How to Tell a Great Story
There are few sales tools more powerful than stories, if they're appropriate and well-told. Because they are always about people and events that changed people's lives in some way, anecdotes create emotion and interest. They teach without preaching. They paint mental pictures that are worth a thousand buzzwords.
Last year, I had the privilege of working with two really smart guys–Mike Bosworth (of "Solution Selling" fame) and Ben Zoldan, one of Mike's top trainers–on a early draft of what later would become their new book about business storytelling.
Since then, I've been thinking about what I learned, and using it in my work. I thought I'd share my own "take" on how to tell a memorable business anecdote, based upon the ideas that Mike and Ben were developing.
Here's a seven-step process:
1. Decide on the takeaway first.
Figure out exactly what you want the listener to believe, understand or do when you've completed the anecdote. In social settings, stories are generally told to strengthen relationships; you might tell a funny story, for instance, so that everyone can laugh and feel closer.
The same thing is true in business relationships–except that, in addition to creating a better relationship, the anecdote should advance whatever business transaction is taking place.
For example, if you're selling an inventory control system, you might want to tell an anecdote about a customer you helped, or a disaster that you helped avert. Similarly, if you're trying to foster trust, you might tell an anecdote about how you overcame temptation and did the right thing.
2. Pick the ending that will create the takeaway.
When you tell the anecdote, you'll start at the beginning of the story. However, what's most important is the ending of the anecdote, which should make the point that you're trying to communicate.
For example, if you want to convince a customer that your company has a dependable service department, you might select an anecdote where your support team worked through a holiday weekend to make sure a customer had their system up and running. (Hint: That result is the ending.)
3. Begin with who, where, when ... and a hint of direction.
Here's where most people falter when telling anecdotes. Memorable anecdotes engage the imagination, which is only possible if you create images in the listener's mind to make the story real and relevant.
Every great story–and indeed, every great movie, novel, or TV show–starts with a person (who is going to do something), a place (where things are going to happen), a time (so people can relate "then" to "now"), and just a hint of direction, indicating where the anecdote is headed.
Here are some examples from famous stories (and a gold star to anyone who recognizes all three):
- It befell in the days of Uther Pendragon, when he was king of all England, and so reigned, that there was a mighty duke in Cornwall that held war against him long time.
- Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do ...
- As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.
4. Intensify human interest by adding context.
Memorable anecdotes add emotional power by putting the four elements above into stronger context. For example, suppose the bare bones of your anecdote begin like this:
It was late Friday before a holiday weekend, and we got a service call from our biggest customer. Their system was down and they were losing money by the minute.
Now, here's the same beginning, but with some additional details for context:
A few months ago, our engineers were on the edge of being burned out. They'd just released a new product, after many months of hard work and overtime. Everybody was looking forward to a long holiday weekend, the first in months without a looming deadline. As you can imagine, that Friday was almost like a holiday itself. Everyone was relaxed and happy. Then we get this call ...
The first version might spark some interest, especially among people who live and breathe customer service, but the second version makes you "feel like you're there."
5. Describe the goals–and the obstacles.
Every memorable story has a plot–usually a goal that the protagonists must achieve, along with the obstacles that might prevent them from achieving the goal.
For example, in the story about product support, the complications might be:
- A key individual had already left for vacation.
- The customer was frustrated and uncooperative.
- The engineers were exhausted.
- The customer problem was difficult to solve.
- The clock was ticking toward a hard deadline.
6. Describe the decision that made achievement possible.
In every story, there is a turning point–a decision–that allows the person or people involved to overcome the obstacle and achieve the goal.
In the case of the customer support story, for instance, the turning point might be when the engineering manager decides to delay his own vacation, inspiring others to do the same.
It's important not to confuse the decision (or turning point) with the ending of the story. The turning point is not "what happened"–it's the decision that caused what happened to happen.
7. Provide the ending and highlight the takeaway.
You end the anecdote by describing how the goal was achieved, thereby tying that ending to the takeaway that you want to leave in the mind of the listener. For example, the customer support story might end with:
At around 6 p.m. Sunday, we not only had the customer's system up and running, but had figured out how to shave 20 percent off their compute time, making the application run even faster than it had before.
That's my simplified version of the more comprehensive method that Mike and Ben teach.
Note: In the next issue of my free weekly newsletter (you can sign up here, if you haven't yet), I'm going to give some examples of anecdotes that I tell in business situations.
GEOFFREY JAMES | Columnist
Geoffrey James is an author, speaker, and award-winning blogger. Originally a system architect, brand manager, and industry analyst inside two Fortune 100 companies, he's interviewed over a thousand successful executives, managers, entrepreneurs, and gurus to discover how business really works. His most recent book is "Business Without the Bullsh*t: 49 Secrets and Shortcuts that You Need to Know."