Congratulations! You’ve finally booked a meeting with that Very Important Person—the one you’ve been dying to reach in order to grow your business, prove your value, or advance your career. In preparation, you carefully and strategically plan what you will say. You organize your thoughts, choose your words, and edit them down into a tight little message. You memorize it. You believe it. You love it.
Your 30-second pitch is in the can, ready to go.
The moment arrives. You’re face to face with that Very Important Person.
You make eye contact.
You take a deep breath.
You throw that can!
Do you make an impression? Well, yes, chucking a can of anything at anyone is going to get attention. But at what cost? At best, the impact is jarring. At worst, it hurts. You leave your audience stunned and bruised and wondering what just happened.
Canned messages don’t make good conversations.
A 30-second pitch is not a conversation. In some situations, it may be a conversation starter. But it’s inherently one-sided: your points delivered in your voice to serve your interests.
Doing business is never a one-sided endeavor. You need at least two people to make a sale, form a partnership, or reach an agreement. The path to shared progress is conversation. You say something. I say something. We pass ideas and information back and forth. Ideally, the exchange ends in persuasion, where our interests have become so clearly connected that we move forward together.
Stories create connections.
Where do we find those clear connections? In our stories!
Business people and organizations have caught on to the notion that stories help us connect with the people we need to reach. Individuals want to tell better stories. Sales teams want their pitches to follow a meaningful arc. Companies want to craft brand narratives.
If you’re among these story-seekers, please heed this advice:
Don’t settle for a canned story. Adopt a story culture.
You don’t need one story. You need to be able to tell the right story for the right audience at the right time.
Don’t buy into the notion that “storytelling” means weaving a tale, memorizing it, and delivering it flawlessly to a rapt audience. That might work on the TED stage. But it’s not practical for day-to-day business.
Instead, prepare to share fresh, made-to-order stories that are right for the audience and for the moment. Develop good storytelling skills, and practice them.
What does it take to summon and share the right story?
As my business partner Jill Pollack and I like to say, you need to be in Story Mode. Some people live in Story Mode. Others have to work a little harder to find the zone. But we are convinced that everyone can get there—with open ears, a curious mind, and a few truths you know by heart.
Listen. Really listen. Don’t just “hear out” that Very Important Person, thinking forward to the moment you can start covering your talking points. (We can tell when you’re doing that, you know.) Listen actively. Listen for something that puzzles you, so you can ask an honest question. Listen for something that surprises you, and then paraphrase what you think you heard.
Find your points of connection. Once you’re sure you understand that Very Important Person—who they are and what matters most to them—then (and only then) can you start relating what you have heard to what you can share. Identify the facts or emotions or experiences or interests or priorities where you and that Very Important Person intersect. Find common ground.
Trust the stuff you know by heart. Find words to describe what you stand for, what you have to offer, and how you make a difference. Write these things down. Say them out loud. Get comfortable with the ideas—not as a memorized schtick, but as truthful nuggets you know by heart. (Pssst! You may already have these words in the form of core values, key messages, value propositions, positioning statements, or brand narratives.) These are the themes you want your stories to reinforce. And guess what? Your stories will naturally emphasize these themes, as long as you speak honestly—and in your own words—about what you know, what you feel, and what you do.
Stories are the means, not the end.
If you’re embracing storytelling as a way to grow your business, your brand, or your own career, resist the urge to think of a story as a “thing” to be canned and delivered to your target audience. A story is not a result; it’s a means to an end.
Instead, envision the human beings you need to reach, the actions you need to inspire, and the conversations that will take you there. Then, use your storytelling skills to turn those conversations into connections that get results.