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How to Be a Great Storyteller and Win Over Any Audience

How to Be a Great Storyteller
It's hard to imagine your career going anywhere if you can't tell a story. Whether it's an investor pitch to a VC, an "about us" to a potential customer, justifying your group's existence to management, or an "about me" in an interview, your success in business is all about effective storytelling.

If you don't think some of that stuff is storytelling, then you're really in for a shock. Because if it isn't, then you probably won't get your funding, win the business, or get the job. Why is that? Simple. Media overload, communications overload, gadget overload.

These days, we're all overdosed with rhetoric.

A thousand TV channels and movie choices, countless blogs and commentators, countless email blasts, and millions of websites - each one jockeying for a position in our lives, a share of our minds, just 30 seconds of our eyeballs.

Now, more than ever, if you can't tell a story in a way that grabs people's attention, gets across your position, and sticks with them, you may as well just hang it up. It's as simple as that. Of course, a more positive way to look at it is that nothing can boost your career more - or be more fulfilling - than being adept at telling a story and truly connecting with your audience. Nothing.

The good news is that long ago, I was professionally trained as a speaker, I've given thousands of speeches and presentations, and I've been helping executives and companies position themselves, market their ideas, and tell stories for decades. I've also had the privilege of working for more than a decade with one of the great high-tech PR experts in Silicon Valley, Lou Hoffman of The Hoffman Agency. Lou writes a great blog called Ishmael's Corner: Storytelling Through a Business Prism.

Here's Lou's take on one storytelling exec:

Look at Reed Hastings over at Netflix. I worked with him way back at Pure Atria. He was fantastic to work with: conversational, knew how to turn a phrase, knew how to tell a story. Fast-forward to today. Netflix is a well-known, publicly traded company and Hastings is still conversational, can still turn a phrase, tell a story.
That's why you won't read about this stuff in a book, learn it in Harvard Business School, or hear it from some self-proclaimed guru or expert. Because these are lessons I learned from real experts in the real world:

How to Tell a Story and Win Over Any Audience
Part I: The Setup ... Read >>
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How to Be a Great StorytellerPart I: The Setup
You were probably taught to use your own point of view (POV) as a starting point. Wrong! Dead wrong! Do you think companies are successful making products they want to make, or making products their customers want to buy? Do you think entrepreneurs get investment capital because they have a great idea or because it meets the criteria of the VCs? Do you think this blog is successful because the content is what I want to write about or what resonates with you, the audience?

Here's how to do it right:

  1. First, determine who your audience is. And don't even think of saying, "it's for everyone." That simply won't fly. If you can't specifically define your audience, you're sunk. If it's for multiple audiences, it's different for each one. I know it's a lot of work but that's the way it works. If you dilute the message for multiple audiences, it won't hit any of them hard and you'll fail to resonate across the board.
  2. Second, put yourself in your audience's shoes and ask three questions: 1) What's in it for them, 2) why should they care, and 3) what criteria do they use to determine if whatever it is you're pitching is a good idea or not. If you're selling something, for example, customers have very specific criteria they're looking to meet. Likewise, VCs have specific criteria to determine if they should invest or not. This may take some research but trust me; it's worth it.
  3. Third, develop your story by satisfying those three questions. Of course the story's all about whatever it is you're pitching, but if you don't put it in perspective for your audience and answer the questions in their minds, you'll never resonate with them. Also, make sure to consider the mechanics of the situation, i.e. how much time you're expecting to have, what's the venue, etc.
Now you're ready for Part II: The Story ... Read >>
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How to Be a Great StorytellerPart II: The Story
All effective, memorable stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Make sure yours does too. Depending on the situation, you can relate that to the old axiom: First tell the audience what you're going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you told them. Sometimes that's included in the story. Either way is fine.

As an option, you can start with an icebreaker to break the tension (yours and theirs). It can be as simple as a welcome gesture or as involved as a brief and engaging or humorous anecdote. Above all, keep it brief, relevant and appropriate. Don't tell a joke.

After your optional icebreaker, tell your audience why they're there and what they can expect. This will relieve any tension or anxiety on their part because they're not sure what to expect. That, in turn, will allow them to focus completely on your story. If you're absolutely sure they already know why they're there, i.e. somebody else provided a solid introduction, then it's okay to dive right into the story.

Now it's story time. For the story to be memorable, to resonate with your audience, you have to make sure it delivers on what they came for, as we already discussed at length. That's critical so it's worth repeating. Given that, it needs to be dramatic in some way that evokes an emotional response. It helps a lot if the speaker feels it because it comes from his or her direct experience, from the heart, so to speak.

Here are some examples:

  • If you're an entrepreneur pitching investors, your story could relate to the genesis of the idea - if it's an interesting or amusing story - and how it will change the world, so to speak. If you can somehow relate it directly to investors as individuals, i.e. involving family, technology they might use, etc., that's good but not necessary. Just make sure that, somewhere along the line, you answer all the requisite questions investors want answered before they'll, at some point, write a check.
  • If you're pitching potential customers, you can tell the story of how your product or service did something amazing for another customer and how that customer benefitted in terms of gaining market share, for example. Again, something dramatic that will resonate with the audience and answer the questions we discussed in the setup.
  • If it's an elevator pitch about your company, don't do the usual boring ... we're based in Toronto, Canada, we have 6,000 employees, and our revenue last year was $1.4B. Instead, give a quick one paragraph explanation of what your company does better than any other company and then launch right into your biggest success story that you know will resonate with your audience. Something like that.
  • If it's an interview and you're asked to tell them about yourself, don't just rattle off the companies you've worked for and your accomplishments. If you truly know your audience, you can tell them a story from your experience that encapsulates the skills and traits they're mostly looking for.
And so on. Get the idea?

Now, to truly engage your audience, you'll need to learn Part III: The Delivery ... Read >>
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How to Be a Great StorytellerPart III: The Delivery
While research and content are key, so is delivery. If you really want to engage your audience in an experience they'll remember - which means they'll remember your story - here are eight tips to follow:
  1. Don't read what's on the slide. If you're pitching from a slide presentation, don't read words off a slide. Instead, know the pitch cold (without having to look except for a brief cue) and speak in your own words.
  2. Don't block the audience's view. Don't step in front of the screen or block it from view, except for the occasional walk-across. Gesture with your hand, but don't touch the screen. Don't use a pointer unless you must.
  3. Engage the audience by asking questions. If they don't respond, try offering an answer and asking for a show of hands or ask easier questions. Make the audience part of the experience.
  4. Be accessible. Don't stand behind a podium. Use a wireless mic if needed. Get close to the audience and move from place to place while maintaining eye contact, but only from time to time. Do not bounce around like a ping-pong ball.
  5. Pause for effect and emphasis. Practice being comfortable with silence for two or three seconds. It's the most dramatic way to make a point. Avoid ahs, uhs, and other fillers of uncomfortable silence; they're annoying and detract from your presence.
  6. Make eye contact. But only for a few seconds per person. Too short and you'll fail to engage; too long and it becomes uncomfortable. Don't bounce your eyes around constantly.
  7. Use hand gestures. They're engaging and interesting. But when you're not, keep your hands at your sides. Don't fidget, hold onto things, or put your hands in front of you, behind you, or in your pockets. Avoid nervous habits.
  8. Don't overuse props. Frankly, the most important thing for engaging an audience and telling a memorable story is you, the story-teller. So don't do too much to distract the audience from you. I know it's a little scary at first, but you'll improve with practice and experience.
Last but absolutely not least, Part IV: The Close ... Read >>
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How to Be a Great StorytellerPart IV: The Close
The close is the easiest part to get right and the easiest part to screw up. I know that sounds contradictory, but it's not. Here's why. It's the easiest to screw up because, all-too-often, folks forget to do it. They get so wound up in telling the story that they simply blow it.

It's also the easiest to get right because the close is either telling them what you told them, as succinctly as possible, and/or driving home the one key point, the single message you want them to take away from your story or pitch. Simple. Just don't forget to do it.

And yes, I have forgotten to close. I gave a speech at Beijing University where the audience was so engaged and the response was so overwhelming that I got caught up in the moment and forgot. I had a speech coach at the time. When she and I watched the tape together, at the end, she looked at me and said, "What the hell was that? You go all the way to China, give an incredible speech, and forget to close?!" I never forgot again.

Finally, remember this. Some people are more naturally adept at this than others are. You weren't born with the ability to stand up in front of an audience and tell a story. It takes practice.

Videotape yourself presenting to an empty conference room or get someone with experience to watch you and provide feedback. If your company hires a speech coach for executives and up-and-comers, get in on it.

Most importantly, be patient with yourself. Finding your own style where you feel comfortable comes with experience. It may take a few years, but it's worth it. Nothing can boost your career - or be more fulfilling - than being adept at telling a story and truly connecting with your audience. Nothing.

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