storytelling in a barn

Storytelling has become the new strategic business tool of presenters to change attitudes, mind-sets and behaviours. In a world where professionals are overwhelmed with information and demand for our attention is at an unprecedented high we can all take solace in a good story well told.

This weekend marks the end of National Storytelling Week, an opportunity to reflect on the greatest art form enjoyed by mankind for thousands of years. If you pause to reflect for a moment, it’s easy to see that our entire lives revolve around stories.

If you still believe that stories are the domain of the 4 year old at bed time or the war veteran reflecting on the sacrifices of war you are mistaken; everything is a story. Whilst you are at work this week and are called on to attend the quarterly update or project review presentation ask yourself what you remember. Is it the long list of facts, numbers, statements and assertions or is it that one short, powerful story which gave everything meaning.

I first realised the irresistible power of storytelling in a very profound way for myself over 25 years ago. The insurance company I worked for at the time in London had launched a joint venture with a life assurance company in Japan. Having spent 18 hours travelling door to door to play my small part in ensuring the success of the venture, within moments of arriving at my hotel in Japan I had an epiphany with a rubber duck.

The experience itself was so surreal and profound that when I returned home to London a few weeks later I found myself sharing the story at a business conference to hundreds of staff. The very next day, two members of my team came to see me completely separately each holding a small rubber duck which they offered me as a gift in remembrance of my story.

It didn’t stop there.

This continued for not only weeks and months but for years. For as long as I can remember every time someone went on holiday and saw an unusual looking rubber duck they remembered my story and brought it home for me.

My duck story reached way beyond the desire it clearly created for so many people to feel compelled to bring one to my office. It was a story which was instrumental in playing its own small part in turning an ailing business completely round.

There are so many different types of stories to be told in business presentations which can change attitudes, mind-sets and behaviours.

Here are just a few of my personal favourites.

1. Values based stories

Sometimes your audience will want to know exactly what you stand for, what you believe in and what makes you who you are as an individual or business.

Shortly after launching Mindful Presenter I responded to an enquiry from a financial services organisation who was interested in Mindful Presenter crafting a series of presentation skills workshops for their organisation. The opportunity sounded like a very exciting one as the idea was that we would begin working with the executive team first and then continue through to the rest of the business.

As a key part of our development work in ensuring that we tailor a fully bespoke training experience for our clients we send each of the delegates an online skills profile questionnaire to complete. On this occasion the very first questionnaire was completed by the most senior person in the organisation who would be attending the first workshop, the managing director. One of the key questions asked in the questionnaire was:

‘What would you like your audience to feel the moment you have finished speaking?’

The executive’s response to this very important question was:

‘I don’t care, as long as they do exactly what I tell them to do’

If you have been following our blogs, are familiar with our website or have any real knowledge of Mindful Presenter at all you will know that we exist to help people to connect with others emotionally as well as intellectually. In fact, everything we think, say, share and do in our business revolves around helping people to feel something.

As you can imagine reading such comments from a senior executive was extremely disturbing for me personally and of course created an instant conflict. As a new business we were not in a position to turn business away especially one which offered the promise of a long term relationship. On the other hand, Mindful Presenter was created with very clear and very specific values and this comment flew in the face of everything we stood for.

On the basis that it felt clear to me that this particular executive needed leadership training rather than presentation skills training I politely declined to work with him or his organisation. On reflection it wasn’t that difficult a decision at all once we reminded ourselves exactly what we stood for.

Do you have a values based story your audience needs to hear to influence their attitude, mind-set or behaviour?

2. People matter stories

Have you ever noticed that sometimes in business we make people do things they don’t need to do or shouldn’t do which offers no value but we still make them do it?

I was recently coaching a senior executive of a very high profile and successful global brand who came to me to help him to become ‘more engaging’ whilst presenting. It was clear at the outset that there were a number of issues revolving around his delivery which required serious attention yet interestingly one of the biggest issues was his content.

When it comes to content one of our core philosophies at Mindful Presenter is that everything you say, show or do when presenting to any audience must be completely relevant to them. On this occasion given the complexity and detail of some of his content I challenged the executive on its relevancy to the entire audience he was presenting to. He very quickly and surprisingly volunteered the fact that his content was not at all relevant to at least 30% of his audience.

Shocked by his response I challenged him as to why on earth he would insist on presenting information he in full knowledge was clear is of no value or interest to at least a third of his audience. His response was equally disturbing, ‘we’ve always done it that way’.

Do you have a story about something being done that you know shouldn’t be done?

3. Spark action stories

Quite often you only need to make it clear to someone that others are doing something that they should or shouldn’t be doing and it sparks the action required to drive change.

During our presentation skills training workshops one of the very first areas we discuss is what exactly has and hasn’t changed in the world of public speaking and presenting over the last 30 years.

It makes for a very interesting discussion.

I often share a scenario I have recently seen in observing the management team of a multi-billion dollar organisation present to each other in their monthly updates.

Imagine this:

A large oval mahogany board table with 10 senior managers comfortably seated around it in large leather chairs.

At one end of the board table a huge screen drops down from the ceiling.

At the same end as the screen and projector sits a laptop which each of the senior managers takes it in turn to use.

Each manager presents their update by facing the screen and reading every single word from the slide to their 9 colleagues around the board table. Throughout their presentation they do not remove their eyes or attention from the screen once and make no attempt whatsoever to engage with their audience in any way.

At the end of each presentation the presenter asks if there are any questions and the only person who has some is the most senior person in the room who just so happens to be sitting opposite the presenter.

This is a very real story I tell and each time I do so it becomes clear immediately just how many people can relate to it. Even at this very early point in the day people are seeing the need for action without being taught anything at all.

Do you have a story that sparks action?

4. Child insight stories

Despite their age our children often carry enormous wisdom and offer extremely valuable stories for us to share. One of my personal favourites was the catalyst for me immersing myself in presentation and public speaking skills many years ago.

My son is all grown up now and working but I still remember his very first day at school. He sat with his mother and I in the front row of the assembly hall listening to his headmaster give his talk about what we could all expect for the next 7 years. Less than 10 minutes into the headmasters speech Reece looked up at his mother and I with a tear in his eye and said ‘Daddy this story is giving me a headache, what time will it finish’?

It occurred to me in that very moment that the headmaster was also giving me a headache. Worse still I realised that after the morning assembly I would be back at work listening to professional after professional giving me another headache in the form of a presentation. As if that wasn’t bad enough I recognised that I would probably be doing exactly the same to fellow colleagues.

My son made me realise then, all of those years ago that there must be another way to present your ideas and that ‘connecting is everything’.

Do you have a story from your family that others can learn from?

5. Stories about motivation

Many business presentations are designed to motivate, influence or inspire change or action in some form. When that’s the case it seems to me that the most powerful story you could tell is the one that motivated or inspired you the most. In my case it was conversation I had with one of my very first bosses some 33 years ago.

As a newly appointed supervisor I remember my boss telling me everything I would probably ever need to know about motivation. These were the words which have influenced my personal and professional life in countless ways for over 3 decades, he said:

‘Maurice, the only thing you need to know about motivation is this; the only people who need to be motivated are the people who can’t see a future and that’s your job now as a leader, to help them to see the future’.

Do you have a powerful story about what motivates you that may help others?

Storytelling isn’t something to be reserved exclusively for children at bedtime it has a huge and incredibly powerful place in business presenting. Life is in fact one continuous story and we owe it to our audience to stir their imagination with the short, relevant and compelling stories that make up ours.

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