How to Tell Stories to Busy Executives: My Take

Vikas Joshi
March 2, 2022

In a recent post How to Tell Stories to Busy Executives I posed the business storytelling paradox. Stories are the most powerful tool of persuasion. However, executives – the people who need to be persuaded – rarely have time or patience for stories. So how do you tell stories to busy executives?

Several readers and colleagues posted their thoughts on this post. In this article, I synthesize these ideas and add some more. If you are interested in learning how to use effective storytelling for busy clients, bosses, investors, and executives – read on. I have this in a Q-and-A format.

Why Bother with Stories?

As Larry Cummins quotes in his comment from Howard Gardner, “Stories constitute the single most powerful weapon in a leader’s arsenal.”

When you present someone with facts, they start analyzing the facts. When you present them with stories, they start forming a picture in their minds. This makes them curious, interested, and hopefully hooked to your proposal. Imagine someone telling you, “If we do this project, it will be profitable.” Now compare that with being told, “Jason won a big bonus for doing a similar project for the other department.” Which one moves you?

When to Tell the Story: Before or After the Presentation?

Any guesses here? There is no storytelling before, during, or after the presentation. The presentation is the story. An ideal presentation is one where every time a slide provokes a question in the listener’s mind, the next slide addresses it. There is a pull from one slide to the next. It is like a page-turner novel – from page one right up to the climax and denouement.

How Important is a Good Beginning?

Very important. As Sanjay Kamat points out in his comment, “The opening hook must be contextually relevant to the impatient listener. Ideally, the hook is a test – if it works, it allows you to begin the story; if not, better to let it go as launching into the story may backfire.”

What will make your hook work? It is a bit of an art, but some general principles apply. First, the hook must be about their pain point or aspiration, not yours. Second, it must indicate a credible promise of them getting there. Third, it must arouse curiosity about the path forward.

For example, you are presenting a sales proposal to use intelligent automation for a client in a car rental business. Here is one way to start. I have put the customer’s thoughts in parentheses:

We have developed amazing new techniques for intelligent automation (Why do I care?). Let me tell you a story (Oh no, not again). We had to automate a very complex workflow for a large food manufacturer (Please, stop!).

A customer-centric storyteller thinks and talks differently. Again, the customer’s thoughts are in parentheses:

A friend in the hotel industry once told me:

When their utilization went down, the #1 culprit was clunky customer experience at booking (Hmm.. different industry, but relevant: utilization, customer experience – interesting). How do you take intelligent automation and build stellar customer experiences so that customers keep coming back? (That’s a new take – but is it real?) Some of our savvy clients are ahead of the curve here (This looks real, maybe I am behind). Just the way Netflix and Prime can read patterns and personalize video recommendations, they are creating unique workflows for business and recreational segments (Makes sense – but how? I am curious). Imagine booking a car rental for a family vacation in a flash, and yet lingering on the site to enjoy the feeling of a vacation already started (I am hooked. I must tell Barbara, the VP of brand management).

Of course, this is a fictitious example, but I hope to have gotten the point across. The promise is counter-intuitive and full of intrigue. Automation is about engineering. The promise is about engineering done in a way that brings a host of business benefits – performance, insights, and above all, customer loyalty. The executive wants to hear more. He has held the door open for you to enter.

Do You Have to Have the Entire Story Worked Out Upfront?

Of course not. Storytelling works best when it is done like story building. The busy executive you are talking about was once a kid, and so were you. When someone told you a story at bedtime, how did it flow? They started and you interrupted to ask about a word you did not understand. Then again, you stopped them to present an idea – what if the tiger gets to the water first? The storyteller responded to you. Sometimes they would say something and you asked them to repeat that part. Then you asked what that part meant in a totally different situation. Did the cub worry that mom might not talk to him? All of this is part of story building. Business stories are strikingly similar. You build them together. This is the trick. Now the busy executive is busy with you, building the story.

How Do I Know if the Story is Working?

In business storytelling, there is only one indication that the story is working. The listener starts imagining himself or herself in the role of the main character of your story. As the story progresses, the listener starts experiencing the challenge, crisis, fear, courage, and triumph of the main character.

How do you know that is what is going on? Watch their reactions. Let them interrupt you. Intently listen to their questions, comments, and narratives about the future they would like to have. You will know that they have been drawn to the story. Not just that, they are looking for a place for themselves in the story.

That is the key. Make them an active partner in the story. Give the listener a central place in your story. Make it about them. As the story advances, get them to question their limiting assumptions. The main character can overcome the crisis, then what is stopping me? What assumptions have I made about my circumstances? Are they really true?

Once the listener challenges whatever is holding them back, the story has had a significant effect.

When Do I Stop Telling the Story?

When your storytelling is effective, you are not the one who finishes the story. It is the customer, the investor, the executive on the other side of the table who does. When they experience the ah-ha moment, when they think of embracing change, they create the narrative. Your job is to provide answers and encourage them to a commitment to go down that path.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Nobel-prize-winning novelist known for One Hundred Years of Solitude, was a master storyteller. He organized one of his novels, titled The Chronicle of a Death Foretold, in five chapters, each culminating with the same event: the death of

Santiago Nassar. Every time the reader knows what is about to happen. Yet the story draws you in, revealing something new about the death. I feel that is an inspiration we could use. Everyone knows where our story ends: I sell, you buy, we both win. It is the road to that end that keeps the other person riveted.

This article was inspired by questions that my colleagues Saritha and Jyotsna raised at a virtual roundtable with senior leaders at Harbinger Group. My recent article titled ‘How to Talk to a CEO’ captures the essence of this roundtable. Do share your thoughts and experiences of storytelling. I would be curious to learn from your insights. Good luck.

#Storytelling #Curious #Interested #PresentationIsTheStory