Based on experience, neurology, George Orwell and Will Storr’s The Science of Storytelling
Stories. They inspire us, they motivate us and they fill our life with colour. It’s stories that make us human. They’re also one of the most useful ways to communicate in a corporate setting.
I should know. Storytelling has been the basis of my career. I’ve developed speeches for politicians, ghost-written for top tech executives and crafted brand strategies across a multitude of industries. How did I get there? By sharing my experiences — my stories — on forums.
Here, I’m sharing what generations of brilliant story theorists, neurologists and scientists have come to know about storytelling. These are rules you can apply to your everyday presentations, blog posts and corporate communications.
Make your audience your protagonist
Maybe you’re building a presentation deck. Maybe you’re writing a blog post. Whatever the purpose, the medium matters less than the ultimate business storytelling rule: make your audience your protagonist. Always.
A good author understands their protagonist’s hopes, their goals, their pain points. Storytelling in a corporate context should be no different:
With every presentation you build, start with your audience. Identify their hopes, goals and pain points. Consider the context to their attendance. Ask yourself what their biggest problem is right now and do whatever you can to solve it.
Too often, we make the mistake that presenting to our boss or audience each week means we can use the same formula. Don’t. Create every communication with a real context. Ask yourself:
- What kind of work week may my audience have had so far?
- What one thing may make them feel a little calmer?
- What is their most pressing goal right now?
- And, again, what is their biggest problem right now and how can I help solve it?
View every piece of writing you put together through your audience’s eyes. Make every communication decision based on their intentions. Your audience is your hero. Relate to them with real understanding and empathy will result in their genuine attention.
Start with the ‘take and make’ framework
Ok, so you’ve got an understanding of your audience and where they’re at. Next, you need to write down your key intentions. Why? Because in an overstimulated, noisy world, it pays to be clear.
- What is the one, ultimate message I want my audience to take from this?
- What is the one, overarching action I want my audience to make after this?
It’s that simple. One message and one action. Any more and you’ll dilute it.
Take a Netflix approach to every presentation deck
It’s no secret that, as of 2019, the average human attention span is eight seconds. Shorter than that of a goldfish. For overstretched businesspeople, it’s probably even less. That’s why I’m a big believer in something I call The Netflix Effect when it comes to business communications:
- Be visual: ideally, no slide should be more than 30% words
- Think about timing: the sweet spot for a presentation is 25 minutes max.
- A prominent Google exec once told me that no sentence or bullet point should be longer than an old school, 140 character tweet. It works.
- Kill your darlings: that Steve Jobs quote has got to go. I’m sorry.
- …and most importantly:
Hook them in the first eight seconds. I call this the trailer effect: what’s your presentation or blog post’s trailer? Why should they keep listening and not go on their phones? Present the highlights at the beginning and you’ll have the command of the room. Spoiler alerts encouraged.
Humans, on average, pick up their phones 1,500 times a week. Give your audience a reason to keep theirs face down.
Talk to business people like people
This single lesson has defined my career to date: Business people are just people. In storytelling, this means talking to them as people. Ditch the corporate jargon, and speak as you would conversationally.
General rule: If you wouldn’t say it conversationally, don’t write it.
Listeners sense authenticity and if they don’t see it, they’ll reject the storyteller and disengage.
Use the Hemingway app for a steer on being clear
I use the Hemingway writing app every day.
It points out simpler adjectives, use of the passive voice and sentences that are hard to read. All you need to do is enter your selected text and, in return, you’ll receive a score on how ‘readable’ it is.
Make every sentence, every slide and every story have true intention
As Pulitzer Prize-winning director and playwright David Mamet said:
“Any scene that does not both advance the plot and standalone (that is, dramatically, by itself, on its own merits) is either superfluous or incorrectly written. Start, every time, with this inviolable rule; the scene must be dramatic. It must start because the hero has a problem, and it must culminate with the hero finding him or herself either thwarted or educated that another way exists.”
The same rules apply to business storytelling. Make sure every sentence and every slide has true intention.
Relate everything back to the people in the room
Now you’ve established yourself as a storyteller who
People talk a lot about striking an emotional connection with people in business, but it’s easier said than done.
Here are three practical ways to do so:
- Build common ground: avoid the use of I and, instead, opt for ‘we’ or ‘you’
- Get your audience nodding: identify key statements early on in any communication
- Create a conversation: ask your audience open questions. If you’re talking about branding, invite them to share their favorite brands of the year. If you’re sharing numbers, create an interactive exercise where each attendee guesses before something is presented.
People like to be a part of the stories. Create space. Create a discussion. I guarantee it will make you feel more at ease, too.
Change is endlessly fascinating to brains
Whether it’s a sixty-word tabloid piece or a 350,000 word epic such as Anna Karenina, every good story you’ll ever hear amounts to “something changed”. Change is endlessly fascinating to brains.
“Almost all perception is based on the detection of change. Our perceptual systems basically don’t work unless there are changes to detect. In a stable environment, the brain is relatively calm. But when it detects change, that event is immediately registered as a surge of neural activity.” — Neuroscientist, Professor Sophie Scott.
Practical terms: Could you start your next presentation with a statement about how your industry is changing? Could you start your next Medium post with a statement about how you’re changing?
Metaphors matter — get inventive with yours
Recent brain scans illustrate that metaphor is far more important to human cognition than has ever been imagined.
When participants in one study read the words “he had a rough day”, their neural regions involved in feeling textures became more activated, compared with those who read “he had a bad day”. This distinction works because it activates extra neural models that give the language of additional meaning and sensation. We touch the abrasiveness of the day.
“A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image. Avoid using that huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves.” — George Orwell
End with an awe-inspiring question
There should be a clear end to every business story.
Add magic to your story by leaving your audience with a sense of awe, the sort of feeling you get when you leave the cinema after a great film. You can do this by leaving them with a “big question” about humanity or something similar to ponder about as they make their way back to their hotel.
Brandon Anderson said it best:
“The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon.”
Bianca Bass helps top tech executives, best-selling authors, politicians, and startups tell their story in a more compelling way. She’s spoken on panels at Google, been featured in Forbes, and also held positions at some of the biggest names in tech and e-commerce including TripAdvisor, Selfridges and John Lewis.