When you were a child, you probably had a favorite story. My daughter loved The Wizard, the Fairy and the Magic Chicken. Now that you’ve grown up, you may still love a good story—maybe a novel you read recently, or a movie you saw.
But if someone asks you to tell a story in a business setting, you might be a little confused. How do you tell a story about your latest quarterly results or your big data analysis? You don’t have catchy characters, and you definitely don’t have dramatic plots.
But there is a way to tell your business stories compellingly. Here are some tips for doing so with ease and impact.
Establish your character
Every compelling story has a main character, so that’s where you should start. In a business presentation, that character is you. What kind of protagonist are you? Are you the dynamic leader? Are you the brilliant analyst? Are you the dedicated team builder? You can choose to be any character you want, as long as you’re consistent and authentic.
You might be wondering, how would you cast yourself as a protagonist in your role? Here’s an example. I recently went to New York to meet with the VP of communications of a big-league company. I imagined how I should “be” in a way that communicated the qualities you’d expect in a speaking coach—poise, precision, and instant gravitas—but also distinguished me. I knew I had 3-5 seconds to establish my “character,” to make the sale. My “character” worked. I made the sale.
The first challenge is determining how to establish your character in the first 3-5 seconds. How do you project the image of sales leader—but with your special style? How does a sales leader walk? How do you walk? Every time you make your presentation and tell your story, you need to present your character consistently and authentically.
Get to your issue immediately
This might sound counterintuitive, but a compelling story needs to start at the end. In the crime drama television series Columbo, each episode always began with the murder. Peter Falk, the actor who plays the police detective lieutenant, always got to the dead body immediately.
In business, your “dead body” isn’t your data. You have to get to your issue and talk about what your data represents. In a status update—what does all this data mean? Are you doing well? Are you behind? Do you need to change? Should you keep going?
Find a way to show why your audience should care
Once you’ve articulated your issue, your next step is to convince your audience to care. You have to avoid that pitfall of taking them down the rabbit hole of how you got there. Imagine your pizza delivery person standing in front of you holding your pizza—telling you how there was so much traffic, so much challenge in finding a spot to park, and how they had a lot of problems even walking up the stairs to your apartment. Chances are, you just want them to give you your pizza.
A business story works the same way. Your audience wants the pizza—and they want it to taste good. Now, I’m not telling you to sugarcoat your ideas to make them appealing. What I am saying is that you have to meet expectations in a way that satisfies. If you had a launch that fizzled, your story (your “pizza”) is about applying lessons going forward—not describing the blunders of the past. Your audience doesn’t want your delivery woes, they care about their pizza, and they want it to be what they ordered.
Don’t forget to add some spice to your story
In a fairy tale, the plot has to include exciting twists and turns. In your business story, you need to add spice. But how do you add that spice to your business presentations?
Let’s take the example of medical device companies. To add that unique dimension to their presentations, they bring in people who have their medical devices in their bodies. These people depend on the quality of the devices because that’s how they stay safe.
Here’s another one. I was recently coaching a leader whose story was about improving forecasting to avoid surprises. I suggested that he give his audience wrapped boxes and ask them what they felt as they held the box. Excited? Uncomfortable? Confused? The point that I was trying to make was that when you don’t know what to expect, it stirs up many feelings. It’s analogous to the point he wanted to make about the impact of (pleasant and not-so-pleasant) surprises.
On their own, sales numbers and quarterly results might not generate much excitement. But with the right delivery, you can use them to tell an interesting story that keeps your listeners engaged until the very end.