Consuming stories is something we are programmed to do as humans. From the first cave paintings, to the Homeric word of mouth tales, to the written word, to recorded media, we can’t get enough of a good yarn. What are the top tips for storytelling?
As I talked about in my last post, stories help us understand the world around us and are a primary mode of communication. We just love stories.
Stories at work
It’s follows then that bringing storytelling into business is a logical progression. “We want our people to be better storytellers” is a common request I hear. I’m not sure that’s what people really are really asking for, though; and I think it comes down to that word. Storyteller.
A word of two parts
If we look at the two words that make up storyteller, and turn to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), we learn that story is:
1. An account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment.
2. An account of past events in someone’s life or in the development of something.
Both of which sound pretty good, right?
If we look at the second part of the word “teller” we find the OED says:
1. A person employed to deal with customers’ transactions in a bank.
Which is no help at all, and
2. A person who tells something.
Which also isn’t much help.
Further, when you look at the example the OED gives for this last definition it states “A foul mouth teller of lies”. This I find really interesting. The act of telling something is given a really negative example, whereas the story element is extremely positively described. This ties into the sense that there is something inherently mistrustful about the act of human communication – if you can’t see it (written down) you can’t prove it. And yet, so much of our communication is verbal.
Storytelling or Telling stories?
This is where the storytelling training people are asking for becomes more about the telling of stories than the crafting of them. A quick search on Google can give you numerous models for structuring a story but knowing how to tell it well is more of a challenge.
Here are my 8 top tips for telling stories in a way that keeps your audience engaged and with you (and actually, it’s just about effective communication).
1. Find the floor
Whether seated or standing, have your weight evenly distributed between your feet (when standing) or your pelvis (when sitting). This will “ground” you, giving you a stable base to speak from and help people “know what you stand for”.
2. Energise the spine
This might sound like a ‘no brainer’ but a slouched spine can give off unintended messages about a lack of engagement. Similarly, an over-energised spine can force your messages out in a way that pushes the information in your audience’s face. Ideally you want a Goldilocks energy: not too much, not too little…just right.
3. Connect through the eyes
There is a lot of evidence indicating that we don’t trust people whose eyes we can’t see. Look at your audience. See if they are engaged and wait until you receive some flicker of acknowledgement from them that they are with you.
4. If in doubt, breathe out
We all know the sensation of a tightening of breath; the sense that things are not going well, that eyes (and ears) are on us, and that we need to perform well. Held breath is the enemy of effective communication so make a habit of consciously (although not audibly) breathing out before speaking. As one of my colleagues says, “breathe out, to breathe in”’
5. Energise the breath
Breath is the fuel for your voice. It allows you to be heard and gives your words weight. How much breath you put behind your words will in large part, determine their impact. This does not mean having a breathy voice, rather it means engaging the abdominal muscles used for breathing to put energy, passion and conviction to what you say.
You’d be amazed when you hear the difference between excellent and just “ok” articulation. If you’re lucky enough to have a sound bar for your television, it’s kind of like that. Casual articulation can mean the difference between people expending energy trying to hear you (and getting tired but not knowing why) and people who can sit back, enjoy what you re sharing and expend energy digesting your message and formulating their own opinion around it.
7. Pause more
I’m willing to bet money that no matter how much you pause, you can afford to do more. I’m not sure in more than twelve years of coaching, I’ve ever had to say, “you know what, you really need to speed up”. Pausing, like good articulation, allows your audience to catch up with you, receive your message without effort, digest it, form a position on it, and be ready to hear your next point. It also allows you to consider what you want to say next.
8. Use your voice
By this I don’t mean just “speak”. I mean use the full rang that your voice is capable of. As the delivery method of your content, your voice is your single biggest tool of influence: don’t let it go for nothing. How you vary your pitch, tone, rhythm and energy will all help to keep the listeners’ ears completely with you.
These points are key for landing your stories effectively but they are not just for stories. These are general rules for effective communication and presentation in particular. The current vogue for storytelling has, in my opinion, become slightly muddled up with effective communication. And as stories are a core communication tool, it’s not any surprise this has happened.
So, the next time someone asks you to be the storyteller, remember to separate out the two things and plan both with equal energy.
PS. The image I’m using was one of the few Google images searches using the word “storytelling” that yielded a human form speaking. The majority show books. Books may contain the story but they don’t do the telling!