How to Tell the Best Business Stories

You’ve learned by now that stories are an effective way to capture attention and package great ideas so they are memorable, but the problem is how do you tell an engaging story that sticks?

Getting Started

Let’s start with the big picture. It is important to understand the proper business story structure that captures interest and balances detail with concise and direct language. I recommend the use of the great Joseph Campbell’s classic story structure, the hero’s journey. Start with an attention grabbing opening, then introduce a conflict or spark that is the process or the insight that inspires your character to overcome the conflict. There may be some additional barriers along the way but the story has a turning point. Then relate what positive event occurred or what transformation took place. Finally, end your story with a takeaway of what the audience needs to learn or your key message and a call to action if appropriate. This format makes your storytelling more organized and structured.

A Powerful Opening Hook

So, following our recommended structure, let’s talk about creating an attention grabbing opening or hook. The start of your story is what captures the interest of the listener and hooks them into it emotionally before they have time to put up a wall. You don’t have much time, just a few seconds, so it has to be compelling. To give you some ideas, I’ll list the five great types of openings here:

  • First you can introduce an element of surprise – something unusual for the situation or person.
  • The second type is to create a mystery- in this opening it is like a puzzle to the listener and they want to solve it
  • Your third option is to introduce a main character that they can relate to and put your character in a challenging situation or predicament.
  • Number four is the imagine if opening. It creates the vision of what is possible with your product, solution, or idea. You can paint the picture of life at their company as a dream and then transition to how you helped a client achieve their dream.
  • Number 5 is foreshadowing. In this case you start with changes that are about to happen and you move to a story of how it has become an issue.

It is a psychological fact that we are naturally curious. So, when you open with one of these attention grabbers, your audience is hooked emotionally and wants to learn more.

Keeping Their Attention

Now that you have them hooked, you want to keep their attention. Don’t try to tell a story the way you would write a book, a business report or even an article. If you do, you’ll quickly lose your audience. You want to tell your story in a style that is the way you normally speak. Use short sentences. Experts recommend an average of about 14 to 25 words in a sentence. However at 9 to 14 words in a sentence, the audience understands more than 90% of the information you are sharing. You also want to use shorter words. Experts recommend about 80 percent or more of your words should have just two syllables to ensure you have clear communication. Long words or unfamiliar words that sound intellectual can leave your audience focused on the meaning of the word and wanting to check the dictionary in their smart phone rather focusing on the main point of your story. So, use an informal simple style that is quickly understood by the brain.

Keeping It Real.

Use definite, specific and concrete language not vague abstractions. If your story is about feeding the homeless, tell it in those terms. Don’t say it is about providing government standard nourishment to those falling below the government identified poverty line. Just say you were serving lunch to families in the homeless shelter. Be real, be open and be honest. Don’t be afraid to show your emotions such as your passion or sadness about the topic.

When you have a story about people, use their names. If necessary, you can substitute a another name to protect their identity. If you use real names and the people are in the audience, you’ll see them smile. But I suggest that you don’t point them out as they may get embarrassed. Speaking of stories about people, it makes your story interesting if you use dialogue between the characters in the story. It enhances your story and on an unconscious level it communicates – relax this is a story, not a report, a lecture or a sales pitch. Dialogue is the way we naturally tell a story. Listen to the conversations among your family members around the dinner table as they relate the events of their day. They’ll use dialogue in recounting what happened. The transition from character to character in a story generates curiosity as to what will happen next. This technique keeps the brains of your audience at attention so they are interested and listening. It also makes it easier for you to write a draft of your story.

Use Active Voice for Interest

Telling your story in an active voice will ensure your audience remains engaged. In active voice you or the character in your story does the action. In the passive voice, the character is the receiver of the action. Compare these two sentences: “The ball that won the game was hit in the bottom of the 9th inning by Jack Winston. ” Now compare that to Jack Winston hit the winning run in the bottom of the 9th inning. The active voice was more interesting. Did you notice how the passive voice sounds like a newspaper article or a prepared speech?

Telling your story using the active voice is more direct and it actually takes fewer words to convey the same message. Since the best stories are told in less than five minutes, this is an important tactic. If you want to check your time on your story, you can draft it and divide the total number of words by 150 to see if it fits your desired time frame. Most people speak at the rate of 150 to 180 words per minute. If you want to be exact, check the number of words in your story in the review tab of Microsoft Word. Then record it and divide the number of words by the number of minutes and round the resulting number. Remember, you’ll be most effective if you have a conversation with your audience. Don’t slow down like most people do when telling a story for business, keep the normal rate of speech at 150 words per minute and maintain a conversational tone and pace. Carmine Gallo suggests you watch Bryan Stevenson’s TEDTalk. He tells three stories and it sounds as if he is having a conversation with you yet he is passionately speaking about injustice and poverty.

Keep It Simple

I discussed the number of words in a sentence and the number of syllables in your words. I also want to mention that it is the ideas in your story that are important not the complexity or grade level of your words. Some people think that telling their story with words that are listed as a higher level when checking the Microsoft Word readability index makes them sound intelligent. But, when you use too many of these complex words, you confuse your audience. I did some research and found that the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and the Washington Post all write to the 8th and 10th grade level. Remember you want the audience to remember your story. You don’t want them still thinking of the meaning of the last sentence as you are making that all important main point. If you are wondering about my statistics in this article, the readability is grade 8.3, I have an average of 16.8 words to a sentence and only 4% of the sentences are passive.

If you are writing a story for a magazine or a book, then you should use lots of adjectives and adverbs to describe the elements in your story such as the characters, their emotions and the setting. But when telling a business story it is important to be concise. However, do not be so concise to the point that you don’t create a vivid mental picture. Your story needs information about the physical description and quirks in personality so the listener has a mental picture of the characters. Focus on creating a total experience for your listener. Eliminate unnecessary words but keep the right descriptive words.

Connect To The Senses And Emotions

Did you know that brain scan research shows that when people hear descriptive words or metaphors, areas of the brain associated with the words are activated? In a description such as “the area smelled like a citrus grove” caused the area associated with the sense of smell in the brain of research subjects to become active. So include good descriptive words, especially those associated with the five senses. They can make the difference between getting applause and seeing yawns. You can find great advice on being concise but compelling in two books Presentation Zen by Gar Reynolds and Resonate by Nancy Duarte, who helped Steve Jobs create his spectacularly engaging product announcements. View Steve Jobs announcement of the iPod on YouTube. It didn’t have a long litany of descriptive words but the descriptions he provided were spot on.

Use Good Grammar And Pronunciation

Good grammar and pronunciation are important as well as the style so I have several books on my shelf to help me write my blog posts, eBooks and training modules. My old copy of Reader’s Digest Write Better. Speak Better is a bit tattered but still a great resource. I also use Talk Like Ted by Carmine Gallo, and the trusty Strunk and White’s Elements of Style.

Watch TEDTalks

People who give TedTalks practice over and over with friends, co-workers and mentors to get their talk just right. It takes work to tell your story authentically. You have to dig into your emotions about the story and choose the right words to communicate how you feel about your point. It takes practice to ensure your body language; facial expressions and tone of voice all communicate the same message. Listeners spot incongruence immediately. You will want to practice to the point you are automatic in your delivery. Did you know that Jerry Seinfeld often takes several years to perfect the words and delivery of his jokes? I bet you thought he was able to just think of a joke and tell it. You don’t want your mind distracted on anything else when you are telling your story. So it takes hours of practice to make it look effortless. However, the reward is worth the effort if the story makes your point and calls the listener to action.

Use these hints and tips and practice. In no time you will become a better storyteller.