I’m a believer in the power of storytelling. Some of my favourite stories are fantasies (Lord of the Rings, The Avengers) and when my kids were little I’d tell them stories about the magic garden in our backyard. But when it comes to the stories you tell at work, there is no place for fantasies. 

Storytelling is an important influencing skill to have in your arsenal because stories have the power to create epiphanies that will change the way people think. 

Regardless of whether you’re presenting a strategy to a board; rolling out a significant change to internal teams; delivering a keynote presentation or discussing an important point of view with a colleague; spending time structuring a story helps pull a convincing and cohesive argument together. 

Importantly, the story needs to be true or it will come back to bite you in the you-know-where. If the people you are trying to influence don’t see through a fake story immediately, they will eventually cotton on and there goes your credibility. 

Structuring a story – the “Would this stand up in court?” approach

Step 1: The opening statement

Opening statements summarise a point of view that will later be backed up by evidence. The “Innocent until proven guilty” approach works because both sides of the argument are thoroughly investigated and presented before a verdict is delivered.

This is the ideal approach for pulling the bones of a true story together. However, it’s human nature to start with a preconceived point of view and then look for evidence to back it up. To avoid getting tripped up with this approach, be open to having your own aha moments. 

Take some time to think through the possible alternative views of your audience and what evidence exists that backs up their views. Challenge your preconceived view and if you decide it’s still right, take the insights you’ve gained about the alternatives and use them to make your story even more compelling. 

Step 2: Gather the evidence

What are the cold hard facts that are difficult to argue with? What are the insights from eyewitnesses eg. customers, users, front-line staff? What do the expert witnesses say – the internal or external experts who can help support the case? 

How forensic should your investigation be? That depends on the story you are putting together and the audience. For example, strategy and large change programs will require a forensic approach to evidence gathering. You can’t afford to get the facts wrong. Keynote presentations or conversations with a peer may just need a nugget of great evidence that really strikes a chord. 

Step 3: Presenting the evidence

The evidence needs to be organised and presented in a logical way so people can easily follow along and not get lost. What’s presented and how it’s presented, will need to change depending on the audience.  

Step 4: The closing statement

There are two big questions that you need to answer for your audience

  1. Why should they care? 
  2. What do you want them to do about it? 

Getting the answers right requires a deep understanding of the audience. If there are multiple audiences, the answers are likely to be different. Take a big change to an IT system as an example. What the Board cares about and the actions required will be completely different from what the users of the system care about and what they need to do. 

Step 5: Review steps 1 – 4.  

Adjust the opening statement based on the results of steps 2 – 4 and check that the overall flow of the story works. 

Happy storytelling