Critical communications require you to influence an audience. Whether you’re asking a customer for a sale, motivating your team to tackle a new challenge, or helping your boss see you in a new light—your goal is to persuade.
Nothing persuades like stories. Stories are how humans interpret the world. Stories stick with audiences more than facts. When a listener hears a story, powerful chemicals are released. Stories complement logical arguments by appealing to emotions. Ultimately—and most importantly in a professional setting—stories inspire listeners to act.
When communicators ask us when the right time to tell a story is, we respond with a different question: “When do you want to persuade someone?”
Think about the situations in which you want to persuade a listener or an audience. What do you want to persuade them away from? What do you want to persuade them toward? If your goal is persuasion, then story is one of your most effective means of accomplishing this goal.
Here are three situations when a story might engage your listeners, guide them to your point of view, and persuade them to act.
#1 Formal Presentations
Whether your presentation audience is a group of two or two thousand, they will be focused solely on you. You might have slides, or you might not. You may be standing up or you may be sitting down. You may be allowed to speak uninterrupted, or your audience may break in with questions or pushback. Regardless, you have the floor and something worth communicating.
As you put your content together, think about your audience. Where are they currently? How do they think, feel, and act about your topic? How do you want them to think feel and act? What idea—product, concept, insight, etc.—are you offering to help them?
Most presenters consider a variety of content types like survey results, quotes, charts, graphs, statements, and metaphors to persuade. Great presenters add stories to this list, and you should too. A story will help accomplish two key aims:
1. Engage Your Audience
A steady stream of data, statements, and “if this, then that” content may help build a case for your thesis in your audience’s heads, but over time, data and facts can be exhausting. Stories take root in listeners’ minds in ways facts simply cannot.
Stories provide a bit of relief. They uniquely communicate your key ideas and stimulate parts of listeners’ brains which aren’t used to process data and facts. Stories engage your audience by adding variety to your presentation.
2. Show Your Idea Play Out in Reality
Persuasion only truly takes root when a listener understands how your idea plays out in real life. Stories help your audience “see” this more clearly.
You may tell a hypothetical story, describing how a listener’s life or work could change if they take your advice and act on your ideas. You can also tell a story describing what happens if they don’t accept your offer. You might also describe someone (or a group) who applied your idea and how it benefited them specifically.
Stories help bring your presentation to life by showing how your ideas can be practically applied.
#2 Sales Conversations
Sales is persuasion. It’s moving a customer or client from not-buying to (ultimately) buying.
Great salespeople are great storytellers. They understand the power of story to articulate the struggle a customer or client is experiencing and how their product or service provides a solution.
Because many sales meetings function more like conversations than formal presentations, some salespeople shy away from storytelling. If it’s not part of the sales deck or script they feel like storytelling is little more than fluff. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Stories gird your pitch by bringing your product or service to life. They show how your solution can be implemented and the results your customer or client can expect. Stories translate concepts into reality. When you tell the customer or client their own story, you help them see what they’re currently experiencing.
Say you’re a software salesperson and you’re sitting across from a customer who purchased a previous version of your product but is hesitant to buy a new upgrade. You could (and probably should) talk to them about “speeds and feeds” and all the other facts which help the customer see the improvements of the new version.
But it’s also important to steer the conversation by framing the customer’s current experience as a story. Hopefully you’ve gleaned enough information from your conversation with the customer—or from research prior to the meeting—to accurately describe your customer’s story.
You could articulate to the customer what their goal is (ex: high security for online shoppers without lag time) and what’s standing in the way (ex: the old version provides security, but at a cost of a briefly spinning wheel at checkout).
You could then describe how their story would change if they made a different decision (ex: buying the new software and how security would remain tight, but checkout would be fast). Then, you could tell them about the positive ending that comes from such a decision (ex: security, speed, and increased revenue). Using the time-tested three-act story structure helps the customer clearly see where they are and the better story that’s possible.
Also, telling another customer or client’s story to a listener can help them see themselves in either a success story or a failure story. Telling the story of how your product helped a customer with similar goals and obstacles moves your solution from theory to a relatable reality. Conversely, you could describe a similar customer or client who did not use your product or service and how it kept them from overcoming their challenges and getting what they desired.
Nothing persuades like stories, so leverage them often—and well—in sales conversations.
You’re scheduled to sit down across from your boss (either in-person or virtually) and you know they’re going to ask some tough questions to make sure you’re on track.
This is a high stakes situation because you need to change, or at least influence, your boss’ mind. You want to persuade them to see you in a positive light as a contributing employee, a high performer, and a great member of the team.
To do so, you could show your boss numbers that prove your point, or even quote others who have positive things to say about you. All great ideas. But adding a story will help bring your words to life and help them land with impact.
In a one-on-one with your boss, you could tell a story of when you had a goal, faced obstacles, discovered a way forward, and succeeded. (That’s a very simply—and powerfully—structured story.)
You could tell this story in a way that describes your journey and how you’re not someone who simply does what they’re supposed to do, coasting along an easy path. You’re someone with goals who faces obstacles and overcomes them.
This doesn’t mean you should stand up midway through the meeting with your boss to tell a tale of triumph as if you were a knight waxing poetic about a slain dragon. Effective storytelling is often quite subtle and more about how you frame experiences. Stick to a simple story structure and communicate what you wanted, what you faced, and how you overcame so your listener can better relate to your experience.
Stories persuade. So, the next time you find yourself in a situation which requires persuasion—whether in a formal presentation, a sales conversation, or a one-on-one—plan ahead and consider what story (or stories) you could tell. If you tell one, and tell it well, your listeners will lean forward, pay greater attention, and, hopefully, find themselves persuaded.
Illustrated by Ryan Muta