Tell Me a Story.


In my profession, I’m often presenting and speaking publicly, often about technical topics. But last week, amidst the life-changing times to which we’re all now adapting, I was listening to a COVID-19 presentation from a virologist and biologist when I had an epiphany. No, nothing related to the virus; that’s for another time. I had an epiphany around the way we communicate. I sat for 90 min listening to incredibly intelligent people explain highly technical topics in a way that I found both interesting and relevant, but on topics which I was having trouble completely comprehending. The scientists were just speaking at their normal rate—zippy—because it’s their daily expertise, and with enough “A=B=C” style tonality to keep my head a half-step behind where they were at. As they concluded, I realized this is exactly how our audiences in technology/business often feel when we’re done speaking to them. 

We—as vendors especially—quickly become accustomed to having topically similar conversations day after day, and while our minds are often comfortably racing ahead to the next cool idea, our audiences are often left a half-step behind as they try to digest all that we’re sharing. To us, it’s just a normal conversation that makes perfect sense. To them it’s new stuff that only sort of clicked. Occasionally I’ll have someone laugh after a meeting and tell me that they found it really useful but that they’re now really tired! Now I get it! That’s how I felt after the scientists finished, too. How then, do we bring that gap together across our various professions?

This is where the power of storytelling comes alive. Stories—and analogies by extension—act as bridges to help our minds grasp concepts that might otherwise be much more difficult to comprehend. The example above was meant (hopefully) to kindle the thought, “I’ve felt that way too!” in some way or another. That association is what we should all be seeking to build in our communication toolkits. Storytelling is almost an unfair advantage to conveying understanding. Kindra Hall, in her bestselling book “Stories that Stick," describes that stories appeal to the part of your brain that deals with cognitive ease, not the part that deals with concentration and effort, referred to as System 2 or cognitive strain.
“If you believe (which I’m sure you do) that your product or service will make a positive difference in the lives of your customers and the decision should be easy, then why would you ever want to engage System 2 and cause cognitive strain?!"
Kindra Hall, Stories That Stick (p. 59)
When you explain your topic with lists, bullet points, and feature rundowns, you’re tying to cognitive strain, not cognitive ease.

Storytelling is having a moment. A few years ago you would have been hard put to find more than a few LinkedIn profiles with storytelling in the headlines. Today I found over 100,000 such profiles! We’re not special! But not everything that’s marketed as a story actually is one. In fact, there’s all sorts of imposters claiming to be stories. Perhaps your company has the oft-used “our story” link on its homepage. Yet when you click, you’re likely to find more of a history or mission statement than an actual story. Real stories are different, because they matter.

I appreciate Kindra Hall’s definition of story itself. She points out that business stories need 3 simple pieces to qualify as an actual story: a normal —> an “explosion” of some sort —> and a new normal. (Stories That Stick, p. 47) Said differently, you need the old way, a change that happened, and the new way that results. She elaborates significantly on those pieces and how to use them successfully, but incorporating them is not hard to do and is highly valuable, especially in our technical professions. I highly recommend you check out Stories that Stick (the audiobook is good as well, narrated by the author). It’s the best material I’ve read on this subject and is an easy read (unsurprisingly, with some really good stories within!!)

Stories are the best when they’re your own. In our technical context they should be short and have a clear point. Details can be good, but too many details might dilute your point. If you couple a good story with a good analogy that lands the message back to a relevant technical topic, you’ll hit the jackpot. For example, years ago I was chatting with a customer about monitoring tools. Speaking about all the tools he had and the unexplained system outages he still regularly encountered, he exclaimed to me in exasperation, “my collection of tools is like having 14 watches and still not knowing what time it is!” This is a beautiful analogy because you get the essence of his problem almost immediately. We all get it. And selling more “watches” wasn’t going to solve this customer’s problem.

Nearly every customer I work with has felt that way at some time; the promises found in shiny vendor slides somehow often seem to not quite materialize in the real world. On hearing the 14-watches analogy, another customer once commented that she’d never met a tool her company didn’t love. Very true. And yet there we were. We understood one another almost immediately. Regardless of whether you care about monitoring or understand the details, these short examples ought to help you understand the problem people in that space are facing. Because they compare to things you DO care about. And that’s the value of story.

So next time you’re listening to someone who talks like a scientist or perhaps an IT geek, I recommend you pause for a moment of reflection to recognize that it might in fact be YOU who is speaking that way without even thinking. Then make the commitment to adjust and work on telling your story!

Next time I’ll share a few thoughts about the words we use and how they unintentionally steer people away from our point.

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