I love stories. Writing, reading, listening to them. And of course, sharing them. We all have our personal favourite storyteller (mine is Walt Disney), writer (Maria Popova’s name comes to mind) and marketer who knows how to get their content in front of everyone (Gary Vaynerchuk does this wonderfully). The messages given out by the best storytellers are heard, which is why it is such a powerful technique. When it comes to telling stories in a business context though, things can get tricky.
Storytelling for business is not a new concept anymore. At least not new enough in the sense that business leaders don’t need to be convinced of the impact it can create. They know it. They use it. Every single day. We all understand that technical-jargon filled product demos can be improved upon by using scenarios that a potential client is going to face and demonstrating how the product eases the client’s life in that scenario. We can ditch bullet-dominated slide presentations in favour of narrating inspiring personal anecdotes. And yet, one might slip up during a meeting or a keynote because something like storytelling, which should come to us naturally, becomes an act, and worse, it shows.
Here are 12 storytelling mistakes we tend to make in a business setting that can rob a story of its power.
Mistake #1: Announcing that you are about to tell a story
Have you ever been guilty of announcing the start of your story with, “Let me tell you a story”? What kind of reaction is it likely to elicit? “Okay, this is going to get boring now”. Or worse, “No, not another story!” Stories told in a business setting need to be more subtle than that. You need to get into the storytelling mode without attracting attention to it. The trick to starting a story is to not mention the s-word. If you want to keep your audience’s attention, don’t tell them that a story is coming up next. Even if the story is entirely true, there is something about the word that connotes ‘fiction’ or ‘made up’ or ’not really important’. Instead, dive in with, “Something happened in a client workshop the other day and it’s going to affect our business”. Now you’ve got your audience riveted and they are all ears, wondering, “what happened?”
Mistake #2: Forgetting that the hero is the customer, not you
I bet you already know that. Yet, how many stories have you heard that demonstrated how a product or a company helped a client out of a sticky situation? It inevitably ends up being about you. You talk about how you offered a comprehensive set of features, how you helped the client overcome challenges, in turn defeating your own competitors, and how you saved the day. You end up using an effective technique like storytelling to talk about the wrong things. You are not supposed to be Frodo who saves all humanity (and elves and dwarves and hobbits). You are supposed to be Gandalf, the mentor, the experienced one who guides Frodo (the hero, the customer), to his eventual goal. You are not the hero of the story. Your customer is. They are the ones with a mission that they are working very hard to accomplish. And you are there to act as their mentor.
Mistake #3: Guessing about the audience
How well do you understand your audience? And not just who they are or which firm they belong to, but their motivations, aspirations and challenges? When you tend to focus on your story, you may end up assuming things about your audience, which can be a grave mistake. Storytelling is as much about leaving a concrete message as it is about the narration technique. It is important for you to get data about your audience’s preferences and behaviour. You also need to get feedback from them. It’s the only way of articulating messages that have value to your audience and which will ultimately lend value to your stories.
Mistake #4: Not going deep enough
It’s called storytelling for a reason. Sure the plot matters but how you tell it matters so much more, which is why you need to take your time when telling it. Just rushing in and out of it is not going to help get your point across. A story needs its characters, and the characters need to grow on the audience enough for them to relate themselves. Sometimes, in a desire to interest a wider audience, we fail to go deep enough and that can rob a story of its essence.
Mistake #5: Giving out too much information
As far as a business story is concerned, there is a thing as too much information. Your story needs characters and descriptions and a dollop of suspense, but they are not meant to entertain your teammates or your potential buyers. Business stories are told to demonstrate a point and more importantly, to get the audience to act. While depth is important (as mentioned in the previous point), there has to be a proper structure that follows a ‘situation – impact – resolution – results’ route. Also, it is worth remembering that an over-reliance on data is not always a good thing as they are dry and hard to relate to on a personal level. Details are wonderful but one needs to be careful that they don’t stand out so starkly that they end up detracting the audience from the story.
Mistake #6: Not presenting a conflict in the narrative
A story doesn’t exist without conflict. There has to be a reason why everything didn’t happen perfectly in the first place. A conflict is your character’s Mount Everest, the one he has to scale, and for which he needs all the training and tools and equipment which he can get (which, as it turns out, can be provided by you). When there is a conflict in a story it keeps your audience’s attention and maintains the flow of the narrative. But more than that, it shows how change and growth happens. Which is what your audience is looking to learn after all.
Mistake #7: Hiding failures in order to appear successful
It’s easy to talk about one’s achievements. It is a lot more challenging to be open about failures though. Yet, one of the things that make stories so relatable is that the audience can hear the weaknesses and conflicts contained in a story and think, “this is exactly what happened to me!” When you tell someone of the difficult circumstances you encountered, how you failed and what you did to keep persevering, it lends greater authenticity to your speeches and presentations and builds trust with your readers or your listeners. Sharing stories that show vulnerability are not easy, but it is exactly this vulnerability that generates empathy in the audience and connects them to you.
Mistake #8: Blatantly promoting the company or its products
This is an extension to the point about you not being the hero of your own story. Since stories are meant to appeal to your audience, you must be subtle about commercial messages. Your focus in employing the storytelling technique must be to get an emotional response which results in action and ultimately translates into sales. In other words, show, don’t tell and definitely don’t sell!
Mistake #9: Not differentiating between a written story and a story told live from a stage
We don’t talk the way we write, do we? We fumble, stutter and use fillers. We don’t even use complete sentences when we talk sometimes. But a written script is polished, refined by repeated editing. Which is why if you learn a script by heart and narrate it that way on stage when your audience is seated right in front of you, it will feel artificial. A stage has an advantage over a screen – when you are on a stage you can engage with your audience in real-time. This is why stories told during a presentation or a workshop need to be conversational. While having a script beforehand is useful in deciding which points to cover, what questions to ask and what messages to leave the audience with, once you get into a live storytelling mode, be natural. Don’t talk the way you write.
Mistake #10: Forgetting to focus on why the story is worth recounting
Why are you telling a story? There has to be a “moral of the story is…”. Stories are there to challenge us. They are there to show us how heroes overcome obstacles, fight villains and undergo a transformation themselves. Open-ended stories can be entertaining for sure, but not when you are telling them in a business context. So don’t forget to close the story’s arc. More importantly, ask yourself, does your story have a recall value? Will it be remembered by your audience three months down the line? Will they still be telling it to their friends six months from now?
Mistake #11: Siloing the storytellers
Storytelling is being used by business leaders increasingly. But what about other people in an organisation or the different stakeholders of your company? Are your managers or your on-field sales representatives perpetuating the right stories? Are your business leaders telling stories only to have them trickle down into dry snippets by the time it gets in front of a prospective customer? It is important to remember that employees are storytellers too and by siloing them you may be missing out on a huge opportunity. Instead, if you educate and train your employees to become better and more confident in using storytelling as a technique, you will empower them too to engage with their audience better and focus on forging meaningful relationships instead of merely focusing on a transactional activity like selling.
Mistake #12: Believing it’s a one-time effort
This is an easy mistake to make, thinking that storytelling is just a one-time thing to be used when someone goes on stage to deliver a TED Talk. In fact, storytelling works better when it is infused into an organisation’s culture and is an ongoing process. It has to be a way of life, whether you are communicating externally with your prospects or the press, or internally with your own managers.
What other mistakes in business storytelling have you encountered? How can one avoid them? Tell me in the comments section below, I’m curious to know!