Would you rather listen to dry statistics or a story? asks Chris Hirsch

As an Assistant, you have probably helped put together many important presentations over the years.  When you’ve listened to speakers delivering presentations you may have found them dull, fascinating or somewhere in between.  What makes the difference in how a listener responds to a presentation?  How can you help your Executive make the biggest impact with a presentation?

The Power of Stories

The great movie producer and storyteller Peter Goober reminds us that flip-charts, instructions, statistics, raw data etc. can provide information “…but stories have a unique power to move people’s hearts, minds, feet and wallets in the storyteller’s intended direction.”

Not only do stories help us make sense of the world, they can elevate our thoughts and make us believe (even if it is only for a moment) that anything is possible; it is no surprise that we all love stories!  This applies to employees in an organisation as well as to customers and suppliers.  Dry facts about a company product can be transformed into a compelling reason to buy with a well-chosen story.  Remember when Steve Jobs introduced the iPod he wove a story for consumers about having “1000 songs in your pocket”.

Finding and Shaping Stories

Assistants are well placed to be both told stories of what is happening in their organisations as well as to notice sometimes apparently small incidents which can be shaped into highly effective stories.  To be effective and influential a story needs to be put into a simple but powerful structure – one that has been proven to work over the centuries.  It’s the journey we see in fairy tales and fables from Beauty and the Beast to the Tortoise and the Hare, and business stories such as the triumph of Jobs and Wozniak when they started Apple.

The Story Structure

I prefer to construct the end of the story FIRST – it’s easier to start a journey if you know where you are headed.  Let’s take the example of a client who’s come to a financial adviser for help. I would paint a picture of how the client felt after you had helped them (the ‘…and they all lived happily ever after’ line).

  • Now go back to the beginning of the story and set the scene
  • Explain how you helped them realise that they had a problem
  • Describe how this problem was affecting them
  • Outline what the long-term consequences of inaction would have been
  • Explain the resolution – how you can help them with the solution
  • Explain how wonderful the client felt at the end of the journey and how much better the new Status Quo

There are some important points to remember to make your story really effective:

  • Make the client (or someone like them) the hero of the story
  • If the story is about another client, make sure the person you are telling will think “they are just like me”
  • Never make yourself the hero – it is their story, you are just the guide
  • You must include a pivot point, a moment of tension, without which you will not have a story

Practice Your Own Storytelling

Why not practice telling stories yourself and use them for a practical purpose? For example, if you want to solve a problem, construct a narrative around it – turn it into a story. Most problems involve other people so I challenge you to make them the hero of the story and make yourself the guide.

By doing this you are automatically looking at the situation from the other person’s point of view and trying to think how you can solve their problem. This can be a really refreshing and enlightening process.

Once you start thinking in stories the uses can be surprising and fun. Had a bad day? Structure it into a story and at least you will realise what made it so and where it all went wrong. If you have a good day, do the same. After a bit of practice, you will be able to do this in a couple of minutes – as you wait for the train or to cross the road. You will be amazed at the lessons you learn.

As you work with stories you’ll also be able to help other people in your organisation tell stories in a way which has impact:  stories with interest, tension and resolution.

Storytelling may seem like an old-fashioned tool – because it is! That’s what makes it powerful. A story can go where statistics cannot: our hearts.

Chris Hirsch is from Toastmasters International, a non-profit educational organisation that teaches public speaking and leadership skills through a worldwide network of meeting locations. Headquartered in Rancho Santa Margarita, California, the ... (Read More)

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