Barbara was in a panic.
This struck her colleagues as particularly strange, since she was the most experienced of the group. A Senior Vice President with twenty years experience, Barbara had worked in six different countries and was one of the most respected senior leaders in the company.
What was causing Barbara so much stress?
She had to tell a story.
Barbara and three of her colleagues were in a two-day leadership training. One of the training modules focused on leaders as storytellers. Leaders using stories is not new: research has shown that storytelling is one of the most powerful forms of influence that exists. Amazingly, when we tell good stories, we increase the levels of the hormone oxytocin (the “bonding” hormone) in the listener. Stories create empathy and build relationships.
So what had Barbara so scared?
She had to get up and tell a personal story to her colleagues in the room, and her mind was blank. She couldn’t think of any stories to tell.
Barbara said to me, “I’m just not a storyteller. I don’t have any stories. Nothing that interesting happens to me.”
Barbara’s not the first leader to share this sentiment. A lot of leaders don’t tell stories because they believe, “I’m not that interesting.” They think their storytelling well is just naturally dry.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Plenty of story-worthy things happen to everyone. Yet, why does it seem that some people have lots of stories, and some have none? For instance, have you ever watched a comedian, and thought “How can they have such a funny life?” Comedians don’t live more humorous lives than everyone else. What they do is they notice what happens, and they mine their experiences for comic gold.
This leads us to the first step to becoming a better storyteller:
All stories share a very basic common narrative structure. There are three parts: beginning, middle and end. The introduction brings in the characters, and sets up the premise for the story. The middle has some kind of conflict or crisis which creates tension. The end resolves the tension.
In a business setting, stories aren’t told just for sheer fun of it. The story needs to have a point to it. What’s the moral or the lesson to be learned? How will the listener be changed as a result of hearing the story?
If you want to start telling stories, pay attention to the times in your life where you go through the natural cycle of premise/conflict/resolution. Stuff happens to us. Every day.
Get into the habit of writing your experiences down. You may not know how you’re going to use the story later. That’s OK. In the moment, just capture the essence so it doesn’t get lost. Then file it in some way so you can retrieve it later.
There’s another benefit to start paying attention to your experiences. The next time something crazy or horrible happens to you, at least you can tell yourself “One day this will make for a good story.” Its often the most intense life experiences that make the best stories.
Besides writing things down, there’s another easy way to start generating ideas for stories. You can also use question prompts to jog your memory. For example,
What was the happiest moment of your life? The saddest?
Who has been the biggest influence on your life? What lessons did that person teach you?
What are you proudest of?
What has been your greatest professional challenge?
What is your strangest travel experience?
What was your worst customer service experience?
If you could hold on to one memory from your life forever, what would that be?
How has your life been different than what you’d imagined?
Do you have any regrets?
These are relatively few prompts, and yet these alone can spawn dozens of stories.
In Barbara’s case, once armed with just a couple of these questions, she suddenly transformed from a story desert into a story fountain. After her first story practice round, Barbara’s eyes sparkled and her face broke into an ear to ear grin. She beamed, “I do have stories! I do have something to share!”
Like Barbara, you have a wealth of experience others can benefit from. Crafting stories from your experience is one of the best ways to share that wealth.
What other ways have you come up with stories to tell? Join the conversation by leaving a comment below.