How to Craft Compelling Business Stories

April 21, 2016

The latest #protip for being a persuasive speaker is to use stories. Storytelling “experts” are offering seminars, courses, and even conferences on how to develop and tell a story. The goal is to be a more compelling presenter and appeal to your audiences’ emotions.

Research has shown that stories engage more parts of the brain than when confronted with just facts. When facts or lessons are woven into a story, the audience is able to remember what you want them to remember. When we hear stories, our brains produce images and sensations evoked by the stories. In contrast, detailing data doesn’t  activate the sensory areas of the brain; only the analytical parts, which tend to have less impact upon memory.

However, “storytelling” is often a head-scratcher for nuts and bolts types – whether they’re in business, engineering, the sciences, or even architecture. The suggestion of using storytelling conjures up big, innovative presentations that very few people give on a normal business day in an average conference room. Nonetheless, stories are useful and effective even for the everyday presentation.

Yet the word “story” itself can be intimidating. Clients often tell me they don’t have any stories to tell. In reality, we aren’t talking about fairy tales, fables, or full narrative stories. A story can be a brief anecdote, a short description of something that happened, or even an example.

Constructing a story doesn’t need to be complicated. Here are some simple steps to follow:

 #1.  Think about the point you want to make. Then, think of an experience that best highlights your point. Check yourself to make sure it’s relatable (and not in any way offensive) to your audience.

 #2  Carve your story into three sections:  A) the situation (offers context and scope); B) the dramatic tension (options and alternatives, barriers and hurdles); and C) the resolution or outcome (results!).

 #3  Tie the story back to your point, just as a comedian would work his or her way to a punchline. The story is no help to you or your audience without being tied to a point. And even when you might think the point is obvious, your audience might not. Don’t leave it to chance.

Along the way, if you can create some suspense, you will increase the chances of holding onto your audiences’ short attention spans.

This might still seem challenging, so let’s walk though a scenario. Imagine you have to give a progress update on a project you are running; the audience is senior executives. One option is to just give the data  and call it a day, but you really want to engage and impress them, so you decide to include a story.

Let’s say you’ve been running a new cost-cutting program that is targeting wasted office supplies. You are providing an update and making the point that the program is working well. Here is an example of a story that might grab and hold your audience’s attention more than straight data:

Six months ago, we determined that our spending on office supplies exceeded expected levels and that relatively significant savings could be had by reducing use. So, we started a multifaceted program to reduce our office supply costs by 15% in one year. This program included introducing new work flow methods, departmental rewards for reduced usage of supplies, and active tracking of individual use.

As you know, not everyone thought this program was worth the time and effort. The R&D department, for example, has been resistant to the new measures we instituted, such as tracking printing and requiring formal requests for pens and staples; they have also been resistant to the implementation of new work share software that reduces the need to print. One particular team leader, at the beginning of the program, went so far as to tell me that they already have zero waste and that implementing these new measures is just going to waste time.

 However, when I talked to him last week, he said not only was he amazed to learn how many supplies they had been wasting, but that the new software was proving more effective and efficient for their workflow than their old method of printing copies and meeting together. In fact, he apologized for doubting the project. So, as you can see, our cost-cutting plan is actually exceeding expectations. Not only did we reduce wasted office supplies, but we also improved work flow and work efficiency through our paper-saving software, which was an unexpected and welcome benefit.

Even a simple example like this one can make an effective and engaging story.

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A well-written business story will allow you to capture your audience's attention at your next speaking engagement. Become an expert in business writing with AMA's seminars and resources.

About The Author

Communications coach Beth Noymer Levine is an expert in helping Fortune 500 executives, professional and world-class athletes, and other high-profile individuals effectively think about, prepare for, and deliver their messages to important audiences. The founder of SmartMouth Communications, Levine is also the author of “Jock Talk: 5 Communication Principles for Leaders as Exemplified by Legends of the Sports World" and the creator of SmartMouth OnDemand , an innovative online learning platform that offers interactive skill-building communications courses. She is a frequent speaker and workshop presenter at conferences and events nationwide.

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