How to tell your story

How to tell your story

For Christmas I received the new Jamie Oliver cookbook of 15-minute recipes.  It’s a great cookbook with lots of recipes, as you would expect, but it also includes some really useful techniques and tips. One great technique I got from the book was to construct your salad on the serving platter in layers and then drizzle the dressing over the top. No mixing the dressing through the salad in a separate bowl and then transferring it to another salad bowl. It’s time-consuming and the salad looks so much better on a platter than in a salad bowl.

 I tried a few of the recipes over the holidays, and let me tell you, they take a hell of a lot longer than 15 minutes. I ‘m sure Jamie can do them in 15 minutes but that’s not true for your average enthusiastic cook.

 It got me thinking about storytelling and how when you see the very best leaders share stories in business, they make it look effortless and completely off the cuff. Let me give you the inside word: it‘s not effortless and it‘s definitely not off the cuff. These leaders have been practising the art of storytelling for a long time.

 John Stewart, the ex-CEO of National Australia Bank Group, was renowned for his storytelling abilities. Stewart shared with us one day that his best “adlibbed” stories had been practised for hours in front of the mirror.

 So like all budding cooks and storytellers, you need to start somewhere.  Here are five tips to get you on your way.

Make it personal

The real power in using stories as a leader is the ability to use a personal anecdote and attach it to a business message.

This is an example from Rosemary Reed, who was a risk advisor at the National Australia Bank. One of the key challenges Reed faced was explaining to her colleagues that the role of the risk advisor was not to manage the risks for the business but to provide her colleagues with the knowledge and advice to manage their own risk. She had tried to tell them that several times, but the message did not seem to get through. So this is the story she constructed and started to use.

“I grew up in the country and can always remember my mum telling me about the dangers and risks around our property. From the redback spiders, to the dangers of the creek and to the snakes in summer. She always used to say: ‘When you come across these risks you need to know what to do because I will not always be there.
“One stinking hot day, mum kept telling me to go and get my bike that I had left at the bottom of the garden path. I remember reluctantly running down the path to get it and just as I got near I noticed this huge copperhead snake curled up in front of my bike, basking in the sun.
“I slid to a stop and froze. My first reaction was to go running and screaming back to the house to tell mum. But I didn’t – I played statutes and without taking my eyes off the snake, I very slowly walked backwards. I did exactly what my mum had previously told me to do. When I got enough distance between me and the snake I turned around and ran back to the house screaming.
“I often think about what my mum did for me and the role we have as risk advisors. Mum gave me advice and skills so I would have the confidence and knowledge to know what to do. In risk advising, we play a similar role. We can’t own and manage the risks when they arise. Our aim is to give you, the business, sufficient knowledge and tools so that when you come across your own copperhead snake, regardless of what that looks like, you will know what to do.”

One message: one story

Your story can only address one message or one problem. If you want your team to understand the new strategy, and you want them to repriortise their work and to work as a team to achieve the strategy, then that is three messages and will require three stories.

Short and sharp

Don’t make your stories too long.  In business you stories need to be short and sharp. Out for dinner, your friends may be more indulgent of your long stories.  In business, you will not be given that latitude. Your audience will simply stop listening, and as Dorothy Sarnoff, the American self-help guru, says: “Make sure you have finished speaking before your audience has finished listening.” As a guide your stories should be about one to two minutes in duration.

Start smart

One of the reasons we are seduced by the “off the cuff” nature of stories good leaders use is the quality of the beginning of their stories. The start of your story should be very conversational, such as: “That reminds of a time when…” or “As a kid I grew up in the country and…” These conversational starts do two things.  They are efficient, so they save a lot of time, but most importantly they hook people in immediately. 

Imagine being in a business meeting and someone starts talking with “Actually, this reminds me of a time when I went scuba diving.” As humans we are hardwired to listen to stories so we intrinsically engage when someone starts to tell a story. Avoid starting your story with “Let me tell you a story”– that is unnecessary and patronizing. Never start your story with “Once upon a time”, as your context is business and your audience is usually aged over five. 

End smarter

The way you end a story will make or break it. Steven Denning, the father of business storytelling and author of The Leader’s guide to storytelling advises that your story should link back to your message, but in a subtle way.  Stories should not be directive so avoid ending your story with “So the moral of the story is…” or “So what this means is that I need you to start doing x, y z.”  Use more inviting terms such as “Imagine what we could achieve if…” or “I invite you to consider…”

The main thing with storytelling, just like cooking, is to make a start. We can all do it and the more we prepare, practise and try new things, we will become better at it – both cooking and storytelling.


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