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Great storytelling: Not just for novelists

For many of us, talking about yourself is hard, especially in a business setting. Usually you have a goal to accomplish -- winning an interview, promoting a product -- but at the same time you don't want to come across as smarmy or inauthentic. You want to be confident but not too confident. Entertaining but not overeager.

Into this thicket of anxiety steps JD Schramm, who directs Stanford business school's Mastery in Communication Initiative, who recently offered speaking tips through Stanford's knowledgebase.

Schramm kicks off his advice with a reminder that while some people are born with the gift of gab, those who are less naturally talented can learn the knack: "The beautiful thing about communication is that it is part art and part science... there are strategies that each of us can employ to work for us."

So what are these secrets of world-class storytellers? Schramm lays out quite a few for the article, which is worth checking out in full, but here are a couple of highlights:

Skip the boring preamble: ("Hello, my name is Marsha and I'm here to tell you about XYZ Company") and parachute straight into the dramatic heart of the narrative. "Many times we feel like we have to do a lot of prefacing, but four minutes goes by quickly," Schramm said. "If you spend two minutes on background, you've lost an opportunity to grab attention." Far better to leave the identifying bits until the second paragraph, or to the overhead PowerPoint image, or to the person charged with giving the introductions.

Follow Goldilocks: Think carefully about how much detail to include; not too much and not too little. To illustrate, Schramm showed a video from his favorite teaching website, www.TED.com. In it, firefighter Mark Bezos told a brief but colorful story about retrieving a woman's shoes from her smoldering house. By including a few vivid details -- the fact that the homeowner was barefoot, in her pajamas, standing under an umbrella in the pouring rain -- he made the story come alive. But "had the fireman gone on and on about the color of the truck and the street address," Schramm cautioned, "he would have ruined it for us."

These storytelling techniques will be familiar to fans of good novels, but are less often displayed in the world of work, where public speaking is far more often associated with mind-numbing Powerpoint presentations and pushy, sharky elevator pitches. The fact that even office life can be enlivened by basic storytelling skills may be often overlooked, but Schramm isn't the only one to promote the idea. CEO of Duarte Design, Nancy Duarte has made the same point and a veteran of the film industry has also shared pitching tips from the offices of story-obsessed movie producers.

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