Storytelling in business consists of creating a match: that between the story and the audience. You might have what you think is the greatest story in the world, but most audience members of a certain type might disagree. Conversely, you might have what you consider to be a mundane, uninteresting story, but it may resonate deeply with certain audiences. Part of your job as a leader, therefore, is to think about the essential elements of your story (plot, emotional quality, takeaways) and align them with what you know about your target audiences. Here are four truths to guide you through this process.
Truth 1: You are not alone.
Every writer and speaker is in the same boat. Everyone needs to think carefully about how to connect with their audience. This does not happen by chance.
Here’s what five business leaders, artists and intellectuals had to say about connecting with the public.
Chip Heath, professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business:
“To make our communications more effective, we need to change our way of thinking: ‘What information should I convey?’ to ‘What questions do I want my audience to ask?’
Karen Armstrong, religious historian:
“Storytelling is fine as long as you can encourage people to act on the stories.”
Kenneth Branagh, actor:
“My experience of great storytelling, working with classics, is just finding a way to simply present it but let the story do its own thing or be an invitation to the audience’s imagination.”
Maya Angelou, poet and civil rights activist:
“I learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Michel de Montaigne, philosopher:
“Speech belongs half to the speaker, half to the listener.”
Truth 2: You can plan ahead.
Don’t just jump in when it comes to connecting with your audience. Think a little beforehand.
One of the simplest yet most powerful exercises I can recommend is to simply take a sheet of paper and divide it into two columns. In the first column, write everything you know about your audience. Who are they? What keeps them up at night? In the second column, write down anything you don’t know. It’s equally important to define what you don’t know, as this helps you avoid assumptions. This simple exercise will help you better understand your audience and refine the focus of your presentation.
Truth 3: You must be uncomfortable.
Sometimes connecting with your audience means you have to get uncomfortable. You have to get out of your routine to know how to meet their needs.
Truth 4: You have to watch your tone.
Your tone will affect how your audience understands your message.
When it’s time to give a presentation, most of us start with the question “what am I going to say?” But really, the most important question is “who is my audience?” We can have a clean presentation, never utter a single “uh” or stumble over a single word, spend thousands designing our deck… but if we don’t have a clear idea of who our audience is, we have all wasted this effort. The main goal should be to connect with our audience on a human level.
Need help reaching your audience? Consistent practice is important. Look for opportunities to create and tell your stories with other business leaders wherever you can.