How to become a better storyteller: 3 key points

Great movies, speeches, and business presentations all share one thing: An emotional arc. Consider three ways to apply this technique to your own presentations
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soft skills: relationship-building

You’re launching a digital transformation initiative in the middle of the ongoing pandemic. You are pretty excited about this big-ticket investment, which has the potential to solve remote-work challenges that your organization faces. 

However, the executive board’s response to your presentation is lukewarm at best. You discover that business teams don’t share your excitement. Your technology team, burdened with multiple priorities, worries that this could lead to more work stress.

Don’t we often find ourselves in situations like these?

Even the best-laid plans falter due to ineffective communication. Industry reports say that poor internal communication costs organizations over $37 billion annually. Yet, we don’t pay as much attention to fixing our communication woes. 

[ Want to communicate effectively on video? Read also: Zoom tips: 6 ways to make meetings better. ]

Let’s take a look at the similarities between blockbuster movies, stellar product launches, and successful marketing campaigns. With clear examples, we’ll discuss how technology leaders can transform into storytellers.

What can tech leaders learn from expert storytellers?

Picture your all-time favorite movie. The chances are that you watched it a long time ago. But I can bet that it’s fresh in your memory like you saw it a few weeks ago. What makes these movies so memorable? 

Researchers say that there is a deeper connection between great movies, speeches, and business presentations. It’s the emotional arc, also called the "shape of the story." The emotional arc is the series of emotional ups and downs in the story that hooks the audience, like a rollercoaster ride.

Master storyteller Kurt Vonnegut analyzed the shapes of popular stories and constructed their emotional arcs. A plot in which a struggling boy reunites with his girl is cliched, but it never fails to work. Remember "Pretty Woman" or "The Notebook"? They play with the time-tested emotional arc of "boy gets girl."

Here’s its shape: 

Chart explaining shape of stories

It looks simple, right? Notice how the emotions vary in the y-axis. As viewers, we bite our nails when things fall into the negative. We cheer for the hero as he rises again to reclaim the girl, lifting the emotions high up again.

Vonnegut reconstructs the shape of many other interesting stories, including one of the most famous ones of our times - Cinderella! What’s the commonality across all of these? Each one of them uses a variation of the emotional arc to take the audience through ups and downs.

Evidence to prove the importance of emotional arcs

MIT’s Lab for Social Machines and McKinsey Consumer Tech team studied thousands of Vimeo videos using advanced analytics to establish the connection.

The researchers found that the emotional arc of a story, generated by the AI algorithm, could predict whether or not audiences would like it.

Algorithms that use computer vision and audio analytics scored emotions for every scene, by the second. With the emotional arc for each story sketched out, they used machine learning to club them into eight families.

The final part of this analysis was to bring in the outcomes – user engagement metrics such as "likes" and "comments." The researchers found that the emotional arc of a story, generated by the AI algorithm, could predict whether or not audiences would like it.

How can you apply emotional arcs to improve leadership communication?

There are three steps to incorporate storytelling into your communications:

1. Go beyond technology. Think about the audience a technology touches. While talking about technology, we tend to focus more on its features. We do a good job of covering the "What" and "How" but miss out on the "Who" and "Why."

When Steve Jobs introduced the iPod, he didn’t talk about its cool engineering or the snazzy design. Instead, he told the audience that they could now carry 1000 songs in their pocket. The focus was squarely on the users and their aspirations.

Steve Jobs was a master storyteller with technology. His biggest successes were due to a deep understanding of who the customer was and why their needs were unfulfilled.

The journey to connect with your audience must start by first thinking about them. What are your user’s needs and preferences? How do they get their job done, and what are their worst nightmares?

[ Learn how to correct other common communication mistakes: See 8 communication mistakes leaders still make. ] 

2. Go beyond facts. Make the audience experience the possibilities. To paraphrase Maya Angelou, people may forget what you said, but they will remember how you made them feel. Often, our communications are a dry recitation of facts, and that’s why they don’t connect.

Often, our communications are a dry recitation of facts, and that’s why they don’t connect.

Messages delivered as stories are up to 22 times more memorable than just facts, said cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner. Good stories must paint a vivid picture of the scenes as they unfold. They must use words that convey powerful emotions to move people.

For example, when launching your digital transformation, don’t just quantify the pain areas. Get personal by picking a (fictional) user and show us her world. Explain how the challenges lead not only to lost business opportunities but to deep frustrations for the user.

Introduce your initiative as the hero that will save the day. Describe the outcomes and show how it will put this user out of their misery.

3. Go beyond traditional narratives. Introduce variations to build an emotional arc. With a clear picture of the audience and an experiential message to connect with them, now make the story interesting by playing with its emotional arc. Just as a musical note has crescendos and low points, you must introduce variations into your communication.

Pause for a moment and think about your last business presentation. Did it have any variations? Did you just sequence the good news and bad news? How did you conclude it?

Most of our presentations are informative but sequential, and...boring. The insights are arranged logically but fail to connect emotionally.

View your communication as a series of sections, like the chapters of a novel. In each section, introduce elements of suspense and tease out the resolution. Repeat this structure iteratively to keep your audience hooked. 

Finally, end on a high with a vivid call-to-action to stir your audience towards the next steps.

The concept of emotional arc applies to all kinds of business communications. These three steps will be handy whenever you want to hold an audience’s attention and move them to action.

Also, remember that all stories improve through iterations. Take time crafting and critiquing them. Test them out on friends, peers, and sample audiences. Take detailed feedback on what worked and where it needs to get tighter. Then incorporate changes and repeat it all over again.

Good luck storifying and spicing up your business communications.

[ Get answers to key digital transformation questions and lessons from top CIOs: Download our digital transformation cheat sheet. ]

Ganes Kesari is an entrepreneur, AI thought leader, author, and TEDx speaker. He co-founded Gramener, where he heads Data Science Advisory and Innovation. He advises executives of large organizations on data-driven decision making.