Putting stories to work: extract 3

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When NOT to tell a story


business narrative and story

Tell them a story. Of a lovely lady. Who was bringing up three very lovely girls…

A former client of ours Anecdote helps businesses find the stories behind their businesses. Founder Shawn Callahan has written a book encapsulating his wisdom on the matter: Putting Stories To Work. This is the third of four extracts. (Here’s the first.)

While there are often times when you should tell a business story at work, there are also times when you should hold off recounting an anecdote. In fact, there are times when the best way forward is to say nothing at all.

Stories are best utilised when the audience is open to learning and there’s an absence of time pressure. So if someone asks you how to get to the nearest train station, it’s best not to respond with ‘A couple of weeks ago…’

Likewise, if your boss wants a question answered quickly with a couple of facts, it’s probably not a good idea to tell them a story about the last time you did a particular job and what you learned in the process.

The truth is that sometimes you can tell too many stories. You need to mix your stories with other forms of communication, such as facts and opinions. In general, it’s best to start with a story and then expand on what it means.

Also keep in mind that adults don’t like to hear the same story twice, especially in business. You have to keep a mental note of which audience has heard which stories. As a leader, you will have your favourite stories—they’re your favourites because you know they work. But if you find yourself sharing the same story with the same audience, it’s time to get a new story.

And while storytelling can have a hugely positive impact on your leadership, it’s important not to fall in love with the sound of our own voice. Sometimes it’s a much better strategy to let your prospect tell you their stories. It can be very helpful to switch to story listening.

Finally, don’t even bother telling a story unless you know what the point of it is. Too many stories are just told to fill a silence. At best, this confuses the audience—at worst, it antagonises them.

Shawn Callahan is the founder at Anecdote Pty Ltd. This article is adapted from Shawn’s new book Putting Stories to Work: Mastering Business Storytelling.

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