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How to Improve Your Business Storytelling by Recognizing What’s Happening to Listeners

Quantum physics teaches that we live in a connected universe where everything is linked. Let’s apply this notion to storytelling: a person tells a story, the audience hears it, and both audience and storyteller co-create the experience — which melds it all together.

Once the event is over and everyone leaves, that exact experience will never happen again. The next time the person tells that same story to another group, it’s a completely new and unique event that is co-created in different ways. It’s essential in storytelling to connect with an audience in this manner.

How does this co-creation happen? In storytelling, as in live theater, there’s a fourth wall. Actors deliver the play, but rarely interact with the audience unless the script calls for this. In storytelling, the fourth wall doesn’t exist.

Every time you share a story — whether it be the boardroom, a meeting room, or the cafeteria — it’s a co-created experience. You as teller are always connected to your audience. Consciously or unconsciously, you shift the story in real time to fit that particular moment.

Because of this connectivity and co-creation, selecting the best story to use in formal venues or planned presentations requires forethought. Not every story is right for every circumstance. How do you do that? Pay attention to and keep track of those stories that pop into your mind when an opportunity to share a story arises.

Use the following six criteria to finalize your selection. The first five are about context; the last is about content:

  • Who will hear the story? Finding out all you can about your audience beforehand is critical to matching a story to who they are. Remember the “What’s In It For Them” (WIFT) principle.

    • Why has the audience gathered together to listen to me?

    • Is the audience voluntarily joining me or are they required to attend? What’s their level of interest in the subject?

    • How large will the audience be?

    • What are their demographics — age, gender, ethnicity, religion, membership in other groups, and socioeconomic background?

    • What’s important to this audience? What do they value?

    • What’s their world like? What challenges and issues do they face?

    • What answers are they looking for? What do they want to know? What do they need to learn?

    • How do they think? What are they skeptical about?

  • What objective am I trying to achieve? Learn the goals for the overall event or meeting and the presentation itself. This doesn’t mean the story needs to strictly “fit” the topic; a metaphorical or symbolic story can be just as powerful.

    • What is the ideal outcome for this situation?

    • What do the organizers or those in charge of the event hope my story will add to the outcome of the occasion?

    • What am I responsible for conveying?

  • Where will I physically be telling the story?If the story is meant only for a certain audience, learn about the location where you’ll be delivering it. Not all building walls are soundproof. Stories like to travel! Know the answers to these questions before showing up to share it:

    • Is the setting formal or informal? What will the general mood be?

    • Is my presentation during a meal?

    • Is the audience going to be seated or standing? Am I going to be seated or standing?

    • What audio visual equipment do I need?

    • Will I be mic’d or need to project only using my voice?

  • When will I be sharing the story? To aid you in making some decisions about story placement, get the answers to these questions:

    • What is the timing of my presentation on the agenda?

    • How much time do I have? Have I scheduled practicing the story (and my presentation) so I know it fits the allotted time?

    • How will I get the audience ready to listen? If you know they’ll be tired or distracted, open with a story to capture their attention.

    • How can I weave a story into other information that I need to share? Some rules of thumb: If you suspect they may resist what you have to say, relay a story beforehand that helps them understand its importance.

  • How will I be perceived given the story I share? This question centers around intent. Decide to be the center of exposure, not the center of attention. Also consider:

    • What does my audience know about me?

    • What preconceived notions might they have about me?

    • What’s my role? Am I the only speaker or one of many?

  • What’s the content of the story?If the story is about your company or its employees, offerings, or customers, integrate some portion of your own story into it. People need a personal connection to help them meld the lessons into their lives and create their own personal meaning.

    On the flip side, if the story is a personal one, make sure it has an element that links it to your organization. That gives it the larger sense of belonging everyone desires. Stay away from painful or embarrassing stories or those that speak to life-and-death challenges until you’ve established rapport and credibility. Before telling a story, you’ll want to know:

    • What current events are impacting listeners’ lives today?

    • What do they know about my topic, cause, or organization?

    • For my topic, what’s familiar to them and what may be foreign?

    • What can or can’t I say? The last thing you want is to inadvertently offend someone because of cultural or ethnic nuances — or peculiarities inside a company. For example, some organizations take offense to any type of profanity. Learn in advance whether you can share such content. Not all places are receptive to it.

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