Can Storytelling Be Taught?

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Today I’m pleased to present a guest post by Scott Weighart. Scott is the Director of Learning and Development for Bates Communications, a leadership
communications firm focusing on executive coaching, consulting, and leadership development workshops. His firm frequently employs storytelling in its work, and today Scott tells us about how all of us can help others learn better by telling stories:

In business, people get promoted to leadership positions because they’re smart, driven experts in a field. Upon promotion, they find that that’s not enough. Now they need to be great communicators who can engage hearts and minds, rallying teams to take action on a strategic vision.

Storytelling is a great way to do this. However, it’s just not a tool that many business leaders have in their toolboxes. When these executives come to our two-day Speak Like a CEO Boot Camp, they are usually convinced that they don’t have any stories worth telling. They can’t imagine telling a story in a business presentation.

It’s great fun proving them wrong. How can you help people learn to become storytellers? Here are a few key steps:

1. Show video examples of storytellers, making sure the audience can identify with them.
Given that we usually work with executives, we show some of Steve Jobs’s commencement speech at Stanford with its powerful personal stories. Or we sometimes show Ford CEO Alan Mulally sharing a great “turning point” story about what he did when Ford was losing $14 billion in one year. Then we have learners dissect the stories: Why do they work? Why are they more effective than the usual platitudes and abstract concepts?

2. Use memory triggers to help learners come up with story ideas worth developing.
As any novel reader or moviegoer knows, conflict is what makes stories interesting! We get the raw material for conflict-rich stories by asking our learners to reflect on phrases designed to make powerful memories “bubble up” in their minds. Some typical cognitive triggers? Turning points, major changes, startling events. For starters, people write down whatever comes to mind in response to these triggers. Inevitably, people remember experiences that they had long since forgotten. Last fall, a compliance
executive and Army veteran heard the trigger “awkward situation” and developed a story that gave us all goose bumps. During the first Gulf War, he got lost while driving in the desert on a beautiful moonlit night. He frantically mulled all of the dramatic or mundane ways he might die all alone. Then he sat down on his rear bumper and looked down, dejected . . . only to notice his tire tracks! He turned the truck around and followed his own tracks to safety.

We realized that this story was an awesome metaphor for his field of compliance: If
you get off the right road, you’re in trouble . . . and if you keep going, it only gets worse. But retracing your steps might save you. This executive was shocked to find that he now had a riveting story he could use to make powerful points about the typically unglamorous field of compliance.

3. Write out loud . . . and work with a partner!
Most of us share stories conversationally all the time with friends, family, and co-workers. So it’s much less daunting to develop a story idea by telling it out loud while a coach or partner asks you questions for understanding. This practice also leads to a more conversational tone in the story, which works much better for the audience—whether the story ends up in a speech or in writing.

4. Use a story structure to make sure learners know how to develop and deliver a concise story that will be relevant to their audience.
Our CEO, Suzanne Bates, created this “Bates Story Structure” for a three-minute story in a business presentation:
• The Setup: The who, what, when, and where of the story
• The Buildup: The challenge or conflict
• The Scene: The “moment of truth” where we “zoom in” to focus on a key conversation or event
• The Resolution: What was the outcome?
• The Lesson: What the storyteller learned, specifically, from this experience
• The Audience Theme: How the story applies to the audience hearing or reading it

The lesson is especially important. It’s much more effective to cast yourself as a learner in the story, rather than the hero or heroine. That makes you much more sympathetic to your audience.

Learners often need coaching as they learn to develop stories. Often their setup is initially too long, or the lesson is too simplistic, such as “you have to keep trying.” A good storytelling coach can sharpen these insights.

Through using these techniques with hundreds of clients at workshops and in individual coaching sessions, we’ve come to look at storytelling as a muscle. For many people, it’s a flabby, underdeveloped muscle. But with hard work, repeated practice, and expert advice, any motivated learner can develop real strength and power as a storyteller. The resulting stories are a great way for leaders to engage, inspire, teach, and connect with their important audiences.

To learn more, contact Scott at sweighart@bates-communications.com or visit the
company’s website at www.bates-communications.com.

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