Captivate Your Audiences by Telling Stories
Be more engaging by practicing the art of the anecdote.
Posted May 31, 2018
There’s nothing like a good story to bring a message to life. Whether you’re giving a presentation, interviewing for a job, or introducing yourself at a social event, having a few stories up your sleeve facilitates meaningful connections. This is especially true if you’re an introvert who prefers to compose thoughts before sharing them.
Following up on my last exchange about storytelling for introverts, with Barbara Ganley and Alan Levine, I now welcome the thoughts of another master storyteller, Nancy Goldman, Ed.D., a colleague of mine at New York University. Goldman helps her students and clients access their leadership abilities through storytelling, creative thinking, and humor.
NA: What got you interested in storytelling?
NG: I was doing research about comedians for my doctoral dissertation, examining how they learn to use humor to raise awareness about social and political issues. I expected that they spent hours watching and reading the news. That was only partially true. More importantly, they drew upon their own personal experiences to create their material. In other words, they told stories from their lives – of course, they also used techniques to make them funny.
I was intrigued and thought, “I know I won’t be a comedian, but I want to tell stories.” As I was preparing to defend my dissertation, I took a class to learn how to tell them, and it clicked for me. Discussing the importance of being relatable and relevant, and practicing using description and dialogue gave me a language for what my favorite comedians were doing. The rest, as they say, is her-story.
NA: How can storytelling help introverts in their careers?
NG: As an introvert, I sometimes risk being perceived as aloof. Telling a brief story allows me to create connections with others; that makes me more approachable. For example, I was new to an organization and working with a colleague for the first time. On first glance, we had nothing in common. I knew he was about 20 years my junior, loved weightlifting and had hated going to college. All he knew about me was from the diplomas I had on my wall. So to break the ice, I shared a story about growing up in a middle-class household, and what it was like being the first one in my family to go to college. He then shared how his brother was the first in his family to go to college, and our conversation flowed from there.
NA: Nice. By disclosing a bit through storytelling, you learned something you had in common. What is the hardest part about storytelling for introverts?
NG: Some people are better than others at crafting stories on the spot. Introverts often need time to prepare stories, and to think of the intention of their stories. Why are you telling it? What events communicate your message? And how do they link together? That is, what are the beginning, middle, and end of your story?
NA: How can you decide what to tell a story about?
NG: Prepare a story about an obstacle you faced in business, a personal dragon you conquered, or some adversity you have overcome. Other ideas: a time you were inspired or created something that solved a problem. You can also tell a story about a time you learned or taught a lesson.
NA: What shortcut can you recommend to get past “the blank page” when crafting a story?
NG: In his book To Sell is Human, Daniel Pink mentions a useful formula called the Pixar Pitch. Storyboard artist Emma Coats created it and Pixar used this formula in movies like Finding Nemo. I first heard about it from an advertising executive, so I know it has been used in many contexts and can become the basis of a compelling story. Here goes:
Once upon a time _________. Every day ____________. One day ___________. Because of that ___________. Because of that ________. Until finally ____________.
NA: That’s a fine idea to jumpstart the process. Once you have a story, how can you refine it?
NG: Practice it with trusted friends and invite their constructive feedback. What did they appreciate about it? What would they like to hear more of? This will be more useful than rehearsing on your own in front of a mirror.
NA: I also recommend asking those friends to videotape you on your smartphone so you can see for yourself how you did. On a related note, Nancy, what if you’re soft-spoken and not a natural performer?
NG: It’s important to distinguish between telling a story and performing it. You needn’t perform a story by acting it out or dramatizing it. In fact, it will be more authentic, and therefore more relatable, if you speak it conversationally.
I like the advice Shawn Callahan, author of Putting Stories to Work, offers: when you share a story, imagine it actually happening. Doing so will evoke emotion, so your body language, including your hand gestures, will occur naturally. If you are telling a story to a group of people, make eye contact with one person, pause, then move to another. That will make them feel like you are speaking to each of them.
NA: Yes, I’m a fan of making eye contact with one person at a time for approximately three seconds or a phrase. What other tips can you offer?
NG: It’s difficult to talk about storytelling without talking about its relationship to listening. The two are intractably connected. Listening is a strength that many introverts have, and it plays an essential role in storytelling. First, listening to others’ stories is a good first step to developing an ear for stories. You will identify what works and what doesn’t. Second, think about your own storytelling style. Third, as tellers we are always attuned to our audience: Are they engaged? Do they comprehend what we’re saying? Are they moved? A practiced storyteller adjusts her or his stories to their listeners.
NA: Would you tell a story about a day in the work life of an introvert?
NG: A few years ago, I started training correction officers to work in jails. It’s a tough environment to become accepted into because of the tight bond among “people in blue.”
As an introvert, I often sat in my closet-sized office, kept my head down, and did my work. Of course, I was cordial but never got beyond the niceties of saying, “good morning” to the people in blue.
I wanted more from my work–to feel as part of the team–so I created something I called Staff Sharing Day. The idea was to get together for a couple of hours in our large conference room and anyone could share something they were passionate about.
I went around the office and asked colleagues, one-on-one–in true introvert fashion–if they would come and share something. Once one person agreed, it was easy to get the others. It also helped that my boss agreed to provide lunch!
I wanted to be a bit revealing by depicting a time I was vulnerable. I have found that if you want someone else to show their imperfections or their humanity, it helps to first show your own. What followed was amazing–one by one, they each told a story!
I learned that one of my colleagues worked in finance, at the same company I had worked at years prior, at the same time! It was a huge organization and we would never have bumped into each other, but having that in common brought us closer. Another described her near-death experience, which was why she focused on the important things in life and was not interested in small talk or gossiping at work. One officer described a time she encouraged an inmate to follow his passion for poetry and he wound up getting a poem published in a magazine! This rich, deep exchange was a turning point in how I related to several of my colleagues.
NA: It sounds like you found an important way to bond with your colleagues through storytelling. Echoing your own advice, I recommend that my clients and students who identify as introverts craft their key stories in advance. This way, they have some when they need them at job interviews, networking events, and other business meetings. What tips can you offer to translate written stories to the spoken word?
NG: I believe that oral stories work better when we can “show” our listeners rather than “tell” them. My job as a storyteller is to appeal to your sense of sight, sound, smell, touch, and/or taste. So, for example, rather than say, “I was nervous” which is internal and can’t be seen, I might say, “My stomach was bursting with jumping beans.”
NA: Great. That’s much more visceral! Who is one of your favorite storytellers, and why?
NG: For entertainment, I really enjoy Mike Birbiglia, a comedian known for his appearances on the popular radio series This American Life. I like how he’s just your average guy, relatable, and combines his ordinary and extraordinary moments to show humor, tenderness, life’s uncertainty and its small wins–the full range of the human experience. In terms of business storytelling, I follow the work of Lori Silverman, author of Wake Me Up When the Data is Over and her co-author of Business Storytelling for Dummies, Karen Dietz, a proud introvert! I appreciate how these two thought leaders in this field have expanded the dialogue about, and applications of, narrative in business.
NA: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
NG: Public speaking is a common fear and it was mine for the longest time. Even making a two-minute announcement at a meeting was enough to make my knees quiver. I credit storytelling with helping me triumph over that feeling of dread.
I learned to start my speaking engagements by telling a personal story. By describing an event that has actually happened to me, I am confident that I won’t forget my lines. Having that reassurance calms my nerves. Also, telling a personal story alleviates the fear that I will be “wrong.” When I am telling my story, I know that I cannot be wrong because I am speaking my truth.
NA: What a powerful insight. There’s nothing like speaking your truth to navigate your nerves and engage the hearts and minds of your audience.
Thank you, Nancy, for sharing a taste of your storytelling wizardry. An important takeaway is that storytelling is a useful tool for introverts. It plays to our strengths by gathering our thoughts behind the scenes, possibly crafting our stories in writing, editing, and then speaking our truth to make meaningful connections with others.
Copyright © 2018 Nancy Ancowitz