TEDTalk: The Problem With Stories

Professor and economist Tyler Cowen spoke about storytelling at TEDxMidAtlantic from late 2009. He talks about the problems with stories. There are some unique things in here, such as focusing on the stories where no one has an incentive to sell something. (Cowen holds the Holbert C. Harris Chair of economics as a professor at George Mason University and is co-author of the popular economics blog Marginal Revolution.)
 

 

A Common Pitfall in Business Storytelling: Wrong Story Overall

Over the last few days I’ve written about the four major steps in organizational storytelling, modeled after Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. But, even with all the right elements in place, there are pitfalls to avoid.

For one, be sure you are telling your story to the right audience.  Or rather, have the right story for the audience.

Ensuring your story resonates with your listeners requires you know something about them. I am not talking about deep market research. Just some basic facts will do. If you are speaking before a group, are they from a particular industry? Have a common need, vision or issue? If it is an individual, do you know them personally? (If not, keep the story as universal as possible.)

For instance, if you are speaking to a group of people in the hospice industry do not tell a story about how your rock climbing injury kept you from reaching the top of Mount Everest. If you are a CEO and are lamenting about your contractor problems on your beach house before an audience that could never afford such a luxury, expect to miss the mark.

Universal themes are always the safest bet, unless you know the group or individual intimately. Being relevant is more important than being titillating.

3 Pitfalls to Avoid in Corporate Storytelling

Want to include storytelling in your corporate communications? Avoid these three common pitfalls.

1.     Good story, wrong audience. Or should we write, good audience, wrong story? If you are speaking to a group of people in the hospice industry you would not tell a story about your rock climbing injury that keeps you from reaching the top of Mount Everest. That may be an obvious example, but don’t forget the more nuanced scenarios.

2.     Not enough suspense or twists and turns. Stories have to have a beginning, middle and end. But, they also need to have some air of unpredictability to be interesting. Catch your audience off guard and you will have caught their attention. But, remember number one above. Make sure the twist is appropriate.

3.     Too much corporate jargon.  This goes for marketing speak, too. Because if you believe your 24/7 enterprise solution brings mission-critical projects to fruition, adding to the corporate bottom line and realizing a greater ROI than the other guy down the street – and you describe it that way – you have successfully put your audience to sleep. Or, running from the room.

Develop your story and then check to see if they fall into these traps above. Edit and repeat. The world loves a good story. Be sure your attempts at introducing storytelling stay out of the snares.

Book Recommendation for Storytellers: Transformational Speaking

If you have embraced the power of storytelling — whether for business, a nonprofit or your own career — consider reading this book: Transformational Speaking: If You Want to Change the World, Tell a Better Story, by Gail Larsen. Formerly with the National Speakers Bureau, Larsen walks the reader through the art of telling a unique, authentic story from how to find that story to how to deliver it.

She states “There are two kinds of memorable speakers. There are those who impress us with their delivery and style and cause us to say, ‘He was a great speaker!’ – then return to our lives and work unchanged. . . Then there are those who arouse us on an inner level, awakening us to what we care about and prompting serious inquiry about the changes we’re committed to making. That’s transformational speaking.”

If you want the world to understand you, your organization, your cause, your products or services, at some point you will be called to speak. More than having a well crafted elevator pitch, you must learn to tell your story in such a way that ignites the other person to action.

This book isn’t about learning a new technique. Rather, as she says in the book, “Great speaking is less about being “fixed” than being found. When you come home to yourself and discover your best material and unique way of communicating, you’ll find there’s nothing broken.”

A Great Spokesperson Goes Beyond Knowing The Message

Identifying the “right” spokesperson is often a big topic in the board room when public relations campaigns and social media efforts are discussed. And, usually the CEO or someone else with a big job title is named. After all, they come with the clout and cache, right?

Not necessarily. A job title does not necessarily make the person the best representative of the message or brand.

It should go without saying that the chosen someone should know the message and story and be able to answer questions related to the topic at hand. But, that’s not the only skill required. Great message delivers also have the following characteristics.

  • They are likeable. People are attracted to the messages of people they like. So, unless the story calls for being outraged, putting someone before a microphone or behind a podium that will make the audience uncomfortable isn’t wise. Rarely do you want someone who is confrontational, angry or sarcastic to lead the charge. You want someone who can figuratively bond with the audience.
  • They have the appropriate energy for the topic, the brand and the audience. Just like you wouldn’t put someone who talks like a 22 year old professional skateboarder before a group of Wall Street investors (unless they are selling stock for a skateboarding company), you want to make sure the audience can related to said spokesperson. You want a spokesperson who can inspire and make audience members (even the audience of one) feel a certain way.
  • They demonstrate real interest in their audience. There is no faster way to turn off a reporter or an audience than to act bored or disinterested. Why should someone care about someone who doesn’t seem to care about them?

What else do you believe a good spokesperson should have to move an audience to action?