You do it every day. When you see your co-workers on Monday morning, at dinner on Friday night, even when you're trying to convince your kids that green beans are good for them.
You tell stories to make your case and to make connections. That's what we do as human beings. In fact, we're hardwired for it.
If storytelling comes naturally to us, then it seems natural that we would use this skill in business—to attract customers, persuade partners and rally employees.
Here are a few key points to keep in mind as you build your storytelling skills. To be persuasive and productive, the stories we tell at work need to be built with attention paid to: emotion, craft and action.
No one needs to tell you that most of our decisions—whether in business or in life—are pushed along by our emotions. They also help us feel engaged in a story or a transaction. But how do you find and engage the right emotions?
Entrepreneurs can learn from fiction writers who have long known that the success of a story rests in finding "the significant details,” as Eudora Welty once wrote. In good stories, it's the details that captivate us, that allow us to "see" the story, and that invite the reader to get involved in the conversation.
If I tell you my first bicycle was pink with training wheels, that's not much to go on. But if I tell you my first bike was built by the boy down the street who added training wheels and ribbons, and then jogged down the sidewalk with me, holding the banana seat with one hand while I learned how to pedal...now I've given you enough details to "see" the image. I've gotten you involved in my story. You're probably already starting to think about when you learned to ride a bike.
In business, the same is true. Just as you focus on the details of your ingredients and processes, attending to the details in your marketing—even if you're just greeting someone who has walked into your store—can mean the difference between a customer who feels unwanted and one who feels like he is now a participant in the “conversation.”
Even if you're not in full story mode, using clear details in your conversations will guarantee you a better relationship.
Even though we are all able to toss off a great story in the middle of a cocktail party, the stories you use at work should be crafted. Just like a house is built with bricks or wooden beams, stories are built on details and images and rhythm and voice, and so much more. Key among these craft elements is the idea of tension and conflict.
I know. You may be running from the room when you see these two words. While most of us don't like conflict in our lives, we must have it in our stories. Think about it this way: in a story, tension and conflict can be either a threat or an opportunity.
In business we usually refer to this as creating a sense of urgency. "If you pay now you can save five percent." That's the opportunity. The threat: "If you don't pay now, you'll be charged an additional five percent."
In stories, this concept works in a slightly different way. We create tension by sharing obstacles that may have been in our path. For instance, your signature chocolate relies on cocoa nibs from Ghana. But your sources have dried up and now you have to find the right quality beans somewhere else. And, you had to beat your competitors to them.
We like our stories to have heroes. Overcoming obstacles, big or small, makes you a hero.
In my opinion, every story is persuasive in some way. Opinion pieces in the newspaper try to convince you to see the news the way the writer does. Novels and movies persuade us that this fictional world is real. Advertisers know they are not selling soap; they are selling us the idea that if we use this soap, we will be beautiful.
To be persuasive, stories need to have a solid structure and a clear call to action. We must want our audience to do something.
Imagine this: you spend 15 minutes explaining the process of developing this unique flavor profile and tell me the story of how you stumbled on to it after you thought you were creating something else. Then you say, "let me know if I can help you find something,” and you walk back behind the counter.
As your customer, I probably found the story intriguing and would like to taste this new flavor, but you didn't ask me if I'd like to try a sample or buy some for dessert this evening. So I say, “that's interesting,” and move on.
Now, imagine this: you stand in front of me with two trays and ask me to choose which one I think is the enhanced flavor. Right away you have gotten me involved in this story.
After I point to the tray in your left hand, you say, “Right! Take a taste and let me tell you how we stumbled upon this extraordinary new flavor. We were in the back room on a cold and snowy Saturday morning…”
Now you have made me a part of your story and because you asked me a question, I am immediately involved in this conversation. In fact, when I serve this candy at my next dinner party, I will tell my guests my story of hearing your story, and then these new people will become a part of that story. And on and on and on.
You can see how powerful this can be.
What Stories Should You Tell?
There's a good chance you are not at a loss for personal stories, but in business we want to make sure the stories we craft will support a sales or relationship building goal. Here are just a few ideas for where to find good stories:
- Why you got started in this business.
- Why you stay in this business.
- How you source your ingredients and materials.
- What makes you different.
- What suppliers you work with and why.
The next time you start telling a story, stop for a moment and realize you are building a chain of connections that have the potential to reach far and wide.
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