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While Presidential candidates know it's crucial to make personal connections with the audience, business communicators often forget
Telling personal stories makes presentations stronger. Politicians have long understood this. They know that forging a connection with an audience on an emotional level is crucial if they want to have any lasting influence. They know personal stories can deliver that emotion.
When Democratic Presidential nominee Senator Barack Obama (D-Ill.) took the stage at Denver's Invesco field earlier this September, he told the story of being born to "a young man from Kenya and a young woman from Kansas who weren't well-off but shared a belief that in America their son could achieve whatever he put his mind to." Obama's running mate, Senator Joe Biden (D-Del.), told the story of being raised in Scranton, Pa., by a dad who fell on hard times. We even learned that Biden stuttered as a child. When Alaska Governor Sarah Palin accepted Senator John McCain's (R-Ariz.) offer to be his running mate, she told stories about the struggles and joys she faces as a mom—from her eldest son being deployed to Iraq to raising a child with special needs. McCain brought his audience to tears—and later to their feet—with a descriptive story about the years he spent captive in Vietnam "blessed by misfortune."
But while politicians (and their speechwriters) are adept at weaving personal narrative into speeches, few business communicators employ this device in their own presentations. There are two overarching reasons for this missed opportunity. First, most presenters are afraid of opening themselves up in a business context. Second, many deliver presentations created by folks with whom they have had little personal interaction. The presentations are heavy with facts and analysis and light on the human touch. In his new book, A Sense of Urgency (BusinessWeek.com, 9/4/08), John Kotter, an organizational change expert, writes: "Neurologists say that our brains are programmed much more for stories than for abstract ideas. Tales with a little drama are remembered far longer than any slide crammed with analytics."
Putting the Message in Context
Not only do personal stories replace pages of material, but they place the message into a context that is relevant to the lives of the listener. Here's an example: I was working with a large organic food company in California. Its public relations and marketing teams bombarded me with statistics and data to prove that an organic diet was more nutritious and better for the environment. By the time lunch had rolled around, I had forgotten most of the numbers. It was too much for my mind to process. Then a farmer who worked for the company turned to me said: "Carmine, when I worked for a conventional farm, I would come home and my kids would want to hug me. They couldn't because I had to shower first and my clothes had to be removed and disinfected. Today, I can walk right off the field into the waiting arms of my kids because there's nothing toxic on my body to harm them." This one story—which took all of 20 seconds to tell—replaced piles of dry data. We reconvened after lunch and changed the way this company articulated its story to potential customers. While data are obviously important and must support your story, you have to touch hearts before you can influence minds.
Make storytelling part of your corporate culture. When I visited the headquarters of game company Cranium, now owned by Hasbro (HAS), I noticed e-mails and letters posted on walls and break tables. These were letters from customers telling stories about how much they enjoyed the game. In an interview with Ritz-Carlton President Simon Cooper, I learned that the hotel chain shares so-called wow stories (BusinessWeek.com, 2/29/08) in every department each day. These are stories about real employees who exceed guest expectations. In each of these cases, stories serve as a learning tool and a way to keep employees motivated because they see the direct impact of their work.
Remember, stories complement data. Use both to reach your listeners. Data satisfy the analytical part of our brains, but stories touch our hearts.