached the CEO of a large drinks business. He was happy to tell me all about stories, but he was reluctant to actually tell me one. So, I asked him what the most important issue his business was facing was. Without hesitation, he said, “Sustainability.” Then, I asked him to tell me where he’d seen sustainability practised in his company. He told me about a recent factory visit where he’d been shown the good work they were doing in recycling water. His face lit up as he shared this experience. That’s a story, Jamie (not his real name).

One of the reasons why Jamie was reluctant to tell a story was that he hadn’t noticed other leaders doing it in his company. So, the first step for him in overcoming his fears was to start spotting the stories told by his colleagues.

Start spotting stories

Years ago, at Anecdote, we developed a story-spotting framework that has since been central to our work. It helps people know what is a story and what is not. You can read about the full framework here, but let me give you a couple of shortcuts to spotting stories.

You know you are hearing or reading a story if it starts with a time marker. I’ve used a couple in this post: “A few years back…”; “…the wedding I attended earlier this year.” When someone gives a time marker, there’s a good chance they’re telling a story.

The second thing to look out for when spotting stories is someone recounting events: this happened, then that, and because of that, then this occurred. You get the gist.

With this knowledge, you will now be able to shake your head and reject silly statements such as, “We are all about integrity and quality. That’s our story.” No, it’s not. That’s not a story. You don’t get the amazing benefits of storytelling unless you actually tell a story.

Avoid bringing attention to your story

To reduce the fear factor, you want to avoid bringing attention to your story. I know, that sounds counterintuitive, but this is the 101 rookie error. When people learn about the power of stories, they start telling everyone that they are about to share one: “Let me start with a story…” or “I have a great story to share…” If you tell people you’re sharing a story, you are setting yourself up for failure because the word ‘story’ has a lot of baggage attached: it’s not true, it’s for children, it’s long-winded. (Check out my post on Brené Brown and Kevin Hart to see just how short stories can be.)

Instead of using the word ‘story’, just say things like, “I had an interesting experience…” or “Something happened recently…” or “A while back…” People don’t like the word ‘story’ but they love to hear a story, especially if it has a clear point.

Have a clear point

To ensure your stories have a clear point, I suggest you offer the point in one sharp sentence, then follow it with your story. Here’s an example.

Making small improvements across an enterprise can have a staggering impact (your point). In 2003 the fate of British Cycling changed forever… (the story—actually, it’s just the beginning of the story, but you knew that).

By prefacing your story with your point, you achieve two immediate benefits. First, your audience knows where you’re going with this story and they can relax into it. And second, you know where you’re going with this story and you can jettison anything that doesn’t help you make your point. The result is shorter, more engaging stories.

Start small

My last suggestion to help you face your fear of storytelling is to start small. Rather than kicking off your story practice with a big presentation, try sharing an experience that makes a point in your next team meeting and see what happens. If you don’t tell everyone you’re sharing a story, no-one will be the wiser, yet you will make your point more memorable and interesting.

In business, we’ve been taught to talk in opinions, viewpoints, and dot-points. This is mostly forgettable and rarely engages, influences, or inspires. If you need to move people emotionally (all change is driven by emotion), then you need to add stories to the mix. Yes, there will be fear to start with. But over time, and with practice, you will develop the habit of storytelling and set yourself apart as someone people listen to and remember—valuable assets for any leader.

To find out more about Shawn’s new online course, 7 Tips to Be a Better Business Storyteller, click here

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:

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