How to Tell the Tough Stories in Business

What about those tough stories — the ones you may think you should avoid? Often, you should tell them anyways. Do you want to tell stories that aren’t your own? You need to know a few things before you do so.

How to make the most of your personal stories

Not all of your stories will shake the foundations of the universe. But every story can impart meaning. As you begin to tell your stories (and those of others), you’ll discover that more and more stories come to you.

It’s easy to take your personal stories for granted. You live with them, you share them privately, and that’s about it. But you have another opportunity. As you hone, craft, and share stories, you enter a land of ongoing learning. Like this:

  • The key message is no longer the key message. Stories will inevitably morph over time. As you tell the same story to different audiences you may find you have different answers to the questions “What do I need to say about the story this time? What do these people need to hear from the story today?”

  • Stories have a life of their own. If you pay attention, your stories will tell you when they want to be told. You’ll be chatting with someone and all of a sudden a story pops in.

  • Reframe the story if you’re tired of it or if it’s lacking juice. Maybe you have additional options for how to tell the story because of a new audience or a new business context or position you’re in. Perhaps one of the layers of meaning now carries more significance. Or a new meaning has shown up that holds more value and should now become the key message.

  • Retire your stories. You’ve told them over and over and over again. They’re not attractive to you any longer. It’s good to retire stories periodically. They need a rest and so do you. After a while, you may return to tell them in a different way — after you gain a new insight into the situation. It’s okay.

Communicate really tough stories

Sharing stories about a health challenge, a layoff, losing a business, tragic events, accidents or death, crimes and punishments, and victims and perpetrators are all tough to tell and part of the business landscape.

Your work is to understand the meaning of these events as best you can and learn how to share the experiences in ways that help all of us discover and grow.

Storytelling isn’t about doing personal therapy with your listeners. Before you tell it, your tough story and relationship to the experience should already be worked out, and the story should be well crafted, with a meaning that fits the audience.

If the story you share brings up a lot of sadness, allow this to be okay. It’s okay to pause and explain why you feel the way you do before continuing the story.

When stories make others cry, it’s okay to pause to silently acknowledge what’s going on. Sometimes people get “stuck” for a moment because what you’re sharing touches them deeply or makes them sad. Keep sharing your story, moving toward resolution and your key message, knowing it will provide hope, meaning, and context for them to resolve their emotions.

Share stories that aren’t your own

When we tell personal stories, we relive the experiences. When we share the stories of others, we must find ways to imagine and embrace their experiences. That means you must do your homework. How do they talk? How do they normally behave? What goes through their mind?

This is where audiotaping the raw story can really help. You capture the sound of their voice and their vocal intonations as well as colloquialisms they use as they talk. If the person is no longer alive, read about them. If possible, talk to people who knew or worked with them.

Your responsibility when using someone else’s story is to tell it authentically. If you want to tell the story a certain way, or emphasize a different key message, ask the person whose story you’re using for permission to alter it. You can also keep the original key message and then share the meaning the story has for you, your key message.

When you’re telling someone else’s story, actually share it. Don’t fall into the trap of telling about them. Share the story as it was told to you. Always seek approval to tell it in first person voice.

When using other people’s stories, get permission from them and properly attribute it. Also acknowledge how you learned about the story and how you came to tell it.

Know when not to tell the whole story

There are at least three situations where not sharing the entire story is advantageous.

  • Using stories in training: Consider taking a real-life situation and only giving people the story through the conflict portion. Then have listeners create the ending. You may split up your listeners in groups, asking groups to craft the best possible ending, a worst-case scenario, and a most likely ending.

    Afterward, talk about all three and draw meaning from them. In this way, you help others develop critical thinking skills about the subject matter.

  • Unfolding stories involve a single story with individual pieces revealed over a period of time in order to create and heighten drama and interest.

  • Big experiences or adventures: These are stories that take an hour or two to tell. That’s when you should create a story cycle — mini-stories about a specific event that are best treated as a series of stories. At any given time, you can dip into that treasure trove, pick one or two that are relevant to the audience, and share them.

    Another way to treat a group of mini-stories within a larger story is to serialize them. You can organize the stories as they happened over time or by theme, or choose a specific mini-story to fit an immediate need.

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