storytelling – the four steps


Geoff Nicholson – performance coach and presenter

I did an interview recently with the wonderful (and lovely) Geoff Nicholson for his podcast, talking about the new #ReluctantStoryteller project I’m working on. I’ve popped this into a quick video if you want to watch for three minutes instead of reading 馃檪 It’s a the bottom of this post.

Step zero

This is when you don’t use stories. Stories aren’t for you. Why? There are two options:

Caution note about your presentation
  • You might not like telling them for one reason or another
  • You might think your audience doesn’t like hearing them.

Both of those break into lots of sub-points of course, but that pretty much covers the basics. For example, you might not like telling stories because you have a ‘private’ personality, or because you don’t have the skills, or because you just don’t know any…

The thing is, we know stories work when it comes to having more impact, because they present information to audiences better in two ways – firstly it’s structured in a way they can access; and secondly it allows for more emotional engagement.

In short, if you can overcome your sense of being a reluctant storyteller, you should.

Step one – use personal stories

Almost inevitably, this is where nascent story-users start. After all, what could be a better source of expertise than your own experience? And it’s not a bad plan as far as it goes. For a start, it means

  • you’ll know the stories inside out
  • you’ve already decided the stories are important – because you’ve remembered them
  • there’s (almost) no chance of you accidentally breaking copyright or telling a story that someone else wouldn’t allow

That’s all good… but all is not perfect. I recently posted a pretty big review/rant/advice blog, about getting your story-matrix the wrong way around in your presentations. In short, if you’re telling your own stories the default position – particularly for novice or reluctant storytellers – is to over-tell the story and under-tell points the story is supposed to be making. In short the story becomes the end in itself… and it shouldn’t. (You can read that blog here: it’s pretty popular 馃檪

The solution is pretty simple. Think of your presentations as they would be without stories in them – get the content, then the structure and so on. Then, when you think about the design of the visuals (you do do it in this order, right… with the design last and separate? FFS!) think about using stories to support the point you’re making.

I’ll repeat – points, then stories in support. Not story-led.

Given that one of the biggest and most common problems with “step one storytellers” is that stories told about the presenter, by the presenter are alienating and irritating, the solution is obvious…

As an aside, I blogged here about why stories might not be working in some presentations.

step 2 – use other people’s stories

In an ideal world, of course, you’d use stories from the audience and about the audience… almost.

If you do that you risk being too challenging to the audience: what if the story is about a mistake, or in some way suggests that the audience has to change its behaviour. Let’s face it, that’s a big part of what presentations are supposed to do. (If you don’t challenge it can only be because nothing needs to change – in which case where’s the need for the presentation?!)

So instead of audience-based stories, let’s settle for stories the audience can readily, easily and obviously identify with. Use stories about people like the audience. The trick likes in finding the balance between something that’s not so close it puts your audience on the defensive but not so un-related they can’t see how it applies to them.

This is why parables are so effective. They aren’t directly threatening to the audience. After all, who could get offended by a story about a tortoise and a hair having a race?

Okay, okay, I’m overstating the simplicity of it all for the sake of making a point but I’m pretty sure you get the idea.

Of course, doing this is easier than me sitting here writing it, I get that! To (possibly) help, here are a few tips:

  • as a last resort, tell stories about yourself but tell them as though they were someone else
  • pick big corporations and organisations as example because everyone knows them
  • case studies that happened in other countries and/or other centuries can be conveniently non-threatening
  • keep them clean (usually)
  • case studies (anonymised) are a good example.

Step 3 – story zen

Let’s take the idea of using stories your audience can relate to. And let’s then add to it that the more personal it is the more impactful it is, generally. Subtract the fact that you don’t want to tell stories about the audience because it’s too “in your face” for most people. What’s the ultimate solution?

Tell stories about your audience without telling them out loud. Stay with me here.

The most impactful, subtle and personal of stories are those which your audience tells themselves (and each other). That can best be done inside their heads. After all, who can resist/deny something they’ve told themselves?

Of course, doing Zen Storytelling (I’ve just made that up) is potentially tricky for the obvious reason that you can’t get inside your audience’s head, but there are a number of ways that I’ve used in the past very successfully… as have the world’s top storytellers.

I can’t find the original credit for this pic – sorry!

For example Hemmingway is famous for a six word short story. (He didn’t write it but let’s run with it for now.)

For sale; baby shoes; never worn.

That’s not a story: that’s an advert.

The story is made up inside the audience’s heads, as they try to fill in the backstory of why someone would be selling baby shoes that have never been worn.

I call these ‘backstory stories’ for the obvious reason. Here are a few ways I’ve used them in the past (usually successfully, honest!)

  • asking questions about the journey to the event – with a follow up question about the answer. For example, if the answer is “By car” I’d follow it up with something about “And was it as hard for you folks to park as it was for me?”. Obviously I’d only do that if I’d already checked that parking was a grudge-issue for people in that organisation who were likely to be in my audience
  • putting an image on the screen (before my presentation starts) that shows something the audience recognise, such as the entrance to their office, but with – for example – lots of flowers in pots
  • showing a cartoon (paid for!) of someone in their working environment.

Video version!

I’ve popped this into a quick video if you want to watch for three minutes instead of reading 馃檪

So what’s your story?

Sorry, I couldn’t resist the pun.

Where are you on the storytelling stairway?

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