Whatever happened to storytelling? When I was growing up in Texas, I was surrounded by storytellers. My grandfather and all his pals would often sit around out in front of the county court house in Center, Texas (East Texas, but don't try to find it on the map) and spin stories all day long, while they "whittled" on their wood pieces. Subjects ranged from WWII battles to Joe-the-local-drunk's latest antics. Their stories would often get bigger as the evening wore on, and by dusk they bore hardly any resemblance to reality--but they'd talk on anyhow.
Stories have been around for a long, long time, and they're powerful communications tools--whether used in presentations, formal speeches or, yes, even blogs. People rarely remember more than a couple of stats, but they'll remember a good story for years. Stories can create an emotional link to the speaker, and help facilitate even complex messages. Think in terms of popular culture--example, King Kong or Spider Man. Each had a story that captured our attention and pulled us in.
Yet good stories are rare when it comes to corporate presentations. Stories are considered to be interesting luxuries, or entertainment--not a feature that belongs in a "serious" corporate pitch. Most presentations, instead, are packed with statistics,
specs and other quantitative information. It's as if we think we can beat people into buying into our arguments by overwhelming them with information. This is the heavy stick approach. Stories are more like sweet honey, pulling you in one step at a time.
So, what to do?
* Start thinking in terms of stories from the
beginning as you outline your pitch. Where could you insert a story to
help build your case (or break up a long presentation)?
* Make sure the story is relevant to the audience, and your pitch. Everyone wants to know what's going on in the market. So consider using your customers to make a case: "I was just visiting some customers in X city, and it was amazing what they said/did..."
* Make sure your stories have a certain flow--a clear beginning, middle and ending, and conclusion should be punchy. (bonus tip: pause a long time....before wrapping it up..Make a clear point, and let the audience know what you want the audience to think/do).
* Choose your words carefully; punctuate your stories with active verbs and imagery. When I was doing home/consumer computing presentations at public workshops for Intel, I'd often talk about my own children, and how the computer had opened a new window to the world...then go into a specific example. I'd use visual phrases like "shoulder to shoulder computing" and talk about how the tables were sometimes turned, and I'd wind up learning from them.
* Practice, practice, practice--coaches (including me) beat this to death, but it's true. The best story in the story may fall flat without practice...practice to friends, your kids, in the car, and so on. Practice in detail--with gestures, breathing, pauses...just the way you hope to deliver it.
One of the best organizations in the world for practicing speeches is Toastmasters--you can get honest, critical feedback. It's invaluable, and it's cheap.
*Corporate stories need to be relatively brief and to the point--but the "point" may be a surprise too...And it may be funny (more on humor later).
Communicators are already story-tellers, but they'd be wise to sharpen their skills. Helpful resources are everywhere. This includes the ex-actors and professional trainers who teach story telling for a living: a good example is Doug Stevenson, a professional actor turned speaker who I saw years ago, and does a good job with his workshops and tips (Doug Stevenson's Story Theatre).
If you really want a good dose of storytelling, check out the National Speakers Association. I've attended their annual conferences, listening to some of the best speakers in the world. For three days, I watched these speakers telling one powerful story after another, all carefully woven together, and seamlessly laid out with a strong theme and punch line.
We have a lot to learn from these speakers, along with popular books and movies. Stevenson has a book entitled, "Never Be Boring Again." Not exactly the stuff of high-minded corporate mission statements (sort of like Google's "Don't Do Evil"), but it's a start.