Tips for Effective Storytelling at Work

Dec 10, 2012
6 Min Read
How to tell effective stories at work

How to tell effective stories at workStories have always been used to motivate and inspire others, and the business world seems to be catching on to the power of that method as more executives are coached on how to tell effective stories.

For example, all senior executives at Nike are known as “corporate storytellers,” and at  Kimberly-Clark, seminars are held to coach employees through a 13-step program for constructing stories and structuring presentations around them, says Paul Smith, author of “Lead With a Story: A Guide to Crafting Business Narratives That Captivate, Convince, and Inspire.”

“With a business story, it’s not just telling a story to entertain,” he says. “You’re trying to get behavior to change. Humans make decisions emotionally. Logic and bullet points will fall short if you only use them and don’t structure a story, as well.”

Still, using effective stories to provoke emotion is only part of the equation, he says.

“Stories are easier for people to remember,” he says. “People will repeat stories to others and pass on the message.”

But what if you’re not a savvy story teller or are uncomfortable with the notion of using it in a business setting?  Smith says just as with any other skill, telling  effective stories becomes easier with practice. You know you’re doing it right, he adds, when “what you set out to accomplish gets done.”

What is a sign that you’re failing in delivering a good story? “When people are checking their BlackBerries instead of listening to you,” he says.

Smith provides more than 100 short stories anyone can use to help set goals and build commitment; define customer service success and failure; inspire innovation; and empower others. If you’re not sure where to find other stories, begin thinking about past experiences that might generate a good story or take notes when you learn an unexpected lesson.

Or, you can always tuck away stories other people tell you that you’ve found to be memorable. You can even ask key people for stories to share by asking specific questions such as “Have you ever heard someone introduce himself and gain immediate respect? What did he say?”

Once you’ve got a story in mind, there are some key elements to make it effective. Smith suggests:

  1. Keeping it real. Use specific people and events and not vague generalizations or abstract ideas. Leave out the technical jargon and use numbers or facts that are relevant.
  2. Create a great beginning. Good, effective stories lead off with a surprise, a mystery or a challenge. Don’t apologize before you even begin telling a story.
  3. Keeping it simple. Use short sentences and small words with an active voice. Most stories should be about 250 to 750 words long, or two to four minutes when told orally. Use real names and characters.
  4. Generating the right emotion.  Make sure your tale is relevant to your audience and eliciting the right emotion for the right reason. Show them what’s in it for them, such as helping advance their careers or making a difference in the world.
  5. Using analogies and metaphors. If you can’t come up with a story, try using a metaphor, such as this one provided by Smith: “If your old computer system were a car, what make and model would it be?”
  6. Stick the ending. Withhold a key piece of information for the end of your story to create a surprise, like the name of the person or company the story is about.

Smith, director of consumer and communications research at The Proctor & Gamble Co., says that many people complain they have trouble remembering stories when they need them. His company creates a “company storybook” that is distributed to employees, putting viable stories at their fingertips. If your company doesn’t offer something similar, create your database of effective stories that can be searched by topic and character, he suggests.


How do you use stories in your professional life?  Any tips to offer others on effective storytelling?

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