We’ve all been in that meeting where a coworker spends 10 minutes citing numbers and percentages to make his point but everyone stops listening long before he’s done speaking. Or the brainstorming session where a colleague tells a 20-minute story about her cousin who had a similar problem but you have no idea what problem your coworker is talking about or what it has to do with your client.
While most people agree that it’s a good idea to use details to make your point in a meeting, not everyone is a good storyteller. Here are seven storytelling tips from speechwriters that will help you get your point across.
Personify your data
“If you want to persuade colleagues, don’t simply bombard them with data or speak in generalities,” says Jennifer Hennings, an executive presentation coach who has worked with managers at Google, Salesforce, Slack, and Reddit. Instead, tell your team the story of Betty, a grandmother in Iowa who uses your video app to connect with her grandchildren overseas. If you don’t have a real client story to share, create a hypothetical story about an ideal user. Don’t just mention that a college student would use your product. Give your hypothetical user a name and share details about his or her life to personalize the product’s benefits.
Know your listener
Be aware of your listener’s attention span and get to the point of your story quickly. “You never want the other people asking themselves ‘Where is this going?’ while you’re talking,” says Jeff Porro, founder of Porro Associates LLC.
Be personal but not confessional
The best stories have a personal element–something the listener can identify with–but that doesn’t mean you should bare your soul. “Be careful about how much of yourself you share,” says Porro, who has written speeches for Nature Conservancy CEO Mark Tercek and Kevin Martin, vice president of public policy for Facebook. Sure, tell a story about your cousin but make sure it’s relevant to your business goals and that you’re not touching on hot topics like religion and politics that could offend your audience and cause them to stop listening.
If you’re asking for a raise or a promotion, don’t speak about your contributions in generalities. Tell a story that only you can tell about your skills and achievements using the STAR framework–Situation, Task, Action and Result–Hennings says. For instance, instead of telling your boss, I’m a team player, tell your manager a specific story about what you did–outline the problem (“Remember when we were having a problem getting traction with our new product?”), explain your task (“I offered to go visit our factory in Idaho and discovered our sales team didn’t understand the product’s benefits”), tell what you did to solve the problem (“I put together a training program for the sales team”), and end with specific results (“A week later our sales increased by 50%”).
Aim for a home run
Think of yourself as a baseball player up at bat, trying to run the bases and get a home run, says Pete Weissman, founder of Thought Leader Communications. Let’s say you’re trying to get your boss to approve a new initiative. Don’t start by explaining how the initiative would work, he says. Instead, start your story with your boss’s biggest problem–that’s first base. For example, “Emily, I know your top priority is increasing our international sales this year.”
Next, share why you have something unique to say on this topic–that’s second base. “I’ve spent the past few weeks doing some research and found a interesting opportunity in the Chinese market.” Now, you’ve established your credibility to share your idea, Weissman says. Then, present your new information as directly as possible–this is third base. “If we adopt my plan, we can double our sales in China in one year.” Finally, state your call to action–this is your home run. “Can I pull together a team to build out my plan and present it to you next week?”
“By using this formula, you win her attention and interest by answering why she should listen, why she should listen to you, what you want her to know and what you want her to do,” says Weissman, who has worked with executives at UPS, Visa, and Coca-Cola.
Reenact your story, don’t just tell it
Use actual dialog and action instead of simply paraphrasing your story, Weissman says. For instance, rather than telling your boss, “Joe and I decided to call a team meeting,” say, “I looked at Joe and said, ‘If we don’t get this report in by 5 p.m. we’ll lose this client.’ Joe put down the papers he was reading and called a team meeting.”
Use short sentences, present tense, and drama to convey your point, says Cary Brazeman, principal of CRELIX Marketing Partners. “Relying on narrative description alone could come across as boring or as a rant,” he says. The action of the story is more compelling than narrating your account of what happened.
Build a story bank
Telling the perfect story in the moment isn’t easy so Hennings recommends developing a list of stories, case studies and client examples that you can use to illustrate your point. Think of the stories about your background, your clients, or your work that you tell family and friends, and write them down. Categorize these stories so you know the point of the story and when you might use each one to motivate staff, to convince your boss to promote you, or to illustrate your team’s dedication to a client.
Once you have collected your stories, practice them out loud so you become comfortable telling your story. “Thinking through things in your head is about as effective as thinking about going to the gym,” Hennings says. “You have to open your mouth and practice your story out loud.”