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Essentials for Storytelling Science & Startups...

2000 so far. That’s number of startup founders, business leaders, and scientists I have taught and or coached, in English, French or both, on how to use storytelling in their work.

Some of this work is around perfecting a business pitch for clients and investors. Or preparing talks about scientific-academic work for a general audience. There have been leaders, artists and educators looking to storify how they talk about their work. And many undergraduate and graduate students and colleagues looking for a new way to talk about their story at interviews and meetings.

This number reveal is not about bragging — but with this volume and experience I am thinking increasingly of what I learn about storytelling from these exchanges, well beyond what I know as a communications expert and a storyteller. This work over the years challenges the way I approach my own storytelling and pushes me to think about how to better make story concepts come alive for a broader audience.

For example, I know for sure now that public speaking leaves few people indifferent. I always knew this but am still surprised at how everyone has a very fixed idea of whether they are great at public speaking or not and why. And while most of have heard of storytelling (it is now a dramatically overused term for everything), how to use it in their work is unclear. Will it mean dumbing down the complexity of the work, project, idea? Will I have to reveal something deeply personal to make it a story? What if I am a scientist or startup and the idea of something vaguely literary or too much like advertising makes me queasy? Storifying anything — a business presentation, a big talk, a pitch, a personal experience, is never about dumbing anything down. The best storytelling maintains the authenticity of the topic and the voice of the speaker. It is a way to connect better with your audience, to have impact, to have your message land. And those queasy feelings? I promise anyone I am working with that the goal of storytelling is not to obliterate fact and science, nor will it turn you into a beat poet. Promise.

But the big common theme? We all know our stories too well, and we are so certain of every detail. Whether it is a personal story or the history of a project, a business plan, or a scientific study. We tend to present what we know in a specific way, often bound by chronology or a presentation format we learned. We tell our stories the way we remember them, including every detail and in the order in which it happened. I hear this in both business and storytelling performance contexts all the time — this happened, then this happened, then this and then I did this. We all tend to do this, sharing something that is more forensic report than story, a cognitive habit aimed at capturing every moment as we experienced it, sticking to the truest account of all that happened. And knowing your thing, your topic, your story is great, except when the impulse is to get everything in. We want to get it all in.

In my teaching and coaching I call this the spinach effect — the massive amount of detail we retain and hold about the topics we know best. What happens to spinach in the cooking process? Still as good but dramatically reduced in size and that is the goal with any good story. The problem is we all have a lot of raw spinach, and we want to deliver it all, to pack it all in for our audiences. So how can storytelling help reduce and refine the spinach of our details to the essentials? Here is a capsule of storytelling advice I use with my colleagues and collaborators.

1. Connection is the goal

Sure, we want to transmit every detail, but most often oral presentations are not the place to do this. Follow up reports, a deck, a formal submission, will cover all the details. The goal of a powerful talk, a pitch, a job talk, an interview story, a story onstage is to make an impression, to get the audience to care and engage with you. The most effective storytelling is about feeling and connection. Great stories, pitches, presentations — they are as felt as much as they are heard.

This doesn’t mean you forfeit all the detail nor does this mean you are all and only about the feels. It does mean paying less attention to every detail and more to connecting with your audience around something that will matter to them. And this is tough as we are taught to be as comprehensive as possible and there are contexts for this, but the chances are your audience will remember a fraction of the detail you offer. What they will remember is how they felt — interested, curious, fascinated. Even if they disagree with you, they are not indifferent.

2. The One Thing

So, you have your pitch, presentation, talk, or story ready? Ask what is that one thing you want your audience to feel, remember, take away? What is the one thing you want to land with this audience? Describe it in a few sentences, then keep working it until you distill it to one thing. This will help you identify or consolidate your spinach, eliminating the unnecessary detail that doesn’t support that one thing.

3. Trust Your Audience

The more you leave out, the more you highlight what you leave in — this quote by Henry Green is often used by storytellers, reminding us that more detail doesn’t always serve your goal. More detail in an oral presentation is not necessarily helping your audience.

Your audience needs much less than you think to get the point, that one thing. And what you can hope for is questions and follow up from an excited audience (rather than an audience desperate to have you finish because they are bored). Say much less, and it will mean much more.

And there is more to this of course —it seems everyone now is a storytelling coach or pitch and business coach. There are varied formats and formulas for pitch dynamics, for business presentations, and for narrative storytelling. There is the question of what is personal versus private and how to navigate what to share; there is the vast complexity of visual storytelling and pitches and presentations; and there are ways to practice thinking and speaking ‘on our feet’ providing responses to questions from the audience in a nimbler way. There are breathing exercises that can help us feel more comfortable in front of an audience and ways to clear up the verbal clutter or uhms and ahs in our oral delivery. All these form part of storytelling practices I use in my own stories, in teaching storytelling concepts and in my own presentations in a professional context. Like a muscle, these require work and practice, something I am reminded of each time I tell a story on stage. How will you be working on the spinach of your detail? Here’s looking forward to continued learning about the connections between business, science, and story.

Check out this free webinar on Storytelling Essentials recorded and hosted by the Concordia University Alumni Association....or watch some of my stories here where I practice some of the above!

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