A Leader’s Most Underutilized Tool for Compelling Business Communication

Clifton Authenticity, Communication, Humility, Leadership

I will never forget that day. I had just recently joined Amgen, the world’s largest biotech company at the time. It was another sunny Southern California morning as several hundred of my closest colleagues and I walked across campus to the huge auditorium. We were all heading to a staff meeting for the entire Finance organization.

The company CFO welcomed everyone to the meeting, gave an overview of the previous year’s financial results, and shared highlights of the current-year operating plan. Other members of the Finance Leadership Team delivered presentations on various projects and initiatives. I don’t remember any of the details of those presentations.

What separates exceptional leaders from good leaders is the ability to truly connect.

But–over 14 years later–one part of the meeting remains etched in my mind–when a woman (I’ll call her “Anne”) shared her experience with one of the company’s products. Anne explained how difficult her life was before she started using the medication: constant fatigue, shortness of breath, and her proneness to infections.

She discussed how challenging it was for her to complete even routine tasks–things we all take for granted–and how this adversely impacted her relationships. As Anne spoke, you could hear a pin drop. The audience hung on her every word.

Anne then shared how the product had dramatically changed her life. She was able to spend quality time with her husband and kids, volunteer, run errands, and take up a new hobby. The shared sense of joy in the room was palpable.

This speaks to the power of stories. Anne’s story served as a vivid and tangible reminder of why we went to work each day. As the CEO told me during my day of interviews with the company, “When I think about the difference we make in the lives of our patients, it makes every bad day I experience worth it.” Well said.

Told correctly, stories engage your listeners.

One of the most critical skills for us as leaders is the ability to communicate. If you can’t communicate effectively, you can’t lead.

What separates exceptional leaders from good leaders is the ability to truly connect with our teams, clients, and various stakeholders. One of the most powerful techniques to do so is by incorporating stories into your business communication.

There’s a reason we tell kids bedtime stories, instead of giving them bedtime PowerPoint presentations. (Considering how dry most business presentations are, they likely would be more effective as a sleeping aid.)

People tend to remember stories better than reams of data. Case in point: I still recall the details of Anne’s story, but cannot tell you what the company’s year-over-year revenue growth was.

Yes, facts and figures are necessary components of business presentations. While they can’t be replaced by stories, facts and figures are greatly enhanced by stories. Told correctly, stories engage your listeners. An effective story can serve as an anchor for an important point you want to make.

There’s a reason we tell kids bedtime stories, instead of giving them bedtime PowerPoint presentations.

As you can image, I’ve seen business leaders make mistakes when sharing stories in a business setting. To make sure you don’t trip up, here are the top 5 storytelling pitfalls to watch out for:

Pitfall #1 – Refusing to play the lead role

It’s fine to share stories about other people. However, in doing so you’re missing a big opportunity to truly connect. People want to do business with people they know, like, and trust. When you share a part of yourself through a story, it enables people (1) to get to know you, (2) like you, and (3) trust you. Intimacy builds trust.

Pitfall #2 – Giving a play-by-play account

We all have that one friend who needs to tell every. single. detail. when they’re sharing a story. If you don’t have a friend like that, then it’s you! The art of storytelling is about knowing what to share and what not to share. Be ruthless in deleting extraneous parts of the story. Take time to boil the story down to its essence.

Pitfall #3 – Right audience, wrong story

I had a “teachable moment” early in my professional speaking career when I returned to my alma mater to speak at a university faculty and staff luncheon. Because I had been accustomed to speaking to corporate audiences, I approached the speaking engagement the same way I would for my corporate clients. The problem: Academia ≠ Corporate America! I told a story that didn’t “land”–at all. While some stories are universal, others are not. Make sure the story fits your audience.

Pitfall #4 – Giving a weather report

If you’re telling a heart-felt story, don’t share it like you’re reading the evening news. You’ll come across as either cold or emotionally tone-deaf. Likewise, if you’re sharing a funny story, laugh or at least smile for goodness’ sake. One of the keys to storytelling is conveying the emotion of the story. Of course, don’t be overly dramatic.

Pitfall #5 – Going to battle with an unproven rifle

I once delivered a keynote at big conference, got up in front of hundreds of people and said something I thought was hilarious. The response: <crickets> Take it from me–always test your stories before you share them in a presentation. What’s funny to you might not be funny to everyone else. Use informal gatherings (hallway conversations, networking event, etc.) to share a story to see how people react. Make sure people get what you’re saying. Then determine whether or not to include it in your presentation.

How have you seen stories effectively incorporated into presentations?