Best Practice Series: 10 rules for story telling for deeper engagement, start with yourself

This week I’m captaining and moderating some panels for an event that is growing in popularity here in Seattle - Women in Tech Regatta, founded by Melody Beringer.

The term vulnerability is used a lot at the start of every talk, and is one of the defining characteristics of the conference. The term risks being overplayed against the backdrop of popular self-help books. But when people pause long enough to tell stories about real difficulties and struggles they have had in their careers—that kind of authenticity gives the audience pause. Some of the stories I heard in previous years, from senior leaders, both shocked and inspired me—so much so I’m getting involved.

The lesson here is that you don’t need to be a panelist at an event to share deeply and connect with people. That kind of engagement is needed at all levels of the organization, all the time. It takes practice. You need to practice stillness to find the stories you want to tell and you need to recruit witnesses to hear them. This is something I’m working on myself as I craft my own message about my work.

Photo by  Nong Vang

Photo by Nong Vang

10 Rules For Story Telling For Deeper Engagement, start with yourself

While the environment contributes to the tenor of a conversation, how you show up in that moment matters, whether you like it or not. It’s the difference between a hurried, canned, recited speech, or a speech by someone who is present, pacing well, and feeling into their words.

Effective leaders know that telling a story is the most effective way to connect with people—whether it’s one-on-one or a full room. Here are ten things to consider when you are looking to engage.

  1. Use stories selectively. Stories activate the listener’s imagination and emotions by conveying a real or imagined human experience. That is their particular strength and limitation. Use stories for what they’re good at and don’t overload them with data, analysis, opinions, argument, etc.

  2. Listen before you speak. Know your audience and what it cares about. You can be challenging if that is what’s called for, but people are more likely to pay attention to what you have to say if you begin by acknowledging the realities of their situation. Good storytelling is a two-way process.

  3. Aim carefully. Think about the point you want to make and what effect you want to your story to have and choose a story that illustrates your point in action. An audience works out the point of a well-told story for themselves because it gives them a vicarious experience for their imaginations, and emotions to work with.

  4. Make it personal. The story does not have to be about you. In fact, it’s often more persuasive if you make someone else the hero or heroine. But you do need to find a personal connection with the story, which might reveal your part in it or be as simple as letting the audience know how you are touched, inspired or affected by the events you have recounted.

  5. Make it real. Stories are always about particular characters doing something specific at a certain time in a particular place. They are essentially about how characters meet the obstacles that thwart their desires. Bring your story alive with concrete descriptions, 3D characters, dramatic moments, humor, and passion.

  6. Learn the story, not the words. Avoid the common error of killing a story by writing it out or reciting it from memory. Make sure you know how the story works: the sequence of events and key turning points and trust your innate ability to find the words. Practice telling it aloud and get feedback from a colleague.

  7. Connect with the audience. When you tell your story to an audience, use eye contact, both to see and be seen. Your relationship with the audience moment by moment is your best support, even if you are nervous. The power of your story comes as much from your mutual connection with the audience as it does from the words.

  8. Use simple language. The ear favors informal, straightforward language. If the audience has to spend its energy untangling complex sub-clauses and trying to make sense of unfamiliar jargon, it won’t get the point. Tell the story in your own words and avoid clichés like the plague (for real).

  9. Let the story do the work. Do listeners the courtesy of allowing them to make sense of your story for themselves. Resist the temptation to tell them its moral or what it means. Tell it with conviction and it will stand for itself.

  10. Remember we are all storytellers. Stories are how we make sense of our lives and always have been. There have been civilizations that have flourished without the benefit of the wheel, but none has ever been devoid of stories or storytellers. If you can tell a good story, you’ll always have a willing audience.