How to Tell A Story (Learnings from “Talk” at Stanford Business School)

During business school at Stanford, the activity I devoted more time to than anything else was a series of events called “Talk” – or, in my class’s case “Talk 10” (alluding to our graduation year). Talk10 happened once a week. Sixty, seventy, or more classmates would crowd into someone’s living room (often mine) and listen to a classmate speak. The ‘talker’ had thirty minutes to speak and followed by thirty minutes to answer questions. Unlike other business school discussions, these talks were not content-filled discussions of ideas or even chronological life stories; instead, they were carefully-crafted narratives designed to elucidate what was most important to the person. Topics ranged. One woman discussed what she learned through a legal battle with start-up co-founders and how that influenced her experience of friendships at work. Another man discussed his relationship with his grandfather and how that formed his personal values. I talked about my relationship with ritual and resulting philosophy of bringing the sacred into the everyday. Each talk unfurled with a series of personal anecdotes all tied back to an overarching theme and underlined by personal meaning.

The Talks were sacred. In contrast to our variable in-class behavior, classmates showed up on time and sat with rapt attention. They radiated love, compassion, and welcome for the Talkers. The Talkers, on their side, bravely shared their most personal, vulnerable stories.

I, along with two classmates, coached the Talkers in crafting their stories. What did they want to say?  Why was that important? Who were the characters in the story? What vivid sensory detail could they bring to illustrate their experiences? We would sit with the Talkers to hear their truth and help them hone their stories. I was touched in every interaction.

Now, I’m again coaching classmates on telling their stories in anticipation of our ten-year reunion this May. This time the Talkers will share their learnings and lessons since graduating from business school. For me, this is an apt moment to reflect upon my learnings about storytelling over this time as well.

I’ve consolidated my learnings from coaching storytelling over the last ten years – distilled not only from my classmates putting together their Talks, but also from the many senior leaders I’ve coached to share their personal stories for business purposes. That wisdom, a useful but incomplete nugget of knowledge on storytelling, is shared below.

With that, my questions for you:

  • If you had thirty minutes to share your story, what would the theme be? What would you talk about?
  • What might be hard about sharing that story?
  • Why would it be worthwhile?

Meredith

On choosing what to talk about

  • Tell your own stories: It’s sometimes easier to tell other peoples’ stories (e.g., the stories of the people who influenced you, the people you met, or the people you were inspired by). Sometimes you need to do this for context, but more often you can focus on your reactions to those people and your feelings about them
  • Speak from the heart instead of the head: We can all share facts and figures, explanations and reasons. Minimize the background, rationale, explanations, and generalized truisms. Lean into the emotions, the struggles, the challenges, and the difficulty that you felt
  • Be vulnerable: The parts of your story that people will find most meaningful are often the parts that you find hardest to share. To the extent you’re able, include more of what makes you real, even if it’s uncomfortable

On structuring your content

  • Choose anecdote over narrative: When possible, choose two to four anecdotes that illustrate the ‘peaks’ of your journey instead of telling a continuous, chronological narrative. Not all events are created equally
  • Consider an keeping your punchline for the end: Unlike a good five paragraph essay, a story can be most interesting when you include the point at the end instead of including it up-front. Without sacrificing clarity, consider letting the audience come on the journey with you rather than turning your story into a long proof of your initial thesis
  • Edit, edit, edit: It’s impossible to fit the full richness into a story of tolerable length. Know that you will have to edit yourself and be selective about the things you share. Choose to include fewer events at more depth instead of covering everything on a more superficial level

On choosing the right words

  • Show don’t tell:  Illustrate how your points are true instead of stating them as facts. Take us there and show us
  • Avoid generalizing your unique experience: Everyone’s view is unique. We want to hear your view. Shift generic statements about ‘how the world is’ (e.g., “Start-ups are hard”) to be personal expressions of your unique experience (e.g., “I found starting my company hard because. . .”)
  • Make people into characters: To the extent you have one or two other key players in your story, take the extra time to make them into characters. Give them names. Share one or two sentences of description about them so the audience can see them in your story and interact with them as well

On delivery

  • Overprepare the beginning: The opening of your story is when your nerves are typically at their worst. Overprepare the first few minutes of your talk so that you can deliver it confidently and with ease. Typically, you will settle in after a moment and be able to speak more freely as the story progresses.
  • Speak in paragraphs: People need silence and space to digest. Make sure you pause between ideas. This is particularly true if you’re delivering a stretch which is more focused on narrative than anecdote. The silence will feel more uncomfortable for you than it does for the audience
  • Use “I” language: This is your story to tell. Avoid “we”, “they”, and “you”. If you are compelled to speak in the plural, reflect back on the part of the story that you own. Within the “we”, what was your piece of it?
  • Moderate your speed: Start slowly to dampen the nerves and then use a varied pace as you progress. When in doubt, slow down
  • Enjoy yourself: Your emotional state will come through in your voice. Try to have fun up there.

 

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