Storytelling in Business: How to Tell Engaging Stories
Storytelling expert Annette Simmons defines nonfictional storytelling as “experience reconstituted.”1 In other words, stories enable us to share and learn from one another’s experiences.
In “Storytelling in Business: How to Create Engaging Stories,” we covered the importance of storytelling as a skill leaders use in engaging internal and external audiences, as well as how to create stories that engage and inspire.
For a story to be truly engaging, it needs to be well-crafted and should be well-told.
How to Tell Stories in an Engaging Way
Consider the following advice to improve your performance as a storyteller:
Use metaphor, analogy, tangible imagery and the power of poetry.
Using concrete imagery makes your ideas more accessible and more memorable. Metaphors are an excellent tool for amplifying complex situations and processes. For example: Today’s smartphones are more like Swiss Army knives than one-trick-ponies.
Academic research even shows that people find phrasing that rhymes to be more persuasive. A bit of poetry can also delight your audience and demonstrate that you value them enough to have crafted your words with creativity and care.2
Let your authentic emotions show.
Part of what makes stories powerful is their ability to convey information and emotional content simultaneously. The capacity of storytelling to influence others rests mainly on the authenticity and credibility of the storyteller. When the storyteller shares and exhibits their point-of-view and passions, they enhance the audience’s emotional impact.
Being vulnerable in front of an audience is not easy. The trust a storyteller demonstrates in being vulnerable builds confidence in the storyteller and their message’s integrity.3
Learn to use your voice as a musical instrument.
There is no more extraordinary musical instrument than the human voice. Our voices combine words, tone, pitch, melody, volume, information and emotion in song. Sometimes we forget to use our voice as an instrument when telling a story.
Even if you are not a great singer, you can learn to use pacing, pauses and volume for a more significant impact when you speak. Changing your vocal pace can help your audience experience the excitement, tension or other emotions you seek to convey. Intentional pauses can either create space for a listener to feel the impact of your words or to build anticipation for the next twist-and-turn in your narrative.
Tell your story with your body.
Great storytellers navigate physical space with their presence. They use their bodies to show what the protagonist is experiencing or to model their reactions to the situation they are describing. In weaving their tales, hands are used to trace steps on the journey or show tall mountains’ size.
Stepping toward a portion of the audience increases engagement through proximity. Facial expressions, especially the eyes, portray the emotions experienced by a character. Even in virtual environments, body language is critical, with those elements visible on the screen becoming elevated in their relative importance.
Read your audience and react to their experience.
Transforming your speech into an actual dialogue is an advanced skill. For many speakers, maintaining eye contact to be available to their audience is a significant enough challenge on its own. However, as that skill matures, maintaining eye contact takes a lighter cognitive load on the speaker’s part, allowing them to read the audience better.
Do listeners seem excited or confused? If they are confused, this may indicate that you are speaking too quickly and should slow down. Do listeners look enthralled or bored? If they look bored, move closer to them or vary your vocal pace, volume and tone.
Practice telling your story aloud.
Performing your speech helps you get more comfortable with phrasing and improves your word choice. As you develop a basic content outline, ponder and note the emotional impact you intend in each part of the story. Then consider how well your word choice supports this intent. Are there more powerful phrases that you could use to create the desired effect?
Learn from others.
One of the best ways to improve your storytelling skills is by listening carefully to accomplished storytellers. Careful listeners can retell the stories they have heard, conveying a meaning that aligns with the original expression. Ask yourself what made the story and its telling engaging? What techniques did the speaker use that you might adopt? As Annette Simmons says, “Great storytellers are compulsive story listeners.”1
Becoming a great storyteller is a journey, and every journey begins with a single footstep. First, decide which types of stories are most important to the next phase of your career. Then commit the time and effort to crafting appealing narratives and honing your speaking abilities. Improving your storytelling skills goes hand in hand with growing as a leader.
The preceding is excerpted from Darden Professor Brian Moriarty’s technical note Storytelling in Business (Darden Business Publishing).
- 1 a b Annette Simmons, Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins: How to Use Your Own Stories to Communicate With Power and Impact (New York, NY: American Management Association, 2015).
- 2J.D. Schramm recalls the story of his high school English teacher, Mr. Wessling, describing poetry as a “magic grain truck” that could carry many times the load of the normal truck, packing multiple layers of meaning into a few words. [Previous footnote: J.D. Schramm, Communicate With Memory: Speak With Conviction and Write for Impact (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2020).
- 3Peter Guber, “The Four Truths of the Storyteller,” Harvard Business Review, December 2017. An important caveat here, of course, is that some storytellers can overshare by providing information that seems inappropriate to their relationship with the audience.