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3 Surprising Ways Storytelling Makes You a Better Communicator at Work

Sometimes, as business leaders, it feels like things just aren’t clicking. We hustle and work hard, only to find that all our efforts haven’t really done anything to help our businesses grow. It’s like shouting into the void, and it’s frustrating.

I’ve found that this sluggishness is often the result of unclear communication.

So much of running a successful business is about communication. Reading a market. Negotiating a deal. Putting together a compelling offer. Motivating a team. All of those things demand clear communication.

And nothing brings clarity to our communication like a story.

A story is the most powerful tool you can use to connect with another human being.

It’s why we’ve built a business around using storytelling principles to radically clarify and improve your marketing.

But beyond marketing, these storytelling principles help me all the time as I’m running my business. Here are three surprising ways I use story to communicate more clearly as a business leader. If you’re feeling like things just aren’t clicking at your company, try using these techniques to communicate better with your customers and your staff.

The basic storytelling structure I use

Before I go much further, let me explain more about story.

Storytelling relies on time-tested formulas. These formulas organize events so they’re told through a set structure. This structure brings instant clarity, which is critical, because our human brains are drawn to clarity and repelled by confusion.

Here is the story structure, or formula, that I use to bring clarity to my communication. It’s like a simple plot outline.

A character has a problem, then meets a guide who gives them a plan and calls them to action. That action either results in a success or failure.

Sound familiar? You’ve seen this structure before in countless movies. Hollywood knows it works.

Consider the plot of Star Wars: A New Hope. Our character is Luke Skywalker, and he’s got two problems: the evil Empire, and wondering if he has what it takes to become a Jedi. He meets Obi-Wan Kenobi, his guide. He tells Luke he has what it takes and to trust the Force. Luke leads the rebellion to defeat the Empire, and the result will either be that he destroys the Death Star or that the rebellion will be crushed and the evil Empire will win.

So now that you understand the structure, here are a few places I use it in order to communicate more effectively in my business.

In a Speech

If I’m giving a speech to a room full of business leaders, I use this basic story structure to capture their attention.

First, I talk about something I wanted for my business — perhaps a specific financial goal I wanted to attain. Then, I describe the problem I had trying to get it. Next, I talk about a leader I met or a book I read that helped me realize there might be a way out of my troubles.

I then talk about how scared I was to take action. Perhaps the stakes were high or I was afraid I couldn’t pull it off. After painting a picture of potential tragedy, I let the audience know how I took action and how it ended well.

For each point I want to make, I tell a story using the same structure. And it’s only at the end of each story that I allow myself to make a one-minute comment explaining or editorializing the point.

When you focus your speech on the story, the audience will apply it to their lives. You don’t have to do the work for them.

Most public speakers do the opposite. They spend most of their time making editorial comments and then cap their speech with a story. I assure you, the only thing the audience really remembers is the story.

When you focus your speech on the story, the audience will apply it to their lives. You don’t have to do the work for them.

When we speak like this, we serve our audience well by helping them process complicated information easily so they can apply it to their lives.

Networking

When someone asks what I do for a living, I don’t tell them I’m a writer who runs a brand strategy company. If I did, nobody would listen, and I certainly wouldn’t earn any business as a result of the conversation.

Instead, I tell a story.

Years ago, I was a writer with a small conference company. But the only people who came to the conferences were fans. I didn’t know how to cast a wider net.

One day, I got on an airplane and sat next to a guy reading my latest book. He didn’t recognize me as the author, so I took advantage of the opportunity to pick his brain. I asked him what he thought about the author , and while he said he loved the books, he really couldn’t explain why. And then it hit me: like this guy, my readers didn’t have a clear, simple way to tell other people why they should read my stuff. By not giving them this language, I wasn’t helping my readers to spread the word about my books.

So I rented a cabin and created a brand strategy for myself using a story structure. The result was a process that any business could go through to clarify their marketing. I took my little conference business through it, and we quadrupled in size over 18 months.

After that success, I started a second company called StoryBrand, and we help brands use story to clarify their marketing and communication.

You’ll notice this story has all those basic plot elements I outlined earlier, although in this case my “guide” (the stranger on the plane) was never even aware of how he helped me.

I’ve probably told a version of that story a thousand times, and I’ve never had anyone fail to understand what I do. Not only that, we’ve had brands like Chick-fil-A teach their entire staff how to speak about what they do in storytelling terms. Imagine a company where every staff member can tell a clear story about who they are and why their work matters. It’s like having a passive sales force out in the field.

Writing Longform Content

A few months ago, I turned in a manuscript for my latest book, Building a StoryBrand. (You can actually pre-order it now and get a fun little gift!)

It was a labor of love, as all books are, but it was easier because story structure allowed me to instantly bring organization and clarity to my thoughts.

While not everyone writes a book for their job, you may need to write another piece of longform content, like an ebook to help you build your email list or a resource to train your sales team.

When I write, I use the same structure I outlined earlier. I just repeat it over and over. Often, I’ll repeat this plot structure several times within a chapter, almost like a wheel turning around, and then I’ll wrap up the chapter with either a happy or a tragic ending.

Each of the chapters fits into a greater “epic” that, hopefully, is the theme of the book. And so my books are simply little stories within a larger one.

For example, if I were writing a book about the creative process, I may use the “epic” overarching story of having to wrap up a screenplay for an unruly producer. If I don’t get it done, I don’t get to collect the advance. So in chapter one, I could use a subplot story of how I overcame procrastination. In chapter two, I might tell a story about a struggle I had developing a character. Each “subplot” story feeds into the bigger one.

In fact, as you outline your content, come up with as many stories as you can using this structure. Then, see how they align with the larger points your piece is making. You’ll be surprised at how quickly your list of stories starts looking like a complete project.


I’ve used this storytelling structure in many other ways, too — from writing a job description to leading our quarterly big-picture staff meetings.

Whenever something in my business seems muddy, I pull out this one simple formula and see if I can plug what’s happening into the framework. Invariably, I’ll find a place where the story breaks down, and that’s my first clue to figuring out why the whole situation isn’t working.

I hope this structure can help you bring clarity to your work world this week. Is there another place you could use this storytelling structure for your business? Leave me a comment. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Use Storytelling to Clarify Your Marketing

If you like the story structure I talk about in this post, come to a StoryBrand Live Workshop. I’ll show you exactly how it will revolutionize your marketing and communication and help you turbocharge your business.

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