Once Upon A Time At The Office: 10 Storytelling Tips To Help You Be More Persuasive

Once upon a time, in a faraway kingdom, there was a salesman who traveled the countryside, peddling his wares. Everyone loved his product except the evil king, who wanted to do away with it. One day the king said, "This product is ruining my kingdom and I want to destroy it. If anyone has a reason for why this product should live, let him come hither and speak now." Out of the crowd came a voice. "I think this product is great and I can prove it," said the brave salesman. "Then come to my palace tomorrow morning and prove to me why this is so," said the king. And so the salesman went home and prepared PowerPoint slide after PowerPoint slide filled with endless statistics and dizzying market projection graphs.

On the morrow, the salesman turned up at the palace. "Show me why I should spare your miserable product," said the king. The salesmen opened his trusty laptop and started to plow through his heaping deck of slides. Starting with a company background, the salesman went on to show market trend graphs, customer case studies, and then analyst quotes. The king began to squirm on his throne. When a return on investment spreadsheet appeared on slide 47, the king finally had enough. "Off with your head," said the king. "Originally, I only wanted to kill your product, but this presentation is criminal."

Funny story, but you get the point. The point is a message was delivered using a story, not a statistic or an analyst quote.

Much has been written lately about the efficacy of storytelling in the workplace. Most of it is based on a general feeling that stories "work." "Persuasion is the centerpiece of business activity," says screenwriter Robert McKee in an HBR article entitled "Storytelling That Works." "Trying to convince people with logic is tough for two reasons. One is they are arguing with you in their heads while you are making your argument. Second, if you do succeed in persuading them, you’ve done so only on an intellectual basis. That’s not good enough, because people are not inspired to act by reason alone."

But there’s more proof of storytelling's effectiveness than just anecdotal evidence. For example, studies carried out by Melanie C. Green and Timothy C. Brock at Ohio State University have empirically shown that people’s beliefs can be swayed more effectively through storytelling than through logical arguments. The researchers posit that persuasion is most effective when people are "transported" to another place using a story.

Recently I had the opportunity to sit down to discuss this topic with Susan Fisher, a strategic communication expert and principal at First Class. "People are always telling stories; why don’t they do it at work?" asks Fisher. "It’s because they have been taught that at work you use logic and slides and statistics; this seems more professional. Telling stories seems too emotional and possibly manipulative. So people stick to facts and numbers. But the truth is that real emotions always work better, because that is the way to reach hearts and minds, and also people get to see the real you. It’s authentic."

While we are all intuitively storytellers, I asked Fisher to share some of her insights about where professionals most often need to focus when telling stories in the workplace. Here are Fisher’s top 10 tips for becoming a more effective storyteller at work:

  1. Plan your story starting with the takeaway message. Think about what’s important to the audience. The ending is the most important point of the story. This is the message we want to deliver, and the one that will linger with the audience.
  2. Keep your stories short for the workplace. Three to five minutes long is about what people can digest in today’s ADD world.
  3. Good stories are about challenge or conflict. Without these elements, stories aren’t very interesting. The compelling part of a story is how people deal with conflict–-so start with the people and the conflict.
  4. Think about your story like a movie. Imagine you are screenwriter with a goal to get your message across. The story has to have a beginning, middle, and end.
  5. Start with a person and his challenge, and intensify human interest by adding descriptions of time, place, and people with their emotions.
  6. Be creative. Create a storyboard; draw it out, while listening to music or reading something for inspiration. A good story always has ups and downs, so "arc" the story. Pull people along, and introduce tension, just like in a fairy tale. ("From out of nowhere, the wolf jumps onto the path…")
  7. Intensify the story with vivid language and intonation. Tap into people’s emotions with language. Use metaphors, idioms, and parables that have emotional associations. (Note: For more on this, see Leo Widrich’s article entitled, "Which Words Matter Most When You Talk" and studies on intonation performed by Ingrid Johnsrude at Cambridge University).
  8. When using a story in a PowerPoint presentation, use appropriate graphics/pictures to convey your message. Stay away from text and complicated graphics. A single picture interlaced with emotional language will go a long way to convey your message.
  9. Most of us have not told stories in front of an audience since English class in high school. So you will need to practice. Tell your story in front of a friendly audience and get feedback. Gauge your pace, and take note of the story’s length and your use of language. It will be a bit rusty at first, but underneath it all, we are all born storytellers.
  10. The most important point is to make the switch within; because once you internalize that today’s "left-brain" communication style doesn’t work very well and you realize that stories are how people really communicate, you will find it a lot easier to proceed…because it’s authentic. And that is what really persuades.

Fisher also recommends signing up for a storytelling workshop. There are even workshops you can do online; find more information here.

Finally, in the words of Ira Glass, "Great stories happen to those who tell them." So tell them...and live happily ever after.

[Image: Flickr user Tausend und eins, fotografik]

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  • Brad Zaba

    Brad Zaba
    What a powerful tool for the sales process. Most sales managers and owners are always dismayed by the lack of successful "prospecting". When a salesperson doesn't get the desired results they are called lazy, or worse. Wouldn't it be more productive to use stories in the prospecting stage to really understand if there is enough of a connection to warrant further sales effort? Just thinking...........

  • Dhara Kothari

    I am a professional storyteller and it is indeed difficult to convince people to think in terms of stories, rather than statistics and charts. The business schools should have a class or a subject of how to be creative even with boring stuff. 

  • Susan Fisher

    Story? Debate? Discussion? Not sure what it is but something interesting is unfolding. Here is Park Howell's fascinating interview with Robert McKee (who is quoted above) talking about why numbers, facts and statistics have ruled the roost for so long,. It includes such gems as business and management's Physics Envy.


  • Karthik M

    David, a much needed article today. A great read. I agree that stories should be a part of the presentation. I tried some of it too in my work andthe results were fantastic. I particularly liked the end of this article. The IRA Glass quote. I have experienced it. The moment I started writing my 140 character stories on Twitter via @mysmallstories I have found myself surrounded with many more stories around me in my everyday life, which I never noticed before.

  • Romanbruni

    I loved the perception the offices are a new audience gathering place.
    unfortunately this list of elements to add to a powerpoint presentation are a recipe
    for a conflict based mentality, spiced with failure design path
    for storytelling works maximum as a dialogue tool.  
    when heroe changes venue is because he has undergone a point of view sensibility shift; wich, alas, is never automatic, never predictable, not to be fabricated from obstacles;
    because it is an interior learning process.1# 'takeaway message' started when german monks were concerned that fairy tales (from andersen books) would be free interpreted; thus they added 'moral of the story' to keep readers from having 'free thoughts' outside christian values.

  • Beth A Miller, CMC

    Storytelling has been getting a lot of exposure recently as our lives are wrapped in stories. Stories bring out emotions and drive people to action. Leaders who are adept in storytelling can lead their teams to greatness that they often didn't think they were capable of in the past.

  • Michael Hall

    Great post. Couldn't agree more. Storytelling is all about our humanity. We are all relational creatures and when our imaginations, emotions and eternal hope for a better world are tantalised with a good story we are more easily persuaded to see the possibility in the other.

  • dlavenda

    Guys, thanks for all the great comments. This 'story' (pun intended) seems to have struck a chord with all of us who are tired of sitting through boring presentations with dry numbers.  Which reminds me of a story....

  • RDrzymala

    David, you are absolutely right. Humans relate to anecdotes better than boring presentation, they want to hear stories that they can relate to whether consciously or subconsciously. I use them in interviews all the time.

  • Erika Kotite

    I recently spoke to our franchise owners about Mastering the Art of Storytelling. Ironically it was through PPT--but the tale was heavily laden with images, video clips and not a bar graph in sight. Great post and food for thought, thank you!

  • Andrew Healey

    Excellent post, David. Storytelling has been around since we first began drawing on cave walls. And the thing about good stories is that we are much more likely to remember the messages within them. I can still remember stories read to me when I was five years old.

  • Park

    Couldn't agree more. I had the opportunity to spend a day with Robert McKee at his home in Connecticut this summer and interviewed him about the power of storytelling in business. You can hear his insights in this podcast series "The Business of Story" http://bit.ly/149PlkS