We all have a story to tell. For business professionals writing books, creating brand stories, and delivering presentations, it can be hard to share the raw and emotional aspects of that story. If you’re nervous about telling your story, you’re not alone — 61% of employees “cover” their identities in some way while at work.
Your mind might flood with worries around how to tell a story about yourself in a business context. Vulnerability — particularly in professional settings or published business books — feels like an existential threat. Our minds make up stories that if people knew certain things about us, they’d be scared away and withdraw their trust or business.
These assumptions are generally incorrect. When sharing vulnerable aspects of my own story, 90% of the room leans in. I recently spoke to a crowd of 50 business leaders about vulnerability at work, and a few of them leaned away when I talked about stealing from my first employer; meanwhile, the majority of attendees trusted me more for telling them how I wasn’t trustworthy. This is the power of vulnerability and the value of allowing ourselves to express emotions within a business context.
The Struggles of Storytelling for Professionals Using Their Left vs. Right Brain
Adding to the problem of business storytelling is the left vs. right brain challenge. Many people in business invest their educational resources in the left brain, which enhances intellectual horsepower. The right brain — the creative side — is often underdeveloped in comparison.
It leads to what psychologists refer to as Maslow’s Hammer: If the only tool you have is a hammer, you begin to treat everything as if it were a nail. Similarly, when your left brain is dominant, everything becomes an intellectual problem to be solved. But an intellectual approach doesn’t lead to great storytelling for professionals — creativity is necessary.
“Content” is made up of two primary ingredients: the information and the delivery system (if you interpreted “delivery system” to mean the technology used to propagate content, that was your intellectual brain showing bias). The delivery system is the medium (e.g., film, business memoir, whitepaper), and since businesses often include plenty of left-brain thinkers, they often don’t consider artistic delivery options for content.
When you use data-centric delivery methods, readers can’t easily see themselves in the data set. When audiences hear a story, however, they insert themselves into that world intuitively. Stories activate our imaginations and create greater connections to the subject. This points back to the benefits of sharing emotions and the power of vulnerability, particularly in a business context.
“The most powerful person in the world is the storyteller.” – Steve Jobs
How to Tell a Great Story
Here are a few storytelling techniques for business that professionals can use to activate the imaginations of their audiences:
1. Invite people into the room where it happened.
There’s a difference between telling an audience what you learned and inviting them into the moment — when you learned it — in a cinematic way.
For example, if I want an audience to understand the power of vulnerability, I don’t just cite research; I tell a vulnerable and personal story, like the time I had an opportunity to cheat on my wife. I share how much personal development work I was doing and explain that my wife rarely joined me because she’s extremely private. I felt lonely, and I ended up bonding with one woman as we shared our experiences. I had cheated on girlfriends when I was younger, but I made it clear to this new connection that I had no desire to repeat this cycle.
When I told my wife I had set these boundaries, she accused me of emotionally cheating on her (which she said was worse). I made good decisions and still almost ruined my marriage! My wife eventually understood the depth of my loneliness and joined a program with me, which repaired our relationship. At this point in the story, I typically ask audience members to notice their body language. Is my vulnerability repelling them or pulling them toward me?
The imaginations of those leaning in are activated to a point where their physical reactions defy logic. The intellectual side of their minds might be saying that vulnerability is too risky, but their physical responses made them feel drawn to me when I was vulnerable. Business storytelling and inviting people into moments like this can provide greater emotional connections that build trust between you and your audience.
2. Share the origin story.
When we want to persuade an audience to trust us, we assume they need a list of achievements demonstrating our authority. If I want you to believe in my ability to capture the defining stories of your life, I can say I’ve been trusted by clients like the CEO of Zappos or executives with Microsoft. I can use these data points to build a case for your trust. But would you feel in your bones that you trust me? Probably not.
Instead, I might talk about an instrumental time when I helped a member of a company’s leadership team articulate the moment he started dreaming that a future without his wife (whom he lost many years ago) might still be possible for himself and his son. Helping him reveal a vulnerable story to his team — and having that story become an essential part of what the company stands for — was an origin story for him, for the business, and for me.
When we take the time to explore the stories that define us and experience the benefits of sharing our emotions, we invite the world to see how the universe has prepared us for what we do. That builds trust in ways that data cannot.
“Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world.” – Robert McKee
Focus on the five senses.
How can we engage our audience to tell them a great story? By focusing on the five senses and giving just enough detail that their imaginations fill in the rest.
For example, I could tell you that I learned about the power of connection when I was 10 years old and stared into my baby cousin’s eyes at my grandparents’ house. If I want to activate your imagination, though, I could share the following:
- Sight. Visually, what do I recall? The blue shag carpet in my grandparents’ living room, and my cousin’s eyes staring back at me.
- Sound. What do I remember hearing? My cousin’s coos and the rustle of his pajamas against his diaper when he wiggled his arms and legs.
- Smell. What is my scent memory of that moment? My grandmother’s famous chopped liver and my grandfather’s signature bagels and smoked fish.
- Taste. What could I taste? Remnants of baby powder from kissing my cousin’s forehead.
- Touch. What did I feel at that moment? His tiny hand in mine.
When we focus on the five senses in business storytelling, we allow our audience into the moment with us. Don’t share so many details that there’s no room for them to play; offer just enough to shift them from audience members to participants.
Embrace the power of vulnerability and invite your audience into the room with you. In doing so, you’ll create the kind of content people are excited to revisit, reflect upon, converse about, share, and, most importantly, act upon.