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About the Author
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Let the Story Do the Work
The Art of Storytelling for Business Success
By Esther K. Choy
AMACOMCopyright © 2017 Esther K. Choy
All rights reserved.
MASTER THE KEY ELEMENTS OF STORYTELLING
In spring 2016, a small art museum in Cincinnati, Ohio, was preparing for a critical meeting. The museum was about to launch a capital campaign and needed several major donors to pledge six-figure gifts to give momentum to the fundraising effort. After months of extensive research and networking, the campaign director secured an initial meeting with a well-known banker. This potential donor was of course a very busy person, and promised only fifteen minutes to the director while he was in town for business. Knowing the initial conversation could make or break the chance of a sizable gift, the campaign director asked the museum's lead curator to join the meeting to discuss the museum's impact on Cincinnati and its community.
Thrilled and nervous, the lead curator wanted to be as prepared for the meeting as possible. So she drafted what she wanted to say, asked colleagues for feedback, invited the content manager to edit her "speech," then rehearsed it over and over. On the morning of the meeting, however, the banker's executive assistant called to inform the museum that there had been a schedule change and he had only five minutes to meet with them!
Now, if you were this museum curator, what would you do? How would you change your plan to use that five minutes most effectively?
Our museum curator cared deeply for her work and believed wholeheartedly in the organization's mission. She had spent days preparing her speech, chosen each word carefully, and rehearsed to the point that she could practically recite it in her sleep. So, rather than cutting it down or synthesizing it, she rushed through it, delivering a fifteen-minute talk in the allotted five minutes.
Put yourself in the banker's shoes and imagine what he might have heard. That's right: absolutely nothing! The curator spoke so quickly that nothing stuck, other than the idea that her approach was not effective. The banker left the meeting without any motivation to make a large pledge. He probably even wondered why he had agreed to the meeting to begin with. At the time of this writing, the museum was still trying to schedule a follow-up conversation with the banker. But its leaders recognized that they had squandered a critical early opportunity.
In a world where time is scarce, attention spans minuscule, and information abundant, how do we find a way to inform and influence others most effectively? How can you use a compelling, memorable story to sway and persuade others important to your mission or goals?
Doing this right requires seeing business communication in a broader context to understand where, how, and why storytelling fits in.
"STORY" IS EVERYWHERE NOW, BUT WHAT EXACTLY IS IT?
One spring morning, while I was driving to work, a radio ad caught my attention. "Tell your business story," it said. Since storytelling is my business, I sat up a little straighter and listened closely. The ad continued: "For standout business cards, stickers, and flyers, go to our website. ..." What started out sounding like a pitch for a company or service similar to mine turned out to be an ad for an online printing company using the trendy term "story" to catch people's attention!
I shouldn't have been surprised. I run into examples like this almost daily. Take a look at this flyer I came across at a private club in downtown Chicago around Easter a year ago (see Figure 1-1).
"Bring the Story Home," suggests the headline. Based on that phrase, I imagined a small group of people huddling together, talking, reflecting, sharing their stories in a warm, welcoming home setting. But the flyer was merely advertising the centerpiece for an Easter-themed brunch. There's nothing wrong with urging guests to buy a memento from a special occasion, but the use of the word "story" here was again largely misguided.
Story is not a business card or sticker. Story is not an Easter Bunny centerpiece. Nor is it any of the things below, in and of themselves:
Pitch (including sales and elevator pitches)
Thesis (such as a research thesis or investment thesis)
While story can — and should — be incorporated into many of these items, they do not represent story on their own. It is only when you integrate the use of story into these types of communications that you can drive amazing results.
CORE COMPONENTS OF A STORY
To recognize a true story, look for the core components common to all stories with business impact:
Structural: A story has a beginning, middle, and end. Elemental: A story often has elements including a hero, challenge, journey, resolution, change, and call to action.
Authentic: A story reveals a genuine part of the teller, which elicits emotion in the audience.
Strategic: A story sparks an audience's imagination, causes them to relate to the situation in the story, and motivates them to act.
By this definition, a story with business impact can be as short as one sentence. Or it can be a three-minute introduction or a thirty-minute product demonstration. Whatever the case, it will have maximum impact if it includes the components above strategically.
Throughout this book, we will be revisiting these core components of effective stories. In the following sections, we focus on two elements at the heart of these components: emotion and audience.
CONSIDER YOUR STORY'S EMOTIONAL QUALITY
Story and emotion share a critical link you need to use.
What makes you decide something or take action? It's tempting to say that facts, data, or observable evidence guide our decision-making and actions, with very little role played by emotion. In reality, emotion is not only necessary but plays a key role in our decision-making process, as highlighted by many recent writers across fields, including the Heath brothers in their excellent book Switch.
Meet "Elliot," a hardworking accountant who was living the American Dream in the early 1980s. Unfortunately, he developed a brain tumor in his orbitofrontal cortex, requiring surgery. The procedure seemed to have gone well, as Elliot retained what appeared to be all of his physical, linguistic, and intellectual capacities. But soon it was clear that he'd lost something post-surgery: his ability to make decisions, even about the simplest things. Merely choosing between a black or blue pen to sign a document could take him over thirty minutes. The underlying reason was that Elliot had lost the ability to connect emotion with decision-making; the surgery had cut him off from his "emotional mind," making him "pathologically indecisive."
Emotions are critical to our ability to decide in many situations. As Alan Weiss noted in his book Million Dollar Consulting, "Logic makes people think, emotion makes them act." This can be especially true when we're faced with many similar-seeming options. "Go with your gut" is valid advice in such cases, as long as your emotion is well-informed by some set of facts or experience. That's true in business, as well.
Di Fan Liu is an onshore private banker based in Beijing. He and his firm serve ultra-rich Chinese entrepreneurs, mostly founders of publicly traded China-based companies. Widely admired, these first-generation trailblazers overcame highly restrictive economic policies in past decades to succeed, and many retain active control of their businesses. Yet most of them struggle with the issue of how best to pass their wealth on to their family's next generations. That's where Mr. Liu and his bank come into the picture.
In speaking with these high-value prospects, Liu and his colleagues rarely talk about what the bank has to offer, at first (I'll explain this strategy in the last story). Instead, they tell stories. Specifically, they relate narratives about how other multi-generation family businesses worldwide have dealt successfully with ownership succession, whether in the US, EU, Latin America, or elsewhere — such as a US-based real estate family that has passed wealth down to three generations using a set of complex but fair trusts. Then they ask their prospective clients to think of a fellow Chinese entrepreneur who'd successfully passed on wealth to the next generation. The vast majority can't think of even one. Next, Liu shares an important observation: since an economic downturn happens every seven to eight years on average, in any given century a person could lose their wealth as many as fourteen times. Finally, he asks them: "What are you doing to protect your wealth and legacy?"
You can imagine how Liu's prospects may feel after the conversation: grateful for the new knowledge, but also vulnerable and a bit frustrated, knowing that other leaders like them have succeeded where they are struggling, and the risks are quite high. The emotions make them receptive to hearing how Liu and his bank can help them, and that's exactly what Liu tells them now.
The idea is that your story, no matter how well told, can't achieve its full intended effect until you embed within it an emotional quality aligned with your purpose. Remember: logic makes you think; emotion makes you act. How can you build the right emotional quality into your story to create the desired impact?
In the next section, we will explore how to better understand the emotions of our audiences.
KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE INSIDE AND OUT
In an ideal world, you the storyteller can take your time and convey everything you want to in whatever amount of time you need — just as the museum curator in our opening example wished. In reality, what we say, how we say it, and when we say it are constrained by a big factor: our audience's needs and reactions.
When most people are preparing to tell their stories, they tend to think only about what they will tell and how they will tell it. Too often they neglect to think about how their audience will react to the stories, as influenced by their own needs and preferences. Remember: large ambition, hard work, and even impressive credentials are not sufficient to succeed in most business contexts today. A hallmark of an effective leader is whether she can convince others — her audiences — to follow her as related to vision, strategy, tactics, or any other area. That means leaders have to understand their audiences' needs and constraints, to decide how to communicate with them most effectively.
In chapter 3, we will explore in depth how to connect with an audience. The framework below, however, is a start that will help you understand your audience better by breaking down what happens to them during any presentation or interaction into two levels: internal and external. This "inside and out" approach will help you prepare much more effective presentations.
What happens to your audience internally, or inside, involves what they feel and what they know.
Feel. The famed American writer and activist Maya Angelou once said, "I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel." Often overlooked in business contexts, not only does emotion have a high "sticky" factor, but it also plays a critical and necessary role in decision-making. Whether we intend it or not, our audiences will experience a specific emotion — intrigued, bored, happy, unsettled, excited, apathetic, surprised, confused, or some combination — after listening to us. But note that they may not be able to articulate their feelings even if you press them to share. Still, they are definitely feeling something! This emotion can affect how long, if at all, they will remember what you've just told them, and what, if anything, they are willing to do about it. So wiser communicators always try to predict how their message would make audiences feel, and alter messages that may not result in the hoped-for emotion.
Know. Whether you are presenting at an industry conference or conversing with your manager during a mid-afternoon coffee break, you want your audience to come away from the interaction knowing something they didn't before. Maybe you're showing conference attendees (potential clients) how to generate consumer insights from massive amounts of hospitality data. Or maybe you're apprising your manager about a competitor firm's rumored product research. Transmitting that information is critical because knowledge is power, as they say. Unfortunately, we live in a data-overloaded world where most information is quickly commoditized and information without sufficient context or stickiness is quickly forgotten. So you have to be highly strategic about how you present the information you want your audience to retain. The vehicle for your message matters — a lot.
The external factor has to do with what questions your audience asks and whether — and how — they act as a consequence of what you've presented them.
Ask. Feeling and knowing, discussed above, take place internally, within members of your audience. But effective communication will yield an external sign of their interest: they will ask questions. "Tell me more about that data analysis approach," they might say. Or "What's the best reaction to our competitor's new product research?" Regardless of the form, a question means your audience wants to know more. Follow-up questions are the number one indicator that you have created real interest in your listeners, which makes them want more information, insights, opinions, and recommendations — all things that it's better to have them ask for than for you as the presenter to dump on them unsolicited. Questions indicate that you've created the opportunity for a real dialogue, rather than a one-way monologue. That means a central objective of your story is to inspire questions in your audience. (As you might have guessed, this would have been a better strategy for that museum curator when she found out that she had less than half the expected time to communicate with the banker and potential donor.)
Act. Unlike writing a novel or memoir, or getting on stage to communicate a personal narrative at one of the increasingly popular storytelling events in the US, telling a story is almost always aimed at influencing others to act, to effect change. When people tell personal stories and show their vulnerability in front of a crowd of strangers, they are sharing something they feel compelled to, possibly hoping to evince emotion in audience members. But the goal of a story told in a business context is to inspire action, no matter how big or small. For example, say you and several friends are creating a food-delivery app, but it's not quite ready for launch. So your goal at this stage is to recruit beta-testers. You could first share an origin story (see next chapter) and your basic business model with friends and colleagues, then ask them to act: "You're in our target market, and your personal habits can help us develop the best app possible. Could you commit to downloading it and testing it by the end of the month?" A good story will help inspire the desired action.
PRINCIPAL ELEMENTS OF STORYTELLING
Below are the five Principal Elements of Storytelling. We'll return to these repeatedly throughout the book, so I want to present a full description of each up front here.
The Three-Act Formula
When you visit a store or restaurant or movie theater, do you worry that the floor will collapse and send you crashing to the level below? At home, do you constantly question whether the roof will fall on you? Hopefully not! These questions may sound ridiculous (at least in more developed countries), but I'm using them to point out the importance of structure.
Structure is critical not only to buildings, but also to stories. When the structure of a building is solid, we don't question it. In fact, we don't even think about it, because we don't have to. When something works, we tend not to even notice it. Same goes for story structure, which holds all the elements together, usually without your realizing it. In fact, all strong stories share the same basic structure: the Three-Act Formula.
Excerpted from Let the Story Do the Work by Esther K. Choy. Copyright © 2017 Esther K. Choy. Excerpted by permission of AMACOM.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
INTRODUCTION: Why Stories? How Story + Qualifications = Standout Success x
PART ONE: ANATOMY OF A STORY
CHAPTER 1: Master the Principle Elements of Storytelling 3
CHAPTER 2: The Five Basic Plots in Business Communication 23
PART TWO: BRINGING STORIES TO LIFE
CHAPTER 3: Look Who's Listening 47
CHAPTER 4: Telling Stories with Data 65
CHAPTER 5: Making the Complex Clear 89
CHAPTER 6: Combining the Power of Story and Simple Visuals 99
CHAPTER 7: Collecting Stories from Everywhere 129
PART THREE: STORIES IN ACTION
CHAPTER 8: Using Your Own Story to Build Credibility and Connection 151
CHAPTER 9: Successful Networking Starts with a Good Story Hook 171
CHAPTER 10: Selling the Social Impact of Nonprofit Organizations with Story 187
CHAPTER 11: Case Study: The Healthcare Industry 203