A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… No, actually it was in our galaxy, but still a long time ago. There was a time when people used stories to communicate with each other. They told stories when they spoke to friends, to share what happened the other day. They told stories to teach important lessons of life, to warn of dangers, to entertain. To carry a moral. Stories were also used in professional context while talking to potential prospects, selling, or working together through business opportunities. They served as the business narrative, helping to understand and making decisions. They were used in the social, personal and professional areas of life.

In most cases, nothing has changed. When you go to your mom, or meet someone you know well – you tell stories. You will still tell stories to your kids. You follow stories watching a movie or reading a good book. It’s stories, all the way, all the time. The only area where the story-telling tradition completely collapsed is, as you probably know from your own experience, the professional world. For a few decades, we have abandoned story-telling, in favor of the new-business-favorite jargon. See if this looks familiar to you:

  • KPI
  • ROI
  • SME
  • TCO
  • Effective %,
  • you name it…

Our Boring Reality

I am sure there was a time when it sounded smart. Now it mostly sounds boring. These terms and jargon have its place of course. But what if it’s all that’s left?

New people are entering the professional world everyday, in for a shock, that they need to learn this lingo. And they do. They adapt. They follow the rules. Nothing wrong about it. It is useful for sure. It speeds ups communication. It’s efficient. But…

Then some point they will go to deliver a presentation and, sure, they want to sound smart. They want to belong to the professional world. So they load their slides and speaker notes with these clichés. And they think they are doing well. The audience smiles, of course. They are too, part of this scheme. They’ve been told that data is professional. Stories? Suit up son, be professional.

Their brains are wired to pay attention to something else than spreadsheets and data alone.

But deep down inside, everyone in this scene suffers. The audience suffers because they are not enjoying it. They are bored. Their brains are wired to pay attention to something else than spreadsheets and data alone. The presenter suffers too, because he cannot allow himself to communicate in a natural way. It’s hard to admit. After all, they are all living in the same story-deprived professional reality. Maybe that’s all they know?

Luckily for the tormented business audiences, effective use of story-telling is having its big comeback. Story-telling is everywhere. It’s trendy. And it’s funny how we now have to hire consultants to teach us back one of the most basic abilities of human kind.

Bottom line. The world is changing (or making a full circle). It is again OK to use stories in business context.

In fact, it’s a must.

How to access their brains

In a 2010 Princeton University experiment they recorded one guy telling a story, while his brain was connected to an MRI. Later, this recording was presented to 11 other people, who also had an MRI apparatus on their heads. Guess what happened?

The brain activity patterns of the person telling a story and audience, were almost identical. The listeners’ brains, mimicked the activity of the speaker. In other words, as the speaker was utilizing all aspects of a good story, describing what he saw, what he heard, how he felt, what he smelled – the audience reacted by visualizing, hearing, feeling or even, smelling the same things. They were engaged and curious. They had a very clear picture of what the speaker was communicating. It materialized in front of them, even that it was not there.

They were in this story together.

We can contrast this with what we know of brain activity when receiving pure data and facts, like for example KPIs and their interpretation. Then, only minor part of the brain is activated. What do you want? How would you prefer your audience to engage with your words? With all of their brain power or just small part of it?

How to nail your next presentation

By know you should have guessed it. Use stories. Good stories remove barriers in communication, they suck people in. They make the listener comfortable and open to your communication. They turn abstract, difficult to understand concepts, into concrete, realistic, real life examples. Stories beat pure data at every front.

Good stories remove barriers in communication, they suck people in.

When to tell a story?

So when do you tell a story? Whenever you want. As long as it serves a purpose.

  1. In the beginning. Introduce yourself briefly (you don’t want to talk about yourself too much) and immediately start your story. There is a good reason why it works – it grabs attention. You will get guaranteed attention as the listeners’ brains will engage into a synchronization, utilizing their full brain power.
  2. Close with a story. Bring a powerful message that will stick with them as they leave the room. When you are about to end, you will enjoy almost 100% of your audience attention due to the hammock effect. Use it to plant a powerful, sticky story into their brain that conveys your key take away. They will remember your speech for a long time.
  3. Do both. A great tactic is to open the presentation with a story that sets the scene, develops curiosity and leads the audience into the main part. Then, as you finish you get back to your story and provide a striking take-away, which will ring in their heads for hours and days.

Make it Personal

To turn it up even more, use personal ones. Here you will get a bonus – increased likability. We recognize that we mostly hear stories from people we like and care for us. Everyone has, deep inside, a memory of their family member, telling them a story when they were little. We naturally associate positive feelings with people who share stories with us.

Personal stories increase this likability even further. If we know someone well, we tend to like them more (by contrast, we are afraid of the unknown). Telling a personal story plays into this tendency. After all, is there a better way to let people know you than by telling an interesting, personal and emotional story?

Make it Relevant

One key thing. The story has to be relevant. The magic trick is to find, create or bend a story you already know to match the theme or big idea of your presentation. Otherwise, all the brain syncing will go to waste, as they will not be able to connect the story with your key points. Stories are meant to be retold. You don’t need to be a writer. Just tell or expand on a story you have already heard and make it fit to your idea. You will get their full attention from the start.

Is Data Bad?

No, of course not. If we all only speak in stories it would be difficult to move things to a conclusion. But it has become overwhelming as it is now. Rene Brown in her TED speech said that “stories are data with a soul”. Instead of delivering straight facts, weave them in a story. Introduce a hero, give him a name. Take the audience through his hero journey. His ups and downs. Finally, arrive at the moral of the story, which serves as a platform to expand on your core idea.

And then talk about data.

It’s 2016. It’s OK to tell stories in business settings. You will not be labeled as non-professional. And your audience is going to love you for it.

Now I want to know from you:

  1. What stories do you use in your presentations? Have a good example?
  2. How does the audience like them?

Leave a comment now.

Wojciech is a trainer, teacher and life-long learner on the topic of effective communication. He believes that speaking clearly, effectively and with confidence is essential to our success and taking advantage of all life’s opportunities. READ MORE