Photo: Ryan Lash/TED
Photo: Ryan Lash/TED

Imagine you had just 18 minutes to rally a team of 150 burned-out employees to stand behind your company¹s new mission. Or convince a dream client to hire your firm to handle their biggest campaign of the year.

The best TED presenters have tapped into the power of storytelling to do far more in their 18 minutes in the spotlight. We’ve watched them change our minds, open our hearts, and­ even alter our behavior.

So why isn’t every corporate and nonprofit executive using storytelling in a strategic way to inspire their troops, convince skeptics, and move their agendas forward?

For most people, mixing the personal with the professional is not instinctive. In my 25 years of coaching executives in how to master the art of the spoken word, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to twist a client’s arm to get him or her to use a personal story to drive home a point.

Yet when you consider the upside of using stories in the business setting—at an all-hands-on-deck meeting—or in a new business pitch—you’ll quickly realize it’s the secret sauce in moving business forward.

Storytelling can succeed where data cannot

We’re all hardwired to love a good story. The documentary Citizen Four made us question our stance on privacy and national security in a way that Wikileaks could never do. Always’ #LikeAGirl video made us think about gender equality in a way that a list of facts could never accomplish.

Of course, not all business execs have a movie budget at their disposal to prove a point. However, the spoken word can be just as powerful a strategic tool to accomplish a number of business challenges, like convincing a skeptical prospect.

I once coached the head of new business at a digital agency who struggled to find a way to illustrate that her agency “prides itself on making deadlines.”

For years, she’d arm herself with Gantt charts of projected project timelines to demonstrate her agency could finish the project on time. The problem? Her competitors showed similar charts to prove the same point.

So she decided to try storytelling.

In her next pitch, she told a story about the time her team spent 90 sleepless nights to reach a seemingly impossible deadline for a high-profile client. The crux of her story was the clincher: Had her team missed the website relaunch deadline by one hour, her client would not have been able to effectively communicate to millions of people about a disaster that struck the company the next day.

To that client, the agency wasn’t just a vendor. They were heroes who kept their word against all odds.

Her new storytelling-based approach helped her agency land 70 percent of all new business pitches that year.

Storytelling can tap into the power of emotion

Stories are the best way to evoke emotion. And according to neuroscience, emotions play a huge role in decision-making.

When PepsiCo’s Indra Nooyi publicly made her business case for the company’s Performance With Purpose initiative, she knew data wasn’t enough to support her argument that corporations have a responsibility to be good global citizens. So she added a personal story of growing up poor in a village in India.

I watched large corporations build plants and use a lot of water,” she said. “But you can’t have a large corporation using excess water in a town where there’s no water to eat or drink or live.

Her story gave emotional heft to her argument and helped galvanize employees, partners, investors, and customers to fully embrace her initiative. Ten years later, Performance with Purpose is still going strong.

Another great example is Simon Sinek’s TED talk. To support his thesis about the power of “why,” he chose three memorable stories about great leaders. Would his Start With Why movement have been as successful if it were presented any other way? Probably not.

Stories have the power to inspire action

Great presenters have one thing in common: They know that delivering a great presentation isn’t about them. It’s about their audience.

One of my large corporate clients spent months on a keynote he was invited to deliver at a major technology conference. Five days before showtime, he panicked.

Will my material be interesting to everyone in the room?” he asked.

Forget trying to please everyone,” I told him. “Who do you most want to reach?

And then it clicked. He wanted to persuade startups to consider partnering with his company. So he scrapped his speech, focused his message, and found three compelling stories that illustrated why corporate partnerships are great for startups. He walked out on the stage not just with a great speech, but a tool to achieve his business objectives.

One way to put yourself in the shoes of your clients, partners or employees is to ask yourself: What do I want them to do immediately after hearing my presentation? I call it a “little action goal.” The best TED speakers do this extremely well. Simon Sinek encouraged us to find our why. Julian Treasure asked us to to do 6 vocal exercises before we say anything important.

Make your goal so simple that they can’t say no.

While TED has transformed the way business leaders think about storytelling, we still have a long way to go before we integrate it into our day-to-day communications. But once we start making the shift, we will see that stories are the best tools in the world to win the hearts, minds (and business) of clients, investors, partners and employees.

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