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May 2024
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Once Upon a Time in a Conference Room

The value of storytelling in professional communication.

By Megan Preston Meyer


It’s 8:30 p.m. You’re staring at your laptop, struggling with the third bullet point on the sixth slide for your quarterly results presentation the next morning, when you feel a tug on your T-shirt.

“Mommy, can you tell me a story?”

You look down at your daughter, and smile. You close your computer and follow her to her room, where you read her favorite story about dragons, pirates, princesses, and triumph. After “The End,” you turn out the light—and halfway down the hall, you hear her retelling the tale to her teddy bear.

She really loves that story, you think, opening your laptop back up. Then you sigh and turn back to your bullet points.

Stories aren’t just for kids. For thousands of years, stories were the primary means of conveying information, and our brains have evolved to respond to them. Humans—young and old—seem hardwired to understand stories, which makes them ideal vehicles for professional communication too. Whether you’re making a presentation, interviewing for a job, or trying to motivate your employees, here are some ways you can optimize business stories.

Start With Your Objective

Traditional stories may have a moral. Business stories should have an objective.

Neil Bearden, managing director of Plot Wolf, combines storytelling with behavioral science to help companies and individuals craft their messages purposefully. When you tell a story in a professional setting, you’re not there just to entertain—you’re trying to reach a particular result. Bearden calls these instrumental stories because they are told to achieve an objective. Being clear on your objective—what you want the audience to do—will help you decide how best to design your message.

Storytelling works because it involves detail. There are characters and action and conflict and emotion. But it’s easy to overdo it. Without an objective, Bearden says, “You don’t know how to triage. What do I put in? What do I leave out? How do I decide?” Starting with the objective makes those decisions easier.

The goal of most business stories is to get the audience to act, and they seldom act alone. You want the audience to remember the story, and usually, to tell someone else: their boss, the hiring manager, or a decision-maker. By beginning with your end in mind, you can craft a crisp, concise story—one that’s easy to retell.

Add Distinctive Details

Once your story is concise and objective-driven, how can you make sure people remember it? By giving them something that stands out. “One of the easiest things people can do is to put something in the story that’s distinct,” Bearden says. He mentions the Von Restorff effect, which says that distinctive items—things that stand out—are more likely to be remembered. He gives an example: “Bed, rest, awake, hippopotamus, dream, doze, slumber, snore, nap, peace, yawn, drowsy.”

Now cover the list and try to remember what was on it. Bearden knows at least one item that you’ll have remembered: “Anyone who is paying at least 10% attention is going to have ‘hippopotamus’ because it’s a distinctive item.”

One way to take advantage of this effect is to add colorful, visual details. Imagine you’re telling a story about a professor you once had. You can describe him as eccentric, maybe even goofy, and it might resonate with a few people in the audience—“but as soon as you say the professor always wore yellow socks, everyone is going to remember it,” says Bearden.

Yellow socks are like the hippopotamus. “They’re distinct. They stand out. You don’t see a lot of men walking around with bright yellow socks.”

Associating your message with a specific, vivid detail will help make it memorable. “Whatever the storyteller is saying about this professor, it’s more likely to be retained a month from now because of those bright yellow socks,” Bearden notes.

When sitting down to write your next speech, pitch, or presentation, Bearden recommends that you ask yourself this question: What in my story is going to stand out and be distinct? Sprinkling in a few vivid details “provides an opportunity for people to remember [your story], which is a necessary condition for them to be able to retell it.”

Create a Logical Structure

Once you’ve collected some distinctive details to illustrate your message, it’s time to get organized. A story is more memorable than a collection of arguments because it follows a logical structure: a series of events with clear cause-and-effect relationships.

Bearden mentions a classic cognitive psychology study from Adrian de Groot. In the study, chess grandmasters and novice players were given five-second glimpses of chess pieces arranged on a board and then later asked to remember where the pieces were. The grandmasters were better able to recall the arrangements—but only if the pieces were positioned as they would be in a real game. When the pieces were positioned randomly, the grandmasters had no advantage. De Groot hypothesized that, while novices tried to remember each individual position, the grandmasters saw the chess pieces as part of an organized “structure.” Their experience allowed them to infer the moves that preceded the configuration, and the moves that could come next—a story, if you will—and that story helped them re-create the chess board.

When you tell a story in a professional setting, you’re not there just to entertain—you’re trying to reach a particular result.

“There’s a logic to the board,” Bearden says, and there should be a logic to your story. “[If] the structure is retained, then it’s retellable.”

Once you grasp the power of storytelling, put it to use. Start with your objective, add in a pop of color so that your message stands out, and then tie your details together with a clear organizing structure.

Back at your laptop, you rethink the bullet points for your quarterly results presentation. There may not be dragons or pirates or princesses in your PowerPoint, but you can still tell a story. A few minutes later, satisfied that you’ve crafted a message that your audience will remember and retell, you shut down your computer.

From your daughter’s bedroom, you hear a whisper: “The End.”

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