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How to tell a story with impact


PowerPoint was not the go-to tool for Dr Dimity Dornan when she prepared to meet with her board to request additional funds to expand her organisation’s services. Instead, she picked up a pair of scissors.

Dornan, the founder of Hear and Say – which teaches children who are deaf to hear, listen and be heard – knew that numbers and graphs do not always infuse a pitch with meaning.

First, she calculated the number of children who would be left without assistance if she did not get the money: 100 over the next year.

Then, as she stood at the head of the boardroom table and launched into her pitch about how many children could be helped, she threw out a cut-out paper chain of children holding hands.

It was a stunning visual demonstration. Needless to say (or we wouldn’t be telling this story), she got her money.

One of the most important skills for a leader is the ability to translate strategy into a message that really resonates with their people. More than just presenting data and logical argument, it is about providing the meaning behind numbers and executive decision-making,

Leadership author and former World Bank executive Steve Denning says leadership is not just about getting people to change, it is about getting people to want to change – and the best way to do that is through effective story telling.

Neuroscience shows how character-driven stories cause the listeners’ brain to produce oxytocin, which enhances the sense of empathy and encourages people to co-operate.

Founding director of the Centre for Neuroeconomics Studies, Paul Zak, says his experiments show these stories—with emotional content—result in a better understanding of the key points a speaker wishes to make, and enable better recall of these points weeks later.

“In terms of making impact, this blows the standard PowerPoint presentation to bits,” he writes in the Harvard Business Review.

However, it is not enough to tell just any story, or the same story over and over. There are rules to effective storytelling and if you do not heed them, you may end up disengaging your audience or motivating them to do the opposite of what you intend.

Authenticity: It has to be your story. It can’t have been written for you by someone else. The story must be more than true, it must also not omit any relevant details that would change the meaning of the story. Half-truths will be found out.

Emotion: Good stories have an emotional connection. You don’t need to make people laugh or cry, but you must be able to tell it with conviction.

Rinse, repeat: People will hear different things in the same message at different times in their lives. So, communicating a key message once will not be enough.

New stories: While key messages can be recycled, stories have to be refreshed. Having a favourite tale comes across as being too scripted and not genuine. Your telling of the story does not have to be perfect, it is fine to be off-the-cuff. If you must retell a story, it is best to acknowledge it by saying that some in the audience may have heard it before, but explain why it is still relevant, or important, and needs retelling.

Be vulnerable: We are working with a new CEO who feels too vulnerable to communicate beyond PowerPoint, but his employees are accustomed to the story-telling style of his predecessor. Employee engagement scores have been falling and the feedback is that the new leadership style is a contributor. This CEO is being coached to let down his guard.

The happy ending here is that the skills required to be a powerful storyteller can be learned. Everyone has stories to tell. You simply need the motivation to do it and put some thought behind how you will do it.

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About the authors: Andrea Corcoran and Heather Linaker are joint Queensland State Directors of the Stephenson Mansell Group.

Andrea is an Executive Coach & Facilitator with more than 20 years’ experience in the banking and finance industry in a range of roles including head office sales and strategy and leading a state business (as Head of the Private Bank in Queensland for one of the major banks). She also spent 14 years in the Army Reserves, retiring as a captain.

Heather is an Executive Coach & Mentor with more than 25 years’ experience in the publishing industry including in sales, marketing and technology leadership roles as well as a former Managing Director of global publisher Wiley’s Australian operations.