News & Insight
August 2007

Storytelling in Business

Once upon a time…

… an executive just promoted to a Vice Presidency role for a Fortune 100 company phoned us. His president had asked him to speak at the annual meeting. The topic was “Change and Leadership.” This was a big moment for him. Having sat through many dull and boring talks he wanted to avoid that minefield, set the right tone for his own mission, and demonstrate to his boss he had named the right person for the job.

He initially told us he was a laid-back type and had concerns about whether he’d come across as influential and inspirational. Before we began jointly composing his speech, I had him stand up and share with me, as a presenter, his background. This resulted in looking at a number of delivery styles and coming up with the one best suited for him. Too often speakers try to emulate others speakers because they like their styles. Everyone has a natural voice. The trick is to find it.

When I suggested using stories for getting his points across and connecting with the audience he initially balked. “Stories, what stories? This is a business meeting not a kiddie show. Besides I don’t have any stories to tell.”

This was a strong-minded leader. But he was open to hearing another viewpoint. I told him that more leaders were using stories to get their point across, in connecting with stakeholders, in bringing about organizational change and in impacting the bottom line. I cited articles written on this topic including some in the Harvard Business Review.

Moreover, I shared with him my belief that “powerpointitis” plagued too many executives. That charts, figures and graphs had their place. But they failed to evoke emotions as stories did. When emotions were evoked, the message lingered on, people remembered and were more likely to be moved into action. I added that stories were a key to getting employees’ heads into the game.

He agreed to give it a try and we went to work. I showed him how to access stories from his professional and personal life. We went back to his early childhood, to his college days and reviewed his business career. We drew lessons he had learned about change and leadership from his experiences. We pruned and pruned and slotted in three stories and a few vignettes he was comfortable with, all related to his theme.

I then suggested adding humor to his speech. Almost chiding me he said, “No way, I’m not a comedian. I’m not funny. Do you want me to make a fool of myself?”

I explained to him that no one was trying to turn him into a Billy Crystal or an arm flailing Jim Carey. Nevertheless, that there were techniques that one could learn to tell stories with a humorous slant. That in a story, humor properly positioned, greatly increased the odds of audiences remembering a talk’s key point. Once again, though somewhat skeptical, he was still receptive to another viewpoint. As he rehearsed his presentation and got out of his comfort zone, we developed a few humorous lines. He came up with the funniest and most poignant one.

He phoned me a few hours after his speech. He was obviously very pleased. He said, “The audience applauded forever. As I came off the stage, another VP ran up to me and said, ‘I had no idea you were such a charismatic speaker.’ Our president looked for me after the program and said, ‘Great going, great stuff.’”

The executive continued telling me about his day on the platform. He was as excited as a child who had just gotten his first two-wheeler. He paused for a few seconds as if to catch his breath and said, “It was the stories. They were the difference. Thank you for pushing me.”

A former corporate executive, Juan Negroni, a consultant, speaker and writer, has been associated with WJM since its founding. Multi-skilled, he works with executives in helping them write speeches (ghostwriting also), in discovering and honing their delivery styles, and in accessing and developing their personal stories.

A ten-year member of the National Speakers Association, the premier international speakers group, Juan is a past president of an NSA chapter. He is currently the president of an Institute of Management Consultants chapter.

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