The one bit of advice that changed me

When I was about 10 years old, my father took me to a storytelling event in Knoxville Tennessee. Knoxville is an unusual place. Nestled in the hills of Tennessee, among people who have chosen to live life “apart” from many modern conveniences, the city hosts a world-class university with top rated Engineering and Agricultural colleges among others. Living in this crossroads, I grew up appreciating both the written stories of Shakespeare and Shaw as well as the oral traditions of the Appalachian mountains.

So there I sat, a boy among an audience of graduate students and college professors, on a long bench. The hall was filled with benches, all occupied by people, everyone sitting in rapt attention as one Appalachian storyteller after another walked to the front of the cavernous barn of a room, and filled the space with their voices. The room was hot and muggy, and smelled of sweat and peanuts, but no one seemed to notice.

I specifically remember one wisp of a lady, thin and pale, wearing a long skirt of drab colors and a white shirt that somehow seemed to overflow her shoulders and spill down her freckled arms. She must have been fourty years old, which to my young eyes made her ancient and wise. Her story was that of a simple farmer, in the hills, who made a little money selling crops, and a little more money selling moonshine. The lilting sing-song of her voice, the gestures of her arms, both grand and subtle, drew us in and kept us there, a room of strangers who, for one brief hour, were a family. We laughed, we listened, and when she was done, we were more, something more, than we had been when we had assembled that evening. I’ll never forget her.

It’s my anniversary of Story Telling. While I’ve been keenly aware of stories, and storytelling, throughout my life, it’s officially a decade since I started actually practicing the intentional act of “telling stories to create change in business and life.”

A great deal has changed along the way. For one, the idea of using stories in business is no longer a crazy idea. Business storytelling is main stream now. Secondly, instead of being an act of faith (Believing in story telling without proof), I can speak from experience: business storytelling has positively impacted my career and my life.

Along the way, I’ve picked up quite a bit of experience in using stories, some more effective than others. The one bit of advice that I would share today, that I wish I had known earlier is this: stories are sensory and emotional. If your presentation is neither sensory nor emotional, start over.

We’ve been taught that business decisions should be fact-based, and therefore most presentations are full of dry facts and figures. Unfortunately, those presentations produce the fewest results.

If you are willing to be creative, and interesting, your presentation can be exciting and memorable. That means stepping away from simple facts and figures, and being willing to do something brave — tell a story.

To be successful, your story must transport your listener (or reader) away from their chair. A good story is set in a time and place. There is temperature, color, smell, and sound. There are characters and changes and shared experiences.

When you prepare your business story, write it down. As you reread it, ask yourself if you can smell the story. Can you taste it? Can you feel it in your fingertips?

Make your story sensory, as well as making it surprising, and funny, and playful. How you tell the story is every bit as important as the facts and figures that you want your audience to know.
What will happen? Your audience will remember your story, and, if you’ve followed the rest of the CAST process, they will be one step closer to believing in the changes you will bring.

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