Careers advice: How to tell a great story

26 April 2021

Earlier this week I delivered a professional development workshop to our newest cohort of part-time MBAs, during which we looked at how to craft a great elevator pitch. As part of that, I talked about the importance of storytelling skills for networking. This seems to come naturally to some but not to others and if you fall in the latter camp, fear not – as with most things, ‘genius is 99% perspiration.’

Evidence from archaeology and anthropology suggests the human mind evolved over time with the building of cultures through social bonding and the exchange of ideas through storytelling. As ideas are now the currency of the 21st century knowledge economy, the ability to persuade, to change ‘hearts and minds’, is perhaps the single greatest skill that will give you a competitive edge in a time when ideas matter more than ever.

As developed economies have evolved from agricultural, to industrial and then knowledge-based ones, successful people in nearly every profession have become those capable of convincing others to take action on their ideas. Think about the role of persuasion in our daily lives:

  • Job candidates persuade recruiters to hire them
  • Leaders persuade employees to take specific plans of action
  • Entrepreneurs persuade investors to back their startups.

Telling a good story can help you connect with any audience on an emotional level. It can make complex data easier to digest, and make your arguments more persuasive. So how do you tell great stories, particularly great career and business stories?

Structure and elements

More than 2,000 years ago, Aristotle outlined a formula on how to become a master of persuasion in his work Rhetoric. Even today, Rhetoric is regarded by most rhetoricians as the most important single work on persuasion ever written. Aristotle championed the idea that a person’s ability to speak and write well, and to use rhetoric to change another’s perspective, could increase human potential and maximise happiness. While the tools we use to communicate ideas may have changed over the past 2,000 years, the human brain has not. The same formula that worked then will work now. In your next persuasive pitch or speech, try using these five rhetorical devices that he identified to good effect:

  • The first is egos or 'character.' In order for your audience to trust you, start your talk by establishing your credibility. Talking about your first-hand experience of something is more powerful than boasting about your qualifications.
  • Second, make a logical appeal to reason, or use 'logos.' Use data, evidence, and facts to support your pitch.
  • The third device, and perhaps the most important, is 'pathos,' or emotion. People are moved to action by how a speaker makes them feel. Aristotle believed the best way to transfer emotion from one person to another is through storytelling. The more personal your content is, the more your audience will feel connected to you and your idea.
  • The fourth is metaphor: Aristotle believed that metaphor gives language its verbal beauty. “To be a master of metaphor is the greatest thing by far,” he wrote. When you use a metaphor or analogy to compare a new idea to something that is familiar to your audience, it clarifies your idea by turning the abstract into something concrete e.g. ‘the sweet smell of success.’
  • The fifth is brevity: brevity is a crucial element in making a persuasive speech. An argument, Aristotle said, should be expressed “as compactly and in as few words as possible.”
  • Aristotle also observed that the opening of a person’s speech is the most important since “attention slackens everywhere else rather than at the beginning” so it’s key to start with your strongest point.

Personalising your stories

  1. Be authentic

There are numerous situations in which we might find ourselves having to deliver an elevator pitch, or answer a ‘Tell me about yourself’ type of question – to a senior manager, a potential client, a prospective employer, a new professional contact…it’s important we’re ready to tell a (short) story about ourselves in a an engaging and memorable way. The best stories will be authentic and lead to building a rapport with someone which will benefit you both going forward. Authenticity comes through in the stories we choose to tell others about ourselves - stories that communicate our values, convictions, strengths, and goals, rather than immediately trying to sell ourselves or impress with our achievements.

  1. Choose the right story for the right occasion

There are many business situations that call for a good story. When told at the right time, these stories can show character, reveal your ability as a leader, or demonstrate your drive. Choosing the best story for a given situation, however, can be more difficult than it seems – the key is to think about it in advance and plan ahead. Four types of stories you may want to have on hand in different scenarios include:

  • Success stories (interviews/earning trust)
  • Failure stories (establishing rapport/showing humility)
  • Funny stories (enlivening a speech or talk; don’t be afraid to channel the ridiculous - the funnier the story, the more people will remember you)
  • Stories of legends (memorability/association enhances your reputation)
  • Compelling stories (in support of a cause) 
  1. Telling Stories with Data and Images

You may love words, but many others have a different learning style and prefer data. There are times in the workplace when your story, or your business story, needs to be told visually through data or images.

Images are straightforward: ‘a picture speaks a thousand words’ after all, but telling stories with data can be more difficult, so try creating different types e.g. a bar graph, a line graph, and a scatter chart, and ask colleagues what story they see, and make sure it reflects what you want to convey. You’re the only person who knows what everyone else in the room needs to know and what actions you want them to take as a result.

Further resources: there are innumerable TED talks, books, and articles out there on the art of persuasion and great story telling – too many to recommend just one, but if you need support with your career or professional development, Warwick Business School provides lifelong access to alumni through support and resources. Please email alumnicareers@wbs.ac.uk.

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