Storytelling for Executives – How to have IMPACT

At the very beginning of what was supposed to be a highly motivational talk to employees, a senior healthcare executive uttered these six words:

“Let me begin by telling you a story.”

Oh no, I thought, with a silent groan. It’s usually not a great idea to start by saying “let me begin by telling you a story” unless you are sitting on a carpet with a group of kindergarteners.

The executive then proceeded to go on for several minutes about his childhood and why he went into healthcare. When he finally finished (with no apparent point), he didn’t seem to know what to say next, so he paused and said….

”And that’s why the work we do is so important. Let me now talk about our new initiative.”

The transition was about as smooth as a truck ride on a road full of potholes, but it hardly mattered because by that time his audience had tuned out, bored by the lengthy soliloquy. And since there was little connection between his “story” and the rest of his talk, people were left feeling annoyed. Not a great beginning. I felt sorry for this smart, accomplished and obviously well-intentioned man. Clearly, someone had told him he should begin his talk with a personal story – but no one had taught him how to do that effectively.

It’s been pounded into our heads that stories are an important tool for bringing a presentation to life. Many studies show that stories engage people more than facts and can even change minds. But it takes skill to know when a story is appropriate, how to tell a good story and how to weave it seamlessly into a talk.

Effective stories have IMPACT. They should be:

  • Interesting and engaging;
  • Meaningful to your audience;
  • Pertinent to your message;
  • Appealing to the heart as well as the head;
  • Concise and to the point; and they should
  • Transition fluidly into your talk

In other words, stories must have IMPACT. But how do you achieve Story IMPACT without a PhD in communications? Here, I breakdown the elements of Story IMPACT and provide a brief primer on how to realize them.

  1. Interesting and engaging
    Think of stories as punctuation for your key points, a way to make the audience care about your message. For example, if an executive wants to motivate employees, a personal story might be appropriate. However, an anecdote about how the company’s new technology will make people’s lives easier might inspire them equally as well. When developing a story, think about what would interest you. If you don’t feel comfortable and excited about the story, your audience probably won’t either.
  2. Meaningful to your audience
    I once heard a presenter make an analogy between a scientific study and a horserace. In a misguided attempt to drive the point home, the presenter over-developed the story with details about jockeys, horse types and racing statistics. Clever, perhaps, but her audience didn’t care about horseraces – they wanted to know if the study met its primary endpoint. Don’t tell a story that has nothing to do with your audience. Studies show audiences are much more likely to respond to a story that is relevant to them.
  3. Pertinent to your message
    Remember, whether the story falls at the beginning, middle or end of your presentation, you are telling it for a reason – to bring a key or overall message to life. You want to create an “aha” moment. Let’s say you’re trying to make the point that a change in company strategy will benefit customers, employees and shareowners. A pertinent story might be one about how switching direction led to success for an organization, a country or even an individual. As long as the story supports the point you are trying to make, it can work.
  4. Appeals to the heart and mind
    This is the storytelling element that tends to “turn off” scientists and other pragmatic, “left-brain” thinkers. But it’s also one of the most important components. Recall the story of the mother who had to decide which of her two sons’ hands to release as a tsunami engulfed them all? She decided to let go of the older son, thinking he had the best chance of surviving on his own. Luckily, he DID survive, as did she and her younger son. Which moves you more – that story or a litany of statistics about a tsunami? That’s why fundraisers frequently use stories to put a “human face” on the issue. Studies show that people are much more likely to understand and care about a message if they can link it to a personal experience or if they can imagine how they would feel in similar circumstances.
  5. Concise and to the point.
    Very few people can pull off a long story. Keep your stories as short as possible (think “paragraph” rather than “page”), using only those details that are most colorful and important. People don’t need to know everything that happened, they just need a summary and a few very vivid, specific details. Become a ruthless editor. Cut out all details that aren’t necessary to move the story along.
  6. Transition easily into your talk.
    If your story meets the above criteria, it will be far more focused and therefore much easier to transition into the talk. Think about it. What is the link? If the link isn’t obvious, or it seems that it would take too much time to explain or be too much of a “stretch,” you may want to rethink your story to be more pertinent to your message.

Stories, examples, and even analogies are among the most effective ways to reach and engage an audience. They can help you simplify highly complex concepts and facts, clarifying what might otherwise be unclear, and bringing your talk to life.

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Penny Daniels

For nearly two decades, Penny has coached executives in complex industries like healthcare, technology, and defense to communicate as leaders in urgent, high-pressure environments.

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