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How to tell them well

First of all, it helps to really love the story you’re telling. When you do, you will naturally get your audience involved in your story by using your voice, hand gestures and facial expressions. The more animated you are, the funnier or livelier your story will be. When telling the story about my search for a train to get home, I mimic the action of bandaging my bloody forearm, or wiping my sweating brow, or carrying an invisible but heavy briefcase.

It’s important to use descriptive terms that appeal to the senses – sights, sounds, smells all enrich the story.

Make eye contact with the audience and show that you care that they are getting your story. It will also make them more attentive.

Use pauses for dramatic effect. This takes practice but adds hugely to the quality of the story, especially to funny punchlines.

Don’t rush the punchline. Milk the story, but don’t make it too long. Remember, also, that suspense is key to holding people’s attention all the way to the end – can you tell the story in such a way that the ending is not predictable?

Never start a story by telling the listener how he or she should feel. I hate it when people start by saying: ‘You’re going to love this story!’ What if I don’t? Now I’m under pressure and I can’t relax because you have an expectation of me that I might not be able to deliver. This is a distraction I don’t need.

Beware of tiresome phrases and over-emphasizing. If you emphasize everything, nothing will have emphasis. If you use tired phrases, your listener will bore quickly.

Always, always, always perform your story many times before taking to the stage. When I am coaching leaders on storytelling, I insist that they tell me a story at least three or four times. Together we will refine the story until they tell it with as much brevity, clarity and character as they can muster. Then, I insist that they tell their stories in front of a mirror to ensure that they use facial expressions and animate their stories. Only after at least 20 tellings will I unleash them on the stage. The same applies when you are telling a story to groups of people across the business. The more you practise the better you get. When you hear people responding to parts of the story, you will learn to polish those parts and even – sometimes – embellish the story to get the best reaction. Never manipulate stories to tell untruths, but a little garnish in the form of embellishment here and there can give you the spice you need.

When to refrain

Sometimes, you just know the audience doesn’t want a story. When my CEO has asked for a forecast for the remainder of the year, he wants a factually based prediction, not a story that is likely simply to annoy him. I might choose the right moment to tell the story of how a new contract was won in order to gain his approval for investment in more people with the same skills as those who won this contract, but I absolutely have to judge the moment.

The worst mistake is to tell a story before you or the story are ready. There is nothing worse than launching into a story and then stumbling, losing momentum and losing your audience. Even when you know that a story that springs to mind may be singularly appropriate, if you haven’t practised, my advice is to refrain. I have sometimes told a story many times, just testing it on people, before taking it into a public forum. I like to know how people respond to the story before I use it in earnest.

I may have made you think that I’m against logical argument, but I’m not. There are many times when charts and statistics and flow diagrams are far more appropriate. It all comes down to knowing the audience, knowing the need and knowing the best way to achieve your objective.

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