How to Tell a Great Story Without Putting Your Audience to Sleep

A few months ago, I finished some work with a great client where we have a big gap in helping people connect the work they do to the overall strategy. As I checked in this week to see how things were going, we mutually identified some of the key things we got right that they’re continuing to employ as key principles going forward:

  • Bulldog Reading BookTell a compelling story. This client had a lot of them about forces going on in the marketplace and how their business was positioned to grow as a result. However, the biggest issue was that this was all in the executives’ heads and the stories weren’t being published more broadly in the organization. Staff was thirsty for this information and once these stories began to be told, people were able to connect the dots about what was happening externally and how their day-to-day jobs matter. Defining and focusing on a central theme of what’s important to the reader (the WIIFM) are key to making your story uniquely interesting and compelling.
  • Give it an emotional “hook.” Ask yourself, “Why does the reader care about this?” If you can’t answer that, your communication isn’t right. A reader will get through two sentences into a communication before deciding whether or not the message is relevant; if you don’t lay this out from the beginning, they simply won’t care enough to read on. In Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath remind us that a story has to be sticky to stay with you and resonate long after the reading is finished. Connecting to the emotional part for people is critical to ensuring that things stick.
  • Weave in the facts. Let your facts support the story but don’t let them dominate. Many “dry” communications such as a decision to take a different strategic direction, reduce the workforce or implement a new system should utilize the facts and numbers to tell the story, but they aren’t the entirety of the story itself. For example, incorporating your business case savings into a message about outsourcing may be relevant, but it’s not typically the entire reason why a company has decided to make this strategic decision.
  • Don’t assume “one size fits all.” Take your core messages and tailor them to different audiences if at all possible … different audiences (sponsors, stakeholders, users, etc.) will need to hear different things based on what’s most important to them.
  • As always, keep it simple. Don’t weave in the lofty concepts and business jargon –  no one cares and they don’t know what it means anyway. Keeping it simple (and rewriting and rewriting until it’s as straightforward and focused as possible) is key.

Sheri Browning is a Partner at PeopleResults. You can reach her at or on Twitter @sbPResults.