In this article, Jamie explains how storytelling impacts our communication and introduces a simple framework for applying storytelling at work.

Why is Storytelling Important in the Workplace?

The first time I introduced the idea of storytelling to a group of engineers, I was met with cold stares and a very blunt “Why should we use storytelling?” Their challenges made me realise that not everyone can see the benefits of storytelling (especially engineers!) So, the next time I introduced the idea of storytelling to a group of engineers I decided to show them the impact storytelling can make, so let me show you.

Have a look at this list of facts and statistics and note how you feel as you are reading through:

  • In 1960 the world population was 3 billion people.
  • At that time the industrialised world had 1 billion people, and the
  • developing world had 2 billion.
  • The industrialised world was healthier and wealthier than the developing world and had a disposable income and a higher quality of life.
  • The developing world had far less disposable income and a much lower quality of life.
  • The world is no longer like that.
  • Between 1960 and 2010 an extra 4 billion people were added to the
  • world population.
  • By 2010, the developing world had an even higher disposable income and quality of life.

Whenever I show this to people, most of them comment that it’s quite dull, it’s difficult to remember and that it doesn’t really mean anything to them. So, I show them a TED Talk by Hans Rosling, where he presents exactly the same facts and statistics in exactly the same order, but using storytelling techniques. Have a look at the TED Talk yourself, you can just watch the first 3 minutes.

When watching those facts and statistics presented in this way, suddenly it becomes much more interesting, memorable and meaningful. And the only difference is that Hans Rosling is using storytelling techniques to present them.

This is the ultimate purpose of using storytelling in the workplace: to make meaning.

 

Using Storytelling to Make Meaning in the Workplace

Whenever you have an important message you need to communicate, an important stakeholder you need to influence, or an important change you need to inspire, you will need to make meaning.

And something I’ve noticed throughout my 12 years in Leadership Development, having worked with thousands of leaders in over 170 multinational companies, is that anyone who is recognised as a leader is skilled at making meaning. As a leader, it’s essential that you can communicate important messages with impact, influence your stakeholders and inspire change.

It is ultimately storytelling that makes the difference between a leader and someone who’s just good at their job.

 

How do you tell Stories?

The best storytellers are not just good at telling stories. Even more importantly, they’re good at collecting stories, much like a photographer isn’t just good at taking photos, they’re good at spotting opportunities for photos.

They recognise a simple principle: every story is about change.

A story is never about life as normal, it’s always about something changing. A story doesn’t sound like “This morning I woke up, got on the subway, went to work…”, instead it sounds more like this: “This morning, I woke up, got on the subway… But then the subway broke down”. Now there is a change, there is a story.

And this is the key to finding great stories to tell; notice the moments of change in your life. Minor changes or major changes, any change is a storytelling opportunity. Maybe you just moved house or had a baby, or maybe your car broke down on the way to work, or you overcooked your dinner. Wherever there is a change, there is a story.

Once we’ve become good at noticing the moments of change in our life, we can start to find lots of stories to tell.

So then, once we’ve found a story, how do we tell it?

Well, here is another simple principle: a story is a sequence of meaningful moments.

Pay close attention to the next movie you watch and you’ll notice that EVERY moment is meaningful. There are no random or insignificant details. Every moment is meaningful. And when we have many meaningful moments presented in a sequence, we then have a story.

So, what sequence of meaningful moments should we follow?

When I was writing my book “The Story Habit” this was exactly the question I was looking to answer, in as short and practical a way as possible. My entire career has been in a corporate environment, working with people who expect communication to be fast, concise and to the point. They don’t have time for you to turn your next monthly report into some fantasy story about a hero.

I set about finding answers to this question.

I did a lot of reading and experimenting. And whenever I got an idea, I’d write it down and then try it out in my next workshop. Some ideas fell flat whereas others stuck. Then one day I looked at all the ideas that had stuck so far and thought of how best to arrange them. From out of nowhere the idea “Relate, Challenge, Resolve” came to my mind, and I thought I’d try it out at the next workshop. I did, and people got it instantly, and ever since I’ve found people continue to just get it; I’ve found several other applications as well.

 

Storytelling: Relate, Challenge, Resolve

Here’s how “Relate, Challenge, Resolve” works:

  • Every story is about a character in a situation the audience can relate to.
  • That character then meets a challenge.
  • They then try to resolve the challenge.

In the relate part, our goal is to immerse the audience in the story by presenting details they recognise and can understand, as well as a character they can empathise with. In the challenge part, our goal is to create an emotional reaction in the audience by presenting them with a challenge they don’t know how to solve. In the resolve part, our goal is to help the audience learn how to resolve that challenge.

By using this framework, we can build our stories by looking for meaningful moments that help the audience:

  • relate to the story
  • feel the pain of the challenge
  • learn how to resolve the challenge.

Look at any story and you’ll see this basic sequence in action.

 

Storytelling: Disney’s The Lion King

One example I’ve found most people have seen is The Lion King.

It starts by presenting Simba, a young Lion Prince who one day will be King. OK, we’re not lions, but we can relate to Simba because he’s a child with dreams of the future and parents and other older people who keep telling him what to do, things we can all relate to.

As we start to empathise with Simba and feel the excitement of his dreams of becoming King, suddenly his father is killed, and his dreams are in ruin. Now we feel the pain of the challenge he’s been thrown into.

At the end of the story, he discovers it was his mean Uncle who killed his father to take the throne – so Simba decides to return to his kingdom and fight his Uncle for the throne. Finally, we learn how Simba resolves the challenge.

This, in essence, is how stories work: look out for moments of change. Then, present moments of that change the audience can relate to, to immerse them in the story. Next, present moments that show the challenge that change caused, so the audience can feel the pain of the challenge. Finally, present moments that show how the challenge was resolved so the audience can learn something from the story.

 

How do you make Stories more Interesting?

Structuring stories is one thing, but making the stories interesting is a whole other thing.

Think of “Relate, Challenge, Resolve” as the protein, vegetables and staple of any meal. It’s essential, but on its own, it’s a bit bland. We need some flavouring to bring it to life, so let me introduce what I call “The 3 Ingredients of Stories”.

 

The 3 Ingredients of Stories

The 3 Ingredients of Stories are the techniques we use to bring the details to life. I love them because not only can they make your stories more interesting, they can also be used on their own to help you communicate with more impact even if you’re not telling a story.

The 3 Ingredients of Stories are:

  1. ‘Show, Don’t Tell’

Have you ever noticed that when you read a great novel, you’re not just reading words on a page, the words are creating movies in your mind? That’s because great storytellers show you the details instead of telling you them.

In novels, the way they do this is by using vivid language. They describe things you can easily imagine with your senses, such as images, sounds, scents, tastes and feelings. Instead of telling you “The man was angry”, they’d paint a picture by describing “He slammed his laptop on the floor and stormed out the room”. With such vivid details, they don’t need to tell you he was angry, you can see it for yourself.

Vivid language is not the only way of using ‘show, don’t tell’. You can also give examples. Whenever you are presenting an idea and you make a point, back it up with an example that helps bring your point to life. Your example could be a story, or it could even be a simple vivid description.

An even more effective use of ‘show, don’t tell’ is to actually demonstrate things to people. This is what Yoga instructors do really well. They don’t just stand at the front of the room and tell people what to do, they actually demonstrate the poses for you. This way, if you aren’t sure how to perform the pose, you can look at what the instructor is doing and try to copy them.

But probably the most effective use of ’show, don’t tell’ is to provide experiences. In my opinion (and experience!), this is the most powerful form of persuasion. This is what Apple started doing many years ago whenever they released a new product; they’d put loads of them on display in their stores so you could come over and try them. What better way to decide if a product is suitable for you than to actually experience using it?

  1. Analogies and Metaphors

Analogies and metaphors are like bridges to the unknown; they connect your idea that the audience isn’t familiar with, with an idea the audience is familiar with.

For example, a long time ago my wife and I bought a laptop for my wife’s mother to watch movies on. After a few months, the laptop became very slow, so she asked us what was wrong with it. A quick check and it turned out the hard drive was full because she wasn’t deleting the movies after she’d used them. So, I told her “The hard drive is full”, to which she responded, “What’s a hard drive?”

Explaining what a hard drive is to my Chinese mother-in-law is quite a challenge. She comes from a generation that grew up depending on food tokens to survive so doesn’t have much experience with technology. But thankfully I was able to find an analogy she could relate to:

“A hard drive is like a fridge. You know how when you go to the vegetable market every week you then need somewhere to store the vegetables when you get back home, so you put them in the fridge? Well, it’s the same with a hard drive. Whenever you download a movie, you need somewhere to put it, so it gets stored on a hard drive. And when you have too many vegetables in the fridge it takes ages to find the older vegetables. And again, when you have too many movies on the hard drive it can take ages for the hard drive to find anything. So, just like a fridge, we need to empty our hard drive every so often.”

And just like that, she understood what a hard drive was.

Analogies and metaphors are really powerful communication tools, and are especially useful techniques for explaining new ideas to audiences in a quick way. The key is to use analogies and metaphors the audience can relate to. So, think of what your audience knows really well and use that. And a little trick, if you can’t think of a good analogy or metaphor, try to think of something nature-related, because every audience understands nature (we are nature after all!)

  1. Contrast

If I told you “Last month I sold 143 units” then you’d probably say, “So what?!” But if instead I told you “Last month we sold 143 units but on average we sell 6 units a month” you’d suddenly be interested, because now there’s a contrast there’s a story.

Contrast is an incredibly subtle yet powerful communication technique. By contrasting one thing with another you create a space for meaning to emerge, within which are endless opportunities for stories. The space between 6 units and 143 units is a story of how we sold more, a story that any audience interested in the sale of these units will be extremely interested in hearing.

And if you think about it, every story is made up of countless contrasts. A scene is an entire contrast between the beginning and end. Different characters have traits, beliefs and worldviews that contrast with one another creating all sorts of interesting dialogues and experiences for them. And even the characters themselves contrast throughout the story, starting the story in one way and finishing in a completely different way.

Facts and statistics in isolation are completely meaningless. But the moment you present them in contrast with something else is the moment they gain meaning, making contrast a fantastic tool to add to your communication tool kit.

Storytelling in the Workplace: Building a Story Habit

Why do I call my business The Story Habit?

Because I designed this storytelling framework to help people build habits they could use to bring more meaning to everyday conversations. In my coaching, workshops and online course I show you the different ways we can apply these frameworks, and in my book, I introduce 16 habits we can build to help us master these frameworks and improve our communication skills.

My favourite habit is a very simple habit that forms the foundation for storytelling abilities and that is quite simply: notice change.

Every time something changes in your life, pay attention to it, because there’s a story there. It doesn’t matter if it’s a minor change or a major change, there’s a story to tell right there in that change.

And then, the next time you have an opportunity, you can share that story. Maybe it’s a conversation with a colleague, maybe it’s when you’re giving an example in a meeting, or maybe to try and explain a new idea to a customer.

As you share it, remember to share a sequence of meaningful moments, starting with moments the audience can relate to, followed by moments that help the audience feel the pain of the change and finishing with moments that help the audience learn how the change was resolved. As you get into the details of the story, try to show instead of tell, use analogies and metaphors, or use contrast to bring those details to life.

The first time you tell a story is never the best version. Your audience will give you feedback in the form of eye contact (or a lack of it), their facial expressions and how they respond to the story. This tells you what sticks with them and what doesn’t. And based on that feedback you can improve your story for the next time you share it.

Before you know it, you’ll have a pool of stories ready to take out at a moment’s notice and use to communicate with impact, influence your stakeholders or inspire change.

And it all starts with that one simple habit of noticing change.

 

——

 

If you found this article useful, then check out my free storytelling template. You can also check out my YouTube channel for further explanations on the above, my online course available on Udemy or my book. And if you’d like me to help you with your storytelling then email me.