Storytelling for Business

by Nick Owen


A good story should be a two-way experience. As the storyteller develops the story, the audience moves into an active listening mode which accesses their visual imagination, their emotions and their connection to their own lived experience. This creates what is known as response-ability: the active engagement of an audience as a result of the storytelling process.

Every story creates its own highly contextualised world. And every story combines an inner logic and narrative sequence expressed through words (left brain preference) together with aspects of creativity cohesion and pattern forming, expressed through tone and emotion (right brain preference). In this way, both hemispheres of our intellectual brain, the neo-cortex, are stimulated. This considerably contributes to our understanding of the following: the attraction of stories as meaning carrying vehicles, the memorability of stories and the appeal of stories to different ages, cultures and information processing styles.

At a deeper level, stories are archetypal. Stories, metaphors and myths carry the history, the culture, the values and the customs of the people or of the organisation. They are a form of social glue that serves to entertain, instruct and challenge the listener or reader. And because they strike deep chords in shared communal experience, they operate at both conscious and unconscious levels, conveying messages directly and indirectly. And it is the connection with the unconscious that challenges and disturbs our comfortable sense of self and identity, our programmed behaviours and our over-habituated maps of the world. Or, alternatively, confirms them.

Stories also operate through time and space. An ancient Chinese tale, a biblical parable, a Zen koan or a Sufi anecdote can each impact powerfully upon contemporary values, behaviours and contexts. Stories connect the past with the present, and project both past and present into the future.

One other facet of stories and business narratives that makes them a particularly powerful tool is that they enable the storyteller to take complex and difficult-to-explain concepts and recreate them in much more concrete and accessible forms. Metaphors, parables, analogies, narratives and stories allow us to externalise abstract thinking and translate it into a sensory-based tangible representation. Using story and business narrative to get messages across powerfully and memorably is applied psychology at its most potent.

Engaging your audience

There are a number of effective ways of doing this which work in other important communication contexts as well as storytelling.

  1. Breathe. Not just any breathing but deep down into your belly area (or as close as you can get). You should be relaxed without tension in your shoulders or chest. If you are not in control of your breathing, you are in not in control of your life, so it pays to work on this. It can also add years to your life as breathing correctly will allow you to let go of a great amount of unwanted stress and tension.
  2. Pause. At the end of each idea, and especially of each sentence, pause to let your communication sink in. Take time, using the pause to breathe and think. Think about how you are doing and what you are going to say next. Use the pause to look at the audience and note the relationship you are building with them. You will only know how you are doing by noticing how they are doing.
  3. Engage first with yourself. How are you doing? Are you centred? Are you connected to your breathing? Are you present: right HERE, right NOW? If you can feel your body and sense your breath, you are present. Being present gives you presence. If you’re not present, you’re somewhere else, and no-one’s going to engage with that. If you’re not engaged with yourself, no-one’s going to engage with you.

Living consistently in the NOW is one of the hardest things to achieve in life. Most of the time, we’re thinking about the future or disappearing into past memories. The present is the only time that actually is real. Make the most of it and practise being here.

  1. Once you’re engaged with yourself, establish eye contact and engage with your audience. Smile and notice if they smile back. Breathe deeply and notice that some of them will start to match their breathing to yours. This is a great way to calm an audience and move them into a receptive state.
  2. Connect to your emotion and follow that. If you’ve chosen a story that you engage with, and have real feeling for its purpose and power, then follow those emotions as you tell the story. Let the emotional changes within support you in naturally finding shifts of tone and a range of energies and emotions in your voice. Don’t act it, just feel it and tell it naturally.