Staff meetings. Project presentations. Company events. Industry conferences. Community gatherings. Training sessions. The list of places to tell stories is as endless as your imagination. Do you need to be a great storyteller to effectively use stories? Absolutely not. However, you can heighten success by preparing how you will communicate your stories and taking into account some tips when you’re actually sharing them.

Selecting a Story
We all tell stories in casual conversations. They often spill out without any pre-planning. While spontaneity is the norm in these settings, selecting the best stories to use in more formal venues requires forethought. Here are five criteria for selecting stories:

Who will hear your story/stories? Ensure the story and its wording are appropriate for those who’ll hear it. The last thing you want is to inadvertently offend someone. Stay away from painful or embarrassing stories or those that speak to life or death challenges until you’ve established rapport and credibility.

What objective are you trying to achieve? This doesn’t mean the story needs to strictly fit the topic; a metaphorical or symbolic story can be just as powerful.

Where will you physically be telling the story? If the story is meant only for a certain audience, learn about the location where you’ll be delivering it. Not all building walls are soundproof. Stories like to travel!

When will you tell a story, in relation to other information that you’ll share? Here are some rules of thumb: If you know people will be tired or distracted, open with a story to capture their attention. If you suspect they may resist what you have to share, relay a story beforehand that helps them understand its importance. If you’re unsure that they’ll comprehend data you have to communicate, tell a story afterwards that brings meaning to it—or tell one early on that leads into the need for the findings. If you’re skeptical that they’ll do what’s been asked of them, end with a story that speaks to the need to take action.

How will you be perceived given the story/stories you share? Perception is everything. People will learn a lot about you even if you use stories that aren’t your own. While personal stories are easier to tell because you’ve lived the experience, know that you may be labeled as self-centered and arrogant if you only share your own.

Now what?
You’ve selected the story or stories you want to tell. Now what do you do? First, capture them. The easiest way to do this is to tape record and transcribe them. This ensures you stay true to the spoken word.

Next, structure the story in a compelling manner (see “What Makes a Story a Story?” in this issue). If you’re using someone else’s story, include their name in it for attribution (if they give you permission to do so).

Then practice it. Out loud. Over and over again before every time you plan to tell it. Not in front of a mirror, but in an open room. It will help you recall the story if your mind goes blank in the setting in which you need to tell it. It’s happened to me!

To depict various characters, face different parts of the room and alter your voice. When speaking internal dialogue, look away from those to whom you’re telling the story. Experiment with various body movements, facial expressions, gestures, pacing and vocal intonations to capture the flow and meaning of the story’s content. Tweak the story if certain words don’t sound quite right. Gather the courage to have someone hear your rendition of the story and provide you with feedback.

It’s time!
How do you lead into a story when you actually have to tell it? Try phrases like, “This data reminds me of a time when…” “This situation is especially meaningful,” and, “Tell me whether you identify with this scenario.” Avoid the phrase “Let me tell you a story….” It will minimize the impact of what follows, especially with those who view stories as too sentimental.

It may be beneficial to pause for a few moments after telling a story to let its message sink in and for people to derive meaning from it. With highly emotional stories, it’s OK for this pause to last up to a minute or two. Use the time to take a long drink of water and reorient yourself!

If you tell a story that has an element of controversy, be prepared for immediate reactions from those who hear it. They’ll want to share how they feel or relay a story of their own. In fact, most times that you tell a story, listeners will have comments to share afterward. Build in time for this conversation.

Telling stories will enhance your messages. And connect you more closely with those who hear them. You’ll increase your chance of success when you take time to prepare yourself and think through the impact the story will have when you actually tell it.

by Lori L. Silverman