If you want to sell a product, inspire your employees, or influence colleagues, there is one thing you must be able to do well: Tell a good story. Your employers and your potential purchasers need to understand what you are asking them to invest in, said Dr. Hannah Harvey, a professional storyteller who teaches “The Art of Storytelling: From Parents to Professionals” in The Great Courses series. “We purchase the story more than the product,” she said.
Learning how to tell a good story is different from learning how to be a good public speaker, which focuses mostly on delivery. Storytelling is about taking your ideas on how you envision the future and shaping those ideas into a story that you can live into, Dr. Harvey said. “We are all storytellers,” she said. “It’s in our nature.” That said, it does not come naturally to everyone, and ultimately, storytelling is a skill that can be learned, even though a lot of people come to it with anxiety, or assume that because they are afraid to speak in public they cannot tell a good story.
But if you want to be in business you have to be a good storyteller so you can “meet your objectives through other people,” said Harrison Monarth, an executive coach and CEO of GuruMaker, who has been teaching a course on storytelling for executives for almost 15 years. “Even software engineers realize that big data is only useful if we can turn it into stories,” he said. We present you some key takeaways from our conversation with Mr. Monarth:
1. Storytelling and marketing in general share the same central goal: To connect with people. Whether you want to impart values to employees or customers, teach your team right from wrong, share bad news, or build trust, the way to lead people into the future is to paint a vision they can imagine themselves in, Mr. Monarth said. “After all, marketing is all about telling stories that people can see themselves in,” he added. Harley Davidson is not just about motorcycles and Ralph Lauren is more than clothing. “These companies are about myths and stories that people participate in because they want to be part of that world,” Mr. Monarth said, citing also the watch maker’s campaign: “You never actually own a Patek Philippe, you merely look after it for the next generation.” The tagline immediately tells a story, Mr. Monarth explained. “You see this and you have a feeling. And a vision. It’s about something completely different than just a watch,” he said.
2. There is no set formula for what makes a good story. “Some people say a story has to follow a particular formula, but I’m less rigid,” Mr. Monarth said. Although the typical elements of a story include its structure, characters, and audience, you don’t always need to meet the checklist, and even a one sentence statement can be a story. The key, Mr. Monarth said, is knowing your objective and tailoring your story to meet your needs. While stories are often more engaging if they involve struggle rather than seamless perfection, stories do not need to be funny. Having a level of surprise in a story makes it more entertaining, but “the absurdity in a story is typically more funny than trying to tell jokes,” he said. Often, the key is to keep it simple. “Dont’ get convoluted,” Mr. Monarth warns. “The story has to go immediately into people’s guts, so use simple language to help people follow you and to feel it.”
3. If you’re alive, you have stories in you. “Executives often tell me they don’t know where to find good stories,” Mr. Monarth said. “I tell them that if they live a day, then they have at least one good story.” Stories are all around us, according to Mr. Monarth: Adversities that you have faced and overcome; lessons you’ve learned the hard way; mistakes you made and corrected; relationships that were damaged and repaired; challenges that required a team to come together to save the day; having an unlikely comeback; the time you went that extra mile for a customer even if it meant sacrificing profits. All of these are ways to get your audience to believe in your experience and your background, Mr. Monarth said.
4. Know your audience. To hit the mark with your story, you have to know your audience, including its intellectual and socio-economic level, Mr. Monarth said. You have to know whether to speak about billions of dollars, or to underscore that everyone is taking home an extra $500 this month. “Like a chef, you have to know which ingredients to put into that story soup so that this particularly customer likes it,” he said.
5. You have to be willing to get vulnerable. The most powerful and effective stories are often very personal, Mr. Monarth said. You have to be willing to get up in front of everybody and make yourself the center of attention. “It takes confidence, and the more you practice, the better you become,” he said.
There is of course overlap between learning to tell a good story and being a good public speaker, because the better your delivery, the more powerful your story will be. Body posture, voice projection and other delivery techniques can all be learned, Dr. Harvey emphasized. “Every professional still gets a certain degree of nervous energy,” she said. And that is a good thing. “One of the storytelling techniques you learn is to channel that into an energized performance, otherwise it just falls flat. If you’re not nervous, then you’re in trouble,” she added.