How Storytelling Helps Make a Personal Connection with an Audience

Connecting with an audience is a critical business skill. We all need it when we try to get a point across to someone else. We may be teaching a new idea or skill, explaining the importance of a new strategic initiative, or maybe trying to persuade a prospect to become a client. In my recent post on security awareness, I stressed the need for connection in awareness training when I listed the WIIFM (what's in it for me) factor as an essential component. One important way to make that connection is by telling stories.

The stories and WIIFM need to go hand-in-hand. That is, the listeners need to relate to the stories. My friends tell me stories about their grand-babies. I don't have any grandchildren or even any children, so it is somewhat difficult, but not impossible, to relate. I also have trouble relating to some of the difficulties of living in a large city: after twenty-some years living in rural America, the only experiences I have living in large cities are extended work visits and the experiences of television characters. Most of the latter are probably quite contrived, but it is hard to be sure what is and what isn't. The characters and setting are only two factors in telling a story to which the listeners should relate. The real core is how the content and message resonate with the listeners. That is, they need to be able to visualize the setting, identify with the characters, and feel the pain or conflict. Emotion is a central part of this.

silhouette of person presenting with the words "What's your story?' above them

Making the Emotional Connection

There are two ways to create these emotional connections: do an excellent job of painting mental pictures of settings and building characters, or use situations and characters to which the listeners can already relate. When I speak to a group of technical folks, I use stories from technical situations. When I speak to business professionals, I use examples from business situations. Generally, these are true stories from personal experience, sometimes they are hypothetical situations of the what-would-happen-if variety. The deeper, longer descriptions and character-building may be valuable for a long written or delivered story, but for a shorter story in a training event or other presentation, using immediately-relatable situations and characters in invariably the best choice. Whenever possible, I prefer to tell stories where I am the main character. That not because I want listeners or readers to focus on me, but because I want to have a relatable character. It is also easy for me to honestly relate the pain I felt that prompted the events in the story.

Describe the Scene

Even when the setting is familiar, it is still necessary to give some form of description: as we speak or write we form a mental image of the setting and characters. We need to convey those images to our listeners or readers. If it is meaningful that two people are communicating via email, we need to say so. If the story would have the same meaning if they were communicating via phone or text, then we can be ambiguous about the mode of communication. This requires practice, especially in a situation where the story is not written fully in advance.

I practice this by relating brief stories to my wife and seeing whether or not her mental images have the essential components to get the message across. The descriptive process becomes much easier over time.

Debrief the Story

The final step to creating the WIIFM is to state it explicitly, usually after the story itself. Every course, seminar, book, and article on training activities stresses the importance of the debrief after an activity. One critical aspect of that debrief is to ensure the participants learned what the designer intended. Likewise, good stories need a debrief. It can be as simple as the familiar, "The moral of this story is..." or something more comprehensive, if necessary. To make the experience more interactive, you can ask the listeners what they learned, as well.

As you listen to others' stories (especially at work) consider the settings and characters along with their descriptions and the mental pictures you see. Are they clear and relatable? Can you feel the pain or relate to the conflict? Then listen for the summary or debrief. Did you learn what was intended?

AUTHOR: John McDermott

Related Training:
Leadership and Professional Development
Communication Skills