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The Art of Storytelling

By Jody Bruner

February 26, 2024

Communication Skills, Presentation Skills, Writing Skills

The Art of Storytelling - wavelength_the_art_of_storytelling_blog_hero_1_em_240223
The Art of Storytelling - wave-lime-green-1260x540-1
The Art of Storytelling - wave-lime-green-1260x540-1

“If you don’t grab your audience’s attention within the first thirty seconds,” writes Akash Karia, author and international keynote speaker, “they’ll mentally tune out.”

Let’s see if he’s right. Which opening grabs your attention fastest?

  • Here’s an example of why punctuation is important. Look at this paragraph and now compare it with the next paragraph. See the difference? Isn’t it amazing how just changing the punctuation make such a difference?
  • Once upon a time, in an office just like this one, Sheila noticed the new guy who’d just started working there. Tom was hot, no two ways about it. Sheila admired him from afar for a few weeks and then, after the office holiday party, decided to act on it: she sat down at her computer and sent him this email… but she’d had a few Piña Coladas by then and forgot to add the punctuation. So you have to do that for her: add the punctuation to her love letter to Tom.

Both introduce a unit on punctuation in a business writing course, but the second one opens with a story that we use to show, not tell, the importance of punctuation. By demonstrating how the same string of words can mean the opposite by changing the punctuation alone, we let our participants find out why punctuation matters for themselves – and we engage their interest with a juicy office-gossip story that goes along with the letter they’re about to read.

It’s an effective presentation strategy because humans are story creatures (what happened next with Sheila and Tom?) Telling stories is the oldest form of knowledge-keeping. Humans used oral stories to pass information and wisdom to future generations. We also understand business concepts best when they’re woven into the context of a story because they engage our emotions, which makes those concepts “sticky” enough to remember.

Effective communicators know that stories are the original viral tool: when we hear a good story, Who can I tell it to? is often our first thought, because stories also connect us. What’s your story? has become a mantra in contemporary business life for a reason.

How do business professionals harness the strengths of storytelling for effective communication? Here are the foundations.

First, recognize when stories are useful

Identify a context that lends itself to storytelling:

  • When explaining complex ideas
  • When your audience is skeptical and you need to convince them
  • When you want to stand out from the competition

Next, find the right story to illustrate your point

You don’t need an office-gossip kind of story to connect with your readers. You do, however, need to:

  • Consider your audience—what will resonate best?
  • Identify the message you want to get across and distill it
  • Select a story that supports that message
  • Anchor the story with your own experiences
  • Select vivid details that make the story come alive when you tell it

Finally, resist the temptation to make yourself the hero

Showing the difficulty that needs to be overcome is an essential element of a compelling story. “One of the main reasons we listen to stories is to create a deeper belief in ourselves,” says Jonah Sachs, author of Winning the Story Wars. “But when the storyteller talks about how great they are, the audience shuts down.”

Telling a story about yourself in a vulnerable moment engages readers and listeners because struggle is a universal human experience. Hearing about the struggles and later triumphs of others helps us believe we, too, might overcome our challenges.

Show both the struggle and how you overcame it and you’ll have your audience right there with you, on the edge of their seats, waiting to hear what comes next.

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