Putting Stories To Work – extract two

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business narrative and story
It’s story time all the time at Anecdote.

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 second of four extracts. (Here’s the first.)

Part 2: To be memorable make your point first

A clever study showed just how important it is to make explicit the topic and the point of an oral story at the outset. New York University’s John Bransford and Marcia Johnson asked the participants in an experiment to listen to and try to remember the following paragraph:

The procedure is actually quite simple. First you arrange things into different groups. Of course, one pile may be sufficient depending on how much there is to do. If you have to go somewhere else due to lack of facilities that is the next step, otherwise you are pretty well set. It is important not to overdo things. That is, it is better to do too few things at once than too many. In the short run this may not seem important but complications can easily arise. A mistake can be expensive as well. At first the whole procedure will seem complicated. Soon, however, it will become just another facet of life. It is difficult to foresee any end to the necessity for this task in the immediate future, but then one never can tell. After the procedure is completed one arranges the materials into different groups again. Then they can be put into their appropriate places. Eventually they will be used once more and the whole cycle will then have to be repeated. However, that is part of life.

(I’ve shown this paragraph to thousands of workshop participants and needless to say they were universally bamboozled. I imagine you are too.)

The researchers tested several variations of this. One set of participants just got the above description and their comprehension and recall was then measured. Another group was given a little tidbit of information at the outset: ‘This is about washing clothes’.

Their recall was double that of the first group and their comprehension shot up. A third group got the tidbit at the end. In this case, the results were the same as those of the first group, which had not received any information about washing clothes.

Leaders should always be aiming for clarity and recall in their oral communication at work. The Bransford and Johnson study shows that simply by stating your topic at the outset, recall and comprehension will increase significantly among your audience—as opposed to what happens if you don’t clarify the topic or only mention it as you’re finishing.

Stories need this clear signposting because in business it’s often assumed that just listing facts is faster and more effective than sharing a story. The assumption is incorrect, of course: I’ve often heard people rabbit on for ages about something when a simple story would have sufficed. Regardless, your audience needs to be assured that your story will be worth listening to, that it has a useful point.

So your default storytelling approach should be to begin an oral story with its point, or what I call a relevance statement. The easiest way to come up with one is to ask yourself, ‘What’s the main point my story is making?’

For example, if I wanted to tell a story about the importance of nurturing networks of people as a way of keeping a business agile, I’d start by saying something like: ‘One of the best ways to guard against the unpredictability of a crisis is to keep relationships strong and well-connected across the company’. Then I’d launch into the 9/11 story I shared with you in Chapter 4. With practice, this will become a natural conversation pattern for you: point, then story; point, then story.

The relevance statement should pique the curiosity of your audience without giving too much away: if your story has a wonderful twist in its tail, for example, you don’t want to telegraph it. You just need to give listeners an idea of where you are going and why they might want to listen to you. In a sense, you are making a bold statement and the story will be the evidence for it.

Identifying the point of a story will also improve your storytelling no end. Your stories will become tighter because you’ll jettison anything that’s unnecessary in getting your message across. Above all, it ensures you actually have a point to make.

Remember: a business story is only a business story if it has a point. The practice of sharing the relevance statement before you share the story ensures you have a good reason for telling the story. Telling stories with clear business points will only enhance your reputation at work. If you just go on and on without making a point, you risk becoming known as a gasbag.

After delivering your relevance statement, it’s important that you make a smooth transition to the story. Ideally, the story will remain invisible, by which I mean that after laying out your point of view, you shouldn’t suddenly announce: ‘Right, now I’m going to tell a story to back up my opinion’. Similarly, do not dramatically change your tone of voice or your gestures when you start telling the story. Simply continue to engage your audience in a conversation.

Once you’ve told your story, resist the urge to tell your listeners what the story means. A simple restating of the main point is OK, but if you say something like, ‘So what this story really means is…’, you prevent the audience from taking ownership of the story’s meaning. It’s like explaining a joke: it just kills its impact. And as the experiment I described above showed, it doesn’t make a zip of difference to the listeners’ recall or comprehension. Let the audience members turn your story over in their minds and draw meaning from it themselves.

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. Here’s part three.

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