Storytelling in business settings is about creating fit: that between story and audience. You might have what you think is the world’s greatest story, but most audience members of a certain type may disagree. Conversely, you could have what you deem to be a mundane, uninspiring story, but it may resonate deeply with some audiences. So part of your job as a leader is to think through the critical components of your story—plot, emotional quality, takeaway—and align those with what you know about your target audiences. Here are four truths to guide you through that process.
Truth 1: You’re not alone.
Every writer and public speaker is in the same boat. Everyone has to think carefully about how to connect with their audience. It doesn’t just happen.
Here are what five business leaders, artists and intellectuals have said about connecting with audiences.
Chip Heath, Stanford Graduate School of Business professor:
“To make our communications more effective, we need to shift our thinking from ‘What information do I need to convey?’ to ‘What questions do I want my audience to ask?’”
Karen Armstrong, religious historian:
“Storytelling is fine as long as you can encourage people to act on the stories.”
Kenneth Branagh, actor:
“My experience of great storytelling, working with classics, is just finding a way to present it simply but let the story do its own work, or be an invite to the audience’s imagination.”
Maya Angelou, poet and civil rights activist:
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Michel de Montaigne, philosopher:
“Speech belongs half to the speaker, half to the listener.”
Truth 2: You can plan ahead.
Don’t just wing it when it comes to connecting with your audience. Do some thinking beforehand.
One of the simplest but most potent exercises I can recommend is just taking out a piece of paper and dividing it into two columns. In the first column, write down everything you know about your audience. Who are they? What keeps them up at night? In the second column, write down everything you don’t know. It’s just as important to define what you don’t know because it helps you steer clear of assumptions. This simple exercise will help you understand your audience better and narrow your presentation’s focus.
Truth 3: You have to get uncomfortable.
Sometimes connecting with your audience means that you need to get uncomfortable. It takes stepping out of your routine so that you know how to meet their needs.
Truth 4: You have to watch your tone.
Your tone will affect how your audience understands your message.
When it’s time to give a presentation, most of us begin with the question, “what will I say?” But in reality, the most important question is, “who is my audience?” We can have a flawless presentation, never utter a single “um” or stumble over a single word, spend thousands on designing our deck… but if we don’t have a solid handle on who our audience is, we’ve wasted all of that effort. The main goal has to be connecting with our audience on a human level.
Need help reaching your audience? Constant practice is important. Look for opportunities to craft and tell your stories with other business leaders wherever you can.