If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.
If you’re speaking to engineers, it helps to tell engineering stories. And if you’re talking to medical specialists, tell medical stories. People want to hear what happened to people like them.
It helps to tag your stories with the industry it’s set in for quick recall. If I’m about to speak to an insurance company, for example, I can easily find insurance stories.
My top industry categories are
These categories make sense to me because I talk to people across these industries. But suppose your audience is within a company. Maybe an insurance company. In that case, you might have categories that reflect the different roles in your firm, such as distribution (their name for sales), underwriting, claims, technology, marketing and HR.
Find the niches and seek out stories for each one.
But don’t pretend you’re a specialist if you’re not. Instead, say you heard about this specialised experience, give the source, and then tell the story. For example, you might say. “I was chatting to Dominic in distribution last week and he shared this experience which really makes the point about demand planning.” Then tell the story.
Here’s an example of a highly technical story from Julian Orr. He was a workplace ethnographer who worked with technical specialists to understand how they learned their craft. I read this story in his book, Talking About Machines.
One day an expert photocopier technician goes to help a new team member with a problem he’s been trying to solve for a while but without any luck.
The devices in question are not ordinary photocopiers but monster machines designed for high throughput. It’s the 1970s.
The new technician starts by telling the expert the story of what has happened so far, then they try a few things.
When the machines display an E053 error, the expert groans and says, “I remember the first one of these I ever had … if it is what I think it is.
I got an E053 and immediately started replacing the dead shorted dicrotrons. They were blowing the circuit breaker.
But as soon as I did this I created a 24-volt interlock problem and you can chase that one forever and NEVER find out what it is.
I happened to pull up the dC20 log and I could see I was getting hits on the XER board. It was an XER failure.
So I replaced it, then the dicrotrons, and stress-tested the bugger and the real error code displayed. You can’t believe what the machine tells you.2
You might tell a cut-down version of this story and start with the point (I call it the relevance statement): “You can’t always believe what a complex machine is telling you. Julian Orr discovered this in his work with technicians at Xerox who worked on massive photocopy machines.” Then tell the story.
When solving any problem, people rely on past experiences and tell stories about what they believe is happening and what may happen next. But their belief in the experience is directly proportional to the story’s relevance.
Find and tell niche stories to niche audiences unless your audience is diverse. They find and tell universal stories.
- Penny Andersen et al., At Home in the World. The Peace Corps Story (Peace Corps, 1996), p. vi.
- Orr, J.E. 1996. Talking About Machines: An Ethnography of a Modern Job (Cornell University Press: Ithaca).
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: