The power of storytelling: how to use stories to differentiate, connect, and influence

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Books

In a wide range of professional and personal contexts, stories can be used to inspire, teach, clarify, and mobilise, according to the book Unleash the Power of Storytelling.

Unleash the Power of Storytelling: Win Hearts, Change Minds, Get Results by Rob Biesenbach
Unleash the Power of Storytelling: Win Hearts, Change Minds, Get Results by Rob Biesenbach

In a world of information overload, noise and hype, stories can cut through the clutter, get the message across, and influence people. Stories can get you jobs, customers, partners, and investors, as explained in the book by Rob Biesenbach.

The book covers company origin stories, the use of stories during presentations, and personal brand stories. Examples are drawn from startups and corporates, and from a wide range of sectors.

is a corporate communications consultant, and author of books Act Like You Mean Business and 11 Deadly Presentation Sins. His clients have included AC Nielsen, Mars, MillerCoor, Motorola, Allstate, Deloitte and Lockheed Martin. Rob is a former vice president at Ogilvy PR Worldwide, and has served in government as well.

The 15 chapters are spread across 160 pages and make for an easy read. Here are my key takeaways from the book; see also my reviews of the five related books Let the Story Do the Work, The Storyteller’s Secret, Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins, First-Time Leader and Stories at Work. Entrepreneurs should also check out YourStory’s Changemaker Story Canvas, a free visualisation tool for startups and innovators.

Foundations: components and impacts of stories

“Stories are all around us. We may not recognise them, but they’re there – just waiting to be found, shaped, and shared,” Rob begins. Storytelling is not just for TED speakers, creative directors, or business geniuses – they are in everyday experiences of less glamorous roles as well.

“Once you become attuned to stories, you’ll find no shortage of material,” he adds. Stories are more than business case studies or customer testimonials. Stories stimulate our senses and involve us emotionally and intellectually.

There are six keys to powerful stories: stories trigger emotional responses, put a face on an issue, connect us to deeper issues, humanise us, raise the stakes of the discourse, and go beyond telling to showing. The narratives and incidents described help transcend generic keywords and set us apart.

Story structure consists of character, goal, and challenge. The resolution of the challenge is full of drama, turning points, ups and downs, and the final climax. At the end of the story, it is possible that the goal itself may change, or the character accepts that the challenge is insurmountable.

Characters should be real and relatable, there should be sufficient conflict, the stakes should be high, there should be clear causality, and the story must have an emotional core to influence the audience. Rob explains that there are many other interpretations of story structure. “That’s one of the beauties of storytelling – it’s as much an art as it is a science,” he writes.

Stories work well if the audience, objective, and channels are carefully considered in advance. Audiences range from colleagues and customers to investors and even competitors. Surveys and conversations help stay up to date on their changing needs and interests, even if it is a familiar audience.

It is important to bridge commonalities (eg. desire to make the world a better place) as well as acknowledge differences (eg. separate backgrounds). Accordingly, the language should also change (eg. less jargon for outside audiences). Such assessments should happen even while the story is being told. “Read the audience,” Rob advises.

For stories on organisational change, it helps to find relatable characters like fellow employees. Stories of superstars may not have staying power, according to Rob.

A “judicious use of emotion for a strategic purpose” can trigger audience emotions, but knowing how much emotion to show is a fine art. For example, Steve Jobs was known to be “feisty, funny and fiery”.

The story should be unique and authentic. It should appeal to a sense of purpose, loyalty, pride, or celebration. Personal details help create genuine connection, but the storyteller should be modest and not come across as boastful or self-indulgent. “Opening up and revealing your humanity is a duty of leadership,” Rob affirms.

Ethical practices to follow include avoiding manipulation or alteration of the truth, fabrication of data, exaggeration of your role, and factual errors.

The author shares a number of examples of stories in action from his consulting experience. For example, a Deloitte story about risk-management zoomed in specifically on one character in one company, and not just industry-wide statistics. The Grand Canyon effectively communicates message about safety through the tragic story of a marathon runner who didn’t bring a map, ran out of water, and unfortunately died of dehydration.

Storytelling as a practice

Having mastered the foundations of a story, the rest of the book provides frameworks and tips for crafting good stories. Details as the story unfolds should connect to the overall objective, and not distract the listener; this includes dropping less relevant characters and incidents, even though they may seem interesting.

“Keep the narrative driving ever forward,” Rob advises. “Storytelling, like art, is about having the courage to make bold choices, and the conviction to stand by those choices,” he adds.

Focus on the specific, but find a way to make that specific universal. Timeless stories feature relatable characters dealing with universal struggles, such as desire for recognition or search for truth.

Challenges in developing corporate stories for external audiences include “the meat grinder” of the corporate approval process through layers of bureaucracy, which can lead to watering down of details or adding unnecessary messages.

“To be an effective communicator, you have to be a lifelong collector of stories, so when you really need one, it’s right there for you, ready to be shared,” Rob advises. The stories can be stored through notes or apps, with tags such as audience or topic.

Rob cautions against using generic stories searched from the Internet, because the audience may have heard it before; it may also be hard for the narrator to show a connection to the story. However, it is possible to develop stories from news reports, TV shows, and even movies if you have a unique filter or perspective to extract them, depending on your focus (eg. reliability, quality, innovation, collaboration).

Interviewing others helps add texture and personality to their stories, eg. employee ambitions and work experiences. Powerful tools to use include analogy and metaphor. Simplification of numbers also help, eg. showing that the price of a cup of coffee can help buy a book for a needy child.

Another useful chapter focuses on organisational origin stories. The stories should go beyond corporate timelines and address brand promise, but avoid blatant self-promotion, Rob advises.

He shares examples of origin stories from company websites, such as FitBit (positioning), John Deere (farmer tools), Subway (rags to riches), Panera (investor angle), Trader Joe’s (conversational style, humour), and Bonoros (selling). Some stories can be internal as well, eg. Leo Burnett having apples at the reception desk as a symbol of hospitality from the depression era.

Storytelling during a presentation should be strategic, and not just for entertainment. Stories can augment the statistics and bullet points of otherwise-dry presentations. But cramming in too many stories is not effective, and may even lead the audience to believe there is no substance to the pitch. “Stories need room to breathe,” Ron explains. He offers tips such as making the closing story an extension or twist of the opening story of the presentation.

Practising the story recital a number of times helps reduce the risk of forgetfulness, distraction and even “runaway storytelling”. However, the storyteller should avoid the risk of sounding scripted, inauthentic and on auto-pilot, Rob cautions. Stay in the moment, live the words, and feel the ideas, he advises.

Other tips include varying tone and speed, pausing for effect, walking across the stage, and role-playing story characters. But dazzle should not distract from the message, Rob cautions.

“The ability to tell your own story is critical to successfully navigating job interviews, networking events, and first-time meetings with others,” he explains. A good personal story builds on items listed in your LinkedIn profile, and brings out drive, values, contributions and differentiation.

(A sense of humour also helps, as Rob shows in his own bio: Although he’s not a doctor, he played one on TV, and He lives outside Chicago with his wife, two enchanting children, and, as of this writing, no dogs.)

Rob advises looking out for patterns, themes, emotions, and testimonials. A good structure for personal narrative would include the normal state (beginning), inciting incident, turning point, challenges, and resolution. Depth and details can vary with target audience and objective; an intriguing glimpse of the self is better than exhaustive details.

The culmination of this is the development of the personal brand story, which captures what you are known for and not just what you want to be. This draws on what others see as your strengths, your awards, and your role.

Examples of personal brand types are innovator, organiser, analyser, and even cool cucumber or bulldog. Rob shows how such stories could begin with I am the kind of person who…, or A long-time customer told me that...

The last chapter gives examples of storytelling during toasts and eulogies, with tips such as focus on one quality or incident, draw a lesson, use humour judiciously, and expect the unexpected.

The author ends with a call to keep looking for stories, and develop original stories. “An original story has two advantages: you have the opportunity to make it your own, and people haven’t heard it before,” he explains.

“Our stories help define who we are and what we stand for. They set us apart in a noisy, competitive world. And they help ensure we’re remembered,” Rob signs off.