A few years ago I was in New York on a panel, talking about culture and start-ups and, as I’m inclined to do, I was telling a story to illustrate my point.
Then it was the turn of the woman next to me to speak. It just so happened she had a PhD in understanding how we communicate information.
“I wasn’t listening to what Didier was saying, because I was thinking about what I was going to say next,” she told the crowd candidly. “But then, I noticed that you all leaned forward, suddenly more interested, more engaged in what was going on. I looked across and realized, Ah! It's because he is telling a story.”
Even though I already knew the power of storytelling intellectually, having a real-life situation pointed out by somebody trained to notice these things was my “A-Ha!” moment. Storytelling can fundamentally shift the way people understand what you’re communicating.
I never really appreciated the power of story until I left Hollywood
I love stories, I love watching films, and that’s why I spent my early career in Hollywood. But it wasn’t until I started my own software company and went through the process of growing from four people in a garage to 100 people in four offices around the world that I realized the true importance of storytelling skills. They were just about the most important skills that I could apply to running my business.
A huge amount of time and effort goes into landing a message in a large organization. As leaders, we get used to repeating the same thing over and over - waiting for people to “hear the message for the first time.”
Rather than bombarding people with repeated information, one well-told story can not only get your point across, but people will retain it and, more importantly, tell that story to other people.
How I learnt to tell stories
When I was in high school, I was a terrible public speaker. We’re talking raspy voice, trembling hands, and shaking lectern terrible.
I hated doing it. But I knew it was a skill I needed, so early in my career, I became a Yes-Man – I said yes to all speaking engagements, knowing it would force me to become better.
I was still a terrible speaker, but I gradually got less terrible.
The turning point was a six-week course called "Beyond Words" by actor-turned-businessman David Griggs. Learning from a professional is invaluable and I recommend it to anyone who wants to become a better storyteller. He taught me confidence techniques and the science behind the power of symbols.
My four tips for great storytelling
My top tips for great storytelling are:
Get emotional – great stories are not a linear progression from A to B. Your aim is not to tell people something, but to make them feel something.
Know your audience – if you understand what is meaningful to your audience, you can make sure your story is relatable to their experience.
Take away your filters - be comfortable sharing with people, being vulnerable, being open – it all builds trust. For a good example, one of my most popular blogs ever is about the biggest mistakes I’ve made as a manager.
Don’t forget the power of props – visual aids can greatly enhance a story. People will often remember a quirky prop and then remember the message behind it.
There is a famous quote from Maya Angelou: “People won’t remember what you said or what you did; they will remember how you made them feel.” And that is what is truly at the heart of great storytelling.
Didier Elzinga is a People Geek and CEO/Co-Founder of Culture Amp. You can follow Didier on
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