Embracing Storytelling As Entrepreneurs
At The Power Of Bold, my goal is to speak with world-class guests on topics related to risk-taking, entrepreneurship, and bold living. We have spoken with journalists, professional poker players, entrepreneurs, and authors on topics like public speaking, decision-making, career choices, and networking.
That said, there’s one topic that I’ve wanted to discuss is storytelling.
It’s such an expansive topic, yet one that affects each and every one of us. Stories are foundational to human existence, yet it’s slightly different when we’re sharing stories in a professional environment. Often, you’re less rewarded for riffing or off-the-cuff remarks and more rewarded for prepared, well-thought-out stories that have an ultimate message.
To discover how we can best share our stories in a professional environment, I spoke with Dr. Murray Nossel, the co-founder of Narativ and the author of Powered By Storytelling: Excavate, Craft, and Present Stories to Transform Business Communication. He’s also the co-writer and co-performer of Two Men Talking, which has been performed in London and New York, and an Academy Award nominee for his documentary Why Can’t We Be A Family Again?
You can find my complete interview with Murray on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, or Stitcher.
Murray is an expert in his craft, so I recommend that you listen to the entire episode to hear a master storyteller at work. A highlight for me was his “origin story” on his work with AIDS patients in New York City. His tone of voice, pacing, and attention to detail show the sheer level of talent that Murray has a storyteller. You won’t be disappointed.
That said, as with prior episodes, I have collected some of the key insights from my conversation with Murray. While the best way to become a better professional storyteller is through practice, Murray offered some key advice to make that process a little easier.
The Listener is Vastly Underrated
When you think of storytelling, your mind may naturally focus on your story itself—the actual story you want to tell, specific plot points you want to emerge, and what you want your audience to take away from your story.
Granted, this is all important. But just as important to telling your story itself is listening.
It may seem counterintuitive on the surface, but clearly, without listening, the storyteller has no story. Even beyond that, listening shapes the storyteller’s story.
Murray compares listening to a bowl and storytelling as the liquid poured into the bowl. The listener shapes the story itself.
In other words, everything about the listener shapes your story, including the way that the listener sets up the environment for you to tell the story, verbal responses (such as “mmm-hmm” or “yes”) or body language (like nodding or a distracted gaze) during your story, interruptions during your story.
What does this mean?
For one thing, when telling a story, it’s important to pay special attention to your audience. It’s difficult to know what your audience truly wants (let alone what we ourselves want throughout our day), but preparation is critical. Do your best before the story to help the audience feel engaged when you actually deliver the story. Understand their objectives, motivations, and reasons for wanting to hear from you and your story.
Along with this, it’s critical to identify potential distractions and obstacles—like an uncomfortably warm or cold room—and do your best to minimize these obstacles before delivering your story. Technology is a big one, so do your best to ensure that your audience silences or turns off their cell phones when telling your story.
Listening is the red-headed stepchild of storytelling. That said, without listening, there is no storytelling.
It’s critical to acknowledge this fact and understand what is shaping the audience’s listening. By doing this, we are able to better capture the attention of our audience and become better storytellers.
Adopt the Legalistic View of Storytelling
There is no formulaic way to craft an awesome, compelling story, but there are certain rules that you must keep in mind.
One of the most important rules in Murray’s process can be summed up as follows:
In your story, emphasize specific sensory details. Omit your interpretations and opinions.
By specific sensory details, Murray means details that you can smell, taste, touch, see and hear. Dialogue is also a critical component to your story, as it further helps you transport the listener into the story that you’re telling.
Murray ultimately calls this his legalistic perspective on storytelling. Stories told in the sensory method are essentially delivering evidence to the listener. In other words, you’re acting like a trial lawyer, relying on specific evidence when making your case to the jury (your listeners).
Importantly, the legalistic perspective omits your interpretations and opinions about the facts.
In Murray’s mind, opinions—even passionate ones—are meaningless in storytelling. In fact, they kill stories.
Why is this?
By providing your own opinion or interpretation of your story, you are preventing your audience from developing their own opinion or interpretation. You are doing the hard work for them. And even so, there’s no telling that your interpretation would match your audience’s interpretation if they were given the space to work.
By contrast, by omitting these interpretations, your audience is more likely to be engaged with your story. In this process, they are developing their own or opinions or interpretations. They are mixing their own life experiences with your story, which ultimately helps you create a closer bond with your listeners.
Along with this, placing more emphasis on sensory details and dialogue over interpretations allows you to more easily distinguish your stories from others. Anyone can tell share their opinions about the daily occurrences of work or life.
Often, these opinions blend together.
But not everyone can share the specific details of your story. It’s your competitive advantage.
So next time you’re telling a story, try your best to emphasize the sensory facts and dialogue in your story. Focus on omitting your opinions or interpretations of your story—especially if those feelings are strong.
By acting like a lawyer and focusing on the details of your story, you are not only separating your story from others, but you’re building a stronger connection with your audience.
Answer “Why Story?” and “Why Now?”
Quite obviously, storytelling in a professional context is much different than storytelling in a bar or at a party.
They are two different skills.
There is a higher margin for error when telling your favorite story to your friends on a Friday night. The stakes aren’t that high.
By contrast, in business, you must be more strategic. You must be telling a story for a reason.
Therefore, before even speaking the first word of your story, Murray says that you need to answer the following questions:
- Why are you telling the story? In other words, what message do you intend to communicate to your listener?
- Why is now the moment to tell your story?
First, stories are powerful tools. We’ve been exchanging stories since the beginning of history. Murray even cites research in his book that humans are hard-wired for story.
Yet while we naturally seek out stories, it’s crucial to understand why we are telling our story in a professional setting.
What is our objective? What are we trying to accomplish?
For instance, before you attend a pitch meeting, you may anticipate that an investor will ask how you met your co-founders. While it may seemingly be an innocuous question, there is more to the story than simply sharing how you first met.
When answering this question with your story, it helps to think about what your team is trying to convey.
Are we trying to show off our history as our creators? Our passion for our startup’s industry? Something else?
By thinking through these details, we are better able to present our intended message and to better cater the story toward our listeners. As always, preparation is critical.
Along with “Why Story,” we need to be careful in choosing when to tell our stories. Again, this is another why the listener is so critical to storytelling.
Some instances are better than others.
For example, telling the story of how you and the co-founder had problems obtaining your Series A funding would be more appropriate in a discussion with a mentor and less appropriate when you are pursuing additional investors.
Common sense is the name of the game. That said, it’s important to actually think through “Why Now” before delivering your story. You don’t want to inadvertently share a story that will offend your audience or cause more damage to your cause in the long-run.
Again, you must be strategic. But completing this exercise will minimize unforced errors and will help you tell more effective stories.
Go Forth and Share
Storytelling is both science and art. There are certain elements that are absolutely critical to a story—like an emotional turning point and a proper resolution—but you have the power to shape your story according to your own needs.
Ultimately, the best way to get better at storytelling is through practice. Practice using sensory details and dialogue rather than interpretations or opinions. Practice crafting your story to fulfill your own objectives and to cater to the audience’s interests and goals. Practice your story selection skills.
Each of us has stories to tell and audiences that would like to hear our story. By getting out there and putting in the hard work, you increase the chances that you accomplish your intended objective, whether it is in your personal or professional life.
What’s there to lose?