“Storytelling,” done properly, it’s a powerful way to engage your audience and land your point. But, like most things, it has its risks.
When stories miss the mark, especially in business settings, the result is an audience that is bored or confused (“What does this guy’s cat have to do with cloud computing?”).
I’ve seen storytelling go off the rails, usually because:
1. The exec on stage can’t act.
2. The exec on stage talks too much.
Let’s face it; nobody goes to business school to launch an acting career. Few execs (certainly not all, but few) are good actors.
Moreover, it’s not easy to tell a good story on stage in front of lots of people. The natural tendency is to put in too much detail. This may make the speaker feel like they are wrapping the audience in the magic of their great vision and transporting them to a far off land, but in reality it works against them.
Details prevent the audience from using their imagination. Stephen King explained this well in his non-fiction book On Writing. To paraphrase Mr. King:*
“Don’t talk about the color of the carpet
when there is a monster in the closet.”
Remember, the audience did not show up expecting a poetry slam, so keep it short. Really short. 60 seconds, tops. Think about what you can say within a 140 character tweet; 60 seconds is more than enough time.
An example. Here is a good story with a nice clear moral (but sadly dubious providence). Give it a try but remember you can read much faster than you can speak. For the full effect, stand up and read it aloud in your best “executive voice.” I bet you get bored doing it.
Fleming was a poor Scottish farmer. One day, while trying to make a living for his family, he heard a cry for help coming from a nearby bog. He dropped his tools and ran to the scene.
There, mired to his waist in black muck, was a terrified boy, screaming and struggling to free himself. Farmer Fleming saved the lad from what could have been a slow and terrifying death.
The next day, a fancy carriage pulled up to the Scotsman’s sparse surroundings. An elegantly dressed nobleman stepped out and introduced himself as the father of the boy Farmer Fleming had saved.
‘I want to repay you,’ said the nobleman. ‘You saved my son’s life.’
‘No, I can’t accept payment for what I did,’ the Scottish farmer replied waving off the offer. At that moment, the farmer’s own son came to the door of the family hovel.
‘Is that your son?’ the nobleman asked.
‘Yes,’ the farmer replied proudly.
‘I’ll make you a deal. Let me provide him with the level of education my own son will enjoy. If the lad is anything like his father, he’ll no doubt grow to be a man we both will be proud of.’
And that he did.
Farmer Fleming’s son attended the very best schools and in time, graduated from St. Mary’s Hospital Medical School in London, and went on to become known throughout the world as the noted Sir Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of Penicillin.
Years afterward, the same nobleman’s son who was saved from the bog was stricken with pneumonia.
What saved his life this time? Penicillin.
The name of the nobleman? Lord Randolph Churchill… His son’s name?
Sir Winston Churchill.
Someone once said: What goes around comes around.
It’s a good story, but do we really need to know that the nobleman’s “fancy carriage” arrived at the farmer’s “hovel?” If he’s noble I’m sure his carriage is fancy and if the farmer is poor than I’m sure he’s not spending a lot on curb appeal. The details are not necessary, in fact, they get in the way.
Here’s the 60 second version:
One day, a humble Scottish farmer rescued a boy from a terrible accident.
The next day the boy’s father, a nobleman, appeared and said, “You saved my son’s life, in return let me provide your son with the same education my own will enjoy.”
And he did.
The farmer’s son grew up to be Sir Alexander Fleming, the man who discovered Penicillin.
Later, when the nobleman’s son was stricken with pneumonia it was Penicillin saved him.
Clearly, what goes around comes around.
…and by the way, the name of the nobleman’s son? Sir Winston Churchill.
Tight, but I think it works. Anyone can deliver this in less than a minute. It’s hard for the audience to get bored in that amount of time.
Compare the two versions. The shorter story gives enough detail to get the point, and lets the audience engage their brains to fill in the blanks. Even better, while you don’t have to be Glynn Washington to deliver it well.
*I have re-read On Writing a few times looking for where Mr. King said this exact phrase. Turns out, I imagined it. He does make the same point, but does not put it into one sentence. If I have misrepresented his thoughts, the fault is entirely mine. (But it really is a good book so go read it.)