Storytelling may feel like something that you reserve for your children at bedtime but it also has enormous value for professionals and leaders in business presentations.
‘Never be boring again’ written by Doug Stevenson is one of my favourite books on public speaking and presentation skills. The title alone makes it one of those books that many of us would probably love to give to someone we know as a Christmas gift if, only we had the nerve.
That sentiment aside, if you ever need help making a business presentation count then providing you can get past the cheesy picture on the front cover it’s a book I would highly recommend. One of the many reasons for this is that its sets out in a very plain, simple and compelling way the most effective means of constructing stories to connect with your audience in business presentations.
Many speakers have heard the term, ‘The Hero’s Journey’; a phrase coined by the American writer Joseph Campbell which is a structure of storytelling constructed through 17 stages.
Since the 1950’s Campbell’s model of the Hero’s Journey has been adapted and modified many times to the point of reducing it to 12 stages. However, Doug Stevenson presents it in 9 simple steps:
1. Set the scene
2. Introduce the characters (although not necessarily Step 2)
3. Begin the journey
4. Encounter the obstacle
5. Overcome the obstacle
6. Resolve the story
7. Make the point
8. Ask ‘The Question’
9. Repeat the point
Regardless of the number of steps involved to structure and tell a powerful story many business presenters talk about the Hero’s Journey but don’t really know where to start or how to use it. The result is that they end up not telling stories because they don’t fully understand the strategic power and benefits of using them to illustrate a point, breathe life into their message and connect with their audience.
Every professional has a huge and diverse repertoire of stories from their personal and business life that they can use to animate an important point and add significant value to their message. These stories range from childhood experiences where we learned an important lesson, customer conversations, challenges at airports, or simply something that happened whilst driving into work.
Our job as speakers is to simply find the relevant and powerful ones that demonstrate a point and to relive them for our audience. Doug Stevenson’s 9 steps can help you to take any personal or business story that has a relevant message you want to share and present it with impact to your audience.
To help you relate to the steps in a functional sense and apply them to your own stories here is an outline of one I often use when presenting and speaking on leading change.
Please replace the content with your own.
Step 1 Set the scene
A number of years ago I was leading a team of 300 people in a brand new operation in the North West of England. It was one of 7 regional offices in the UK yet was one of the best performing in the country across every key measure. 250 miles away in the South East of England was an identical regional business twice the size yet it had the poorest performance.
Step 2 Introduce the characters (although not necessarily Step 2)
One day I received a call from the Vice Chairman of the business, a rather somber man with an excruciatingly demanding intellect and manner. He called to congratulate me on my performance in the North West and asked me to relocate to the South East.
His entire tone and demeanor suggested it was more of an instruction than a request as he explained to me that the business in the South East had lost its way entirely and was failing miserably across every business measure. It faced closure if they were unable to secure a swift and radical improvement. He explained that they had tried everything they could without success and that given our success in the North West he hoped I may be able to do something to save it. His belief in me aside, he was not the sort of man you said no to regardless of the circumstances.
Step 3 Begin the journey
The next thing I knew I was in the South East leading a 600 strong team pacing up and down the business full of energy, enthusiasm and ideas finding out exactly what we needed to do to save the operation and turn it around completely.
Thankfully the answers seemed fairly obvious.
Step 4 Encounter the obstacle
The answer may have been obvious but the journey was far from easy.
It became immediately apparent that the business had developed what I called its very own ‘yes but’ culture. It didn’t matter where I went or who I spoke with I noticed that whenever I or anyone else for that matter proposed a solution, idea or opportunity someone killed it stone dead in an instant with the fatal words ‘yes but’.
Yes But… we’ve tried that and it didn’t work.
Yes But…that would never work here.
Yes But… that may work in the North West but you’re in the South East.
My job was to save the business and I was failing miserably all because of two words ‘yes but’.
Step 5 Overcome the obstacle
I was left with no choice I had to disrupt the status quo and I had to do it quickly.
I invited all 600 staff to the local theatre where I presented them with a compelling vision and strategy for the business whilst making our current position perfectly clear.
I explained the seriousness of the ‘yes but’ culture I had witnessed and how it was crippling the operation.
I handed each member of staff in the auditorium a white rubber stress ball which on one side had the words ‘YES BUT’ printed on it in big black bold letters with a striking red cross through the middle of the words. On the other side of the ball were the words ‘YES AND’.
I asked everyone to promise me that they would each take their balls back to work with them and keep them with them at all times. I asked that whenever they overheard anyone regardless of status or position use those deadly words ‘yes but’ that they take their ball out of their pocket, handbag or desk and to throw it at the offending ‘yes butter’ as hard as they possibly could.
Step 6 Resolve the story
For 3 months there were balls flying everywhere.
Ironically, there was even a moment in a management meeting in my very own office where I incredibly ‘yes butted’ an idea from our human resources manager and deservedly became the victim of 7 high velocity stress balls from my own management team. Even I had been sucked into the debilitating ‘yes but’ culture myself and had to pay the price.
It would only happen the once though, I knew I would never make the same mistake again.
After 3 months the deadly flying balls gradually began to subside and within 12 months we not only saw a complete turnaround in performance but were in the top 3 high performing regional operations in the country.
Step 7 Make the point
As the new leader I thought my job would be relatively easy in that all I had to do was to focus on the solutions, find them and implement them. I was wrong, the solutions were already there; everybody knew them and they had always been there. What the business needed wasn’t more solutions but a pattern interrupt, something that would challenge the status quo and unleash the potential in the business that had been stifled for so long.
There had been two simple words holding our business back and once we got people to literally see, feel and understand that everything changed, and I mean everything.
Step 8 Ask “The Question”
How about you?
Has anything like this ever happened to you?
Have you ever been caught up in the status quo?
Are there two words or a habitual sentence holding you back?
Is there a pattern that needs to be interrupted or something in your culture that needs to change?
Step 9 Repeat the point
As leaders we are often focused heavily on results and solutions and that’s great. It’s a key part of what we are paid to do although when things aren’t going our way we need to focus on the patterns and find the words or behaviours that are really holding us back.
We then just need the creativity and courage to help our team change the pattern.
We all have powerful stories to tell that can really help us to connect with our audience and lead them to feel something that will inspire the change we want to see.
Stories are everywhere and as we demonstrate in our presentation skills courses we can use them through these 9 steps to illustrate a point about:
……………..You fill in the blank
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