We all love a good story. They're effective as a teaching method because they make us feel something, and feeling (over rational thinking, surprisingly) helps us retain information. It's much easier to recall the opening of a presentation about why someone started their business rather than their "keys" to business success bullets on slide 7.

We also love telling stories. It feels good to snag someone's attention, take a pause, and hear them say, "Keep going. What happened next?!"

So, if stories are so powerful and effective in communicating, why don't we use them more?

Mostly, it's because we don't recognize the stories in our own lives and work as stories worth telling. We don't value them or give them much respect. After all, most of the things that happen to us seem either too bland or too complicated to retell. We subconsciously dismiss one after another thinking, "Who would care?" or "It's too hard to explain," or "What could anyone actually learn from this?"

But we know from hearing other people's stories that storytelling can be useful and inspiring--we just don't apply the same rules to ourselves. We assume our own lives or careers are less interesting or worth talking about. Clearly, we need to rethink this.

Mining our own experiences for work and life stories is a productive use of time and energy, and it's something we should all do regularly. We get more mileage out of a good client success story than we will a dozen slides on the rationale of why our business offers the best solution.

This is simply because believable stories are effective in moving people to greater understanding and action. Of course, moving people is especially important if you're in the business of persuasion. And, really, who isn't?

Mining for stories requires a little reflection, memory-jogging, and writing. The trick is to look for smaller nuggets instead of big, complete experiences. Experiences you've had rarely present themselves with a clear beginning, middle, and end, because real life is a little messier than that. Instead, it's better to find a small piece you can build around to create the complete picture--with the idea and feeling you're trying to convey.

  1. To start, identify the single idea you want to share--the magnitude of a customer problem, the solution to their problem, how a team does (or doesn't) work together, etc.
  2. Next, brainstorm all of the times you've observed that idea play out in real life. Is there one instance that stands out in particular, or will your story be a compilation of similar observations?
  3. Now, let's dig deeper into the why of your story. This sometimes requires a little armchair psychotherapy and assumptions. What motivated someone to act in that way? What was the chain of events that led up to that thing happening? Why did the client end up buying the product (or not), why did the design team choose that design, and why did the manager end up nixing that project?
  4. Next, what was the result? If your goal is to convey how your product or service resolves the issue, of course, you'll want this to be a successful conclusion. Keep in mind, though, that work stories don't always have to end well. A cautionary tale--one with a bad result or missed opportunity--can be effective too.
  5. Don't forget to include details that add interest. What was the weather? What was happening in the news? What was the hit song playing over and over again on the radio as you drove to the appointment? Did you spill coffee on your shirt that day? Were the kids cooperating in the morning, or was it complete chaos before you left the house? Details that aren't directly related to core events add color and make you--and the circumstances around the event--more relatable.
  6. Last, test drive your story with a friend--and try not to tell them you're doing it. See if you can work it into a conversation later today. Simply starting with, "Hey, did I tell you about this time when..." Note their reaction and questions asked. Now find another person and tell it again.

Notice how your retelling evolves as you go. Building a repository of "go to" stories that you tell over and over again shortens the time we need to prepare for speaking engagements, client pitches, and cocktail parties. It takes some of the anxiety out of these events because you know you have a handful of useful--and hopefully entertaining--stories to share. Infusing your interactions with more storytelling is an effective way to get more done and deepen connections with colleagues and clients.

Published on: Mar 21, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.