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Hello everyone, my name is Agata. I’m the Head of Marketing at Piktochart, the all-in-one visual communication tool and the organizer of The Business Storyteller Summit. I’m excited to welcome my guest, Esther Choy. Esther is the President and Chief Storyteller Facilitator at Leadership Story Lab. She teaches storytelling to institutional and individual clients who are searching for more meaningful ways to connect with their audiences. Since launching Leadership Story Lab, Esther and her team have served clients such as United Airlines, Tyson Foods, PWC, Brookfield Asset Management, and US Cellular. She has helped them get promoted, excel in their jobs and motivate their teams and customers through storytelling.
Esther is also the author of the book, ‘Let The Story Do The Work: The Art of Stellar Storytelling For Business Success’, which you can see in the background. She has the book there and her work can be seen regularly on Forbes, Virgin, and Entrepreneur. Welcome Esther and thank you for joining us today.
Thank you so much for having me. I’ve been looking forward to this conversation with you for a while.
Great, so let me jump right in because it’s really something that is interesting. Why do they think it is so essential for leaders to master their storytelling skills?
I’m so glad you start with this one. The answer to that is so important and yet, so basic. It’s so basic that most people don’t think about it and this very critical and yet basic fundamental truth is that we as humans forget a lot and very quickly. What did you have for breakfast this morning? Or who did you talk to over the weekend? These are things that didn’t happen not that long ago, but we quickly forget. It’s human nature. And so stories help us remember. Stories, any sort of data, especially if it’s nested and weave into a narrative is up to 20 times more likely to be remembered. But even more important than that, one of my favorite quotes from Alan Weise is “logic makes people think, emotions make them act.”
So why we tell stories in business is not because we all want to fulfill the closet performers inside us. Although if you have that, that’s great for you. But we tell stories in business because we want to persuade. We want to create change. We want to compel people to act and that’s why storytelling is so important for leaders to master.
Yeah, I think it’s definitely true. Like now when you said it as well as this example, like remembering doing something over the weekend, it definitely applies that like if you nest it into a story or if there’s a story attached to it, it’s way easier to remember it as well. People want to listen to a story as well. But where can leaders apply storytelling skills? I know that often people see that it can be something included in the strategy because it’s a topic that comes a lot. But are there other areas like could you give us a few, not so obvious examples?
Sure, I think everywhere, every day, there is just litter with opportunities for us to tell stories. The key is that you might not be asked explicitly, “Hey, tell me a story.” People may or may not know to explicitly ask for that, but it doesn’t mean that the opportunities aren’t there. For example, no matter who you are, where you’re from, how high in your organization you have climbed or you just started out, I know you’ve been asked this before. And this is, “Tell me about yourself.” Right? Everybody has been asked to respond to that question. That’s a great opportunity to tell them a story instead of regurgitate your resume.
A second example would be when you are speaking with your higher-ups, with your managers. They probably don’t have time to hear the nitty-gritty and all the hard work every hour that you put in on fulfilling your job. But they want to hear a story that encapsulates the commitment, the challenges, the setbacks, but hopefully ultimate triumphs and success that you have brought the impact that you have created. When you talk to customers, especially when you talk to a prospective customer, they are going to pit you against your competitors, even if they don’t explicitly say so.
And so what you’re going to do is not so much of elbowing out the next companies and trying to sell features or even benefits. But what they want to know is a future picture of what are you going to bring me? What are you going to do for me if we buy from you? Because you are selling a future that has not happened yet. And so storytelling in that scenario can really tap people’s imagination in addition to evoking emotion, the right emotion for them to act.
I’ve asked people over the past 10 years that I’ve been teaching storytelling, prep work before training. I’ve asked them to tell me situations where they thought storytelling could have made a positive difference. Over the years, there are hundreds and hundreds of very different scenarios. One person said, wouldn’t even talk to me if I don’t articulate the why. It applies to clinical trials when you’re trying to recruit people who participate in the clinical trial. I think that’s a really hot topic right now. And so they’re just everywhere. I think if you only pay attention, you can tell stories nonstop every day.
Yeah, I think you’re right. We all have multiple stories from our life that we could definitely incorporate, like either in conversations with clients like you said, or like when we talk with our team members. But how would you identify and choose the right story that would get people interested and convinced by what you are actually saying?
We all have more stories than we’ll have an opportunity to use. So the challenge is which one. I would say several criteria. I would say that the one with the most relevant takeaway, that’s the end of a story. The ones with the most surprises and suspense in the story. And some of it is depending on how you tell the story. You can build in surprises and suspense. The last one would be what do you feel most compelled? What do you feel most strongly about? Because ultimately you’re the messenger, you’re the vessel that carry the story across so you have to feel the story in order for the story to do its work, to do its persuasion work. So I would say those three are the ones that are most important.
I think that brings us to the follow-up question. What are the most critical elements of a good story? You did mention it a bit already. Founders who are watching the session would like to use storytelling to persuade let’s say their whole organization to follow a new strategic direction. What should they keep in mind? What do you think?
Number one thing is a sound structure. A sound story structure. Now you don’t have to be rhetoric, a student of rhetoric. You don’t have to be an English major or a language-related specialist. Just remember this. I-R-S. I don’t mean internal revenue services, but my I-R-S stands for Intriguing Beginning. R stands for Riveting Middle, and S stands for Satisfying End. And so Intriguing Beginning, Riveting Middle, Satisfying End. If you just remember this structure, then you’re 50% there. Now, if you can get your structure in place, then two other things are really important.
You have to identify a theme. This theme is what I say, “What is this really about?” You have to be able to say it in one short sentence. If you go on and on and paragraphs and paragraphs, that is non theme.
And then the last thing that’s pretty important is there a challenge and is there a change as a result? I’d like to say the challenge is the nerve center of a story and change is the soul of it.
Makes sense. Do you think this could be applied to any type of story? I know we got a question around this for that. Is it possible to sometimes change a boring situation into something interesting? I was wondering if maybe you have some example from the past, from working with your clients where it was rather a boring situation that was effectively turned into an interesting anecdote.
Yeah. There are plenty because I do have clients who deal with data, who deal with technologies, cyber securities, who have to do quarterly business reviews, P&L reports. And so much of it could be boring. But remember what I said about suspense and surprise? Some of it is so especially surprises is not due to anybody’s to doing, but a lot of it is how you tell the story. I’d also like to say that business storytelling is a strategic sequencing of facts and emotion.
In other words, if you tell it in a chronological way, you’re not telling a story. If you start with, “Hello, my name is. Hello, this is about. Hello, this is the overview. Hello, this is the executive summary.” Those are typical, but they’re suspense killers. There are surprise killers. And so if you can think of what I know to be mere fact, but your audience may or may not know. And you start with, “I know that you expect at third-quarter reporting that the number wouldn’t be stellar and you would be right. But I think instead of stressing out about it, we should rejoice, and here’s why.” You’re not changing, altering, fabricating, making up anything, but you are framing and setting up what your story is really about – the theme. “The number looks terrible and you’re right with your expectation, and that’s why we should celebrate.”
That definitely makes it unexpected as well.
Right. So the surprise and what comes with it, the suspense. You’re either crazy or something we don’t. But for the moment, you have their attention because you have managed to create suspense. You’ve also surprised them. Now I have to say, don’t abuse it. Otherwise, you lose them very quickly. So to the point where this is legitimately rightfully so, there’s suspense in the surprise that you create then. “How much time did people spend on Netflix watching their favorite shows?: And then the same people will tell you, “I don’t have time. Just give me the executive summary or don’t we don’t even need to have this meeting. I’ll read about it.” People do have time if they feel like they are invested in what you have to say.
Yeah, that makes sense. I often say that everyone follows the same structure, which is like a typical executive summary and so on like a presentation that you read. No one remembers anything after such a presentation. If it’s framed the way you suggested it, that means you get that tension at the beginning already from the audience. That’s a very good idea. Could you tell us what are some common mistakes that you have seen that companies make when it comes to storytelling?
Here I would blend storytelling with business communication just because sometimes it’s interchangeable and I see very common mistakes. Some of it, they all have to do with the mindset as well as the behaviors. The number one mistake that oftentimes presenters made is, “I have to show them how much I know, how competent I am” instead of helping the audience get to their needs. Instead of focusing on how much I show you how much I know. Rather than think about what kind of things the audience needs to understand. That’s number one.
Number two, there’s that inherent burden of proof that proved that we’re the best. At least we’re a better, much better than our competitors instead of here’s how we serve you best. There’s a huge difference because same with number one, it’s all egocentric. It’s how much I know, this is why we’re the best, rather than you the audience. “How we can serve you best and what do you really need?”
And then the last one is there’s this inherent burden to feel like you have to be thorough instead of being intriguing and informative.
I noticed also one other mistake is that people go on and on. You touched base on it a bit that they get lost in their own story and then the audience is completely confused. They try to use storytelling, but it’s just not working that well.
That actually brings me to another question. Obviously, not everyone is an amazing storyteller, right? Like it’s something that you have to practice and learn as well, and then you could improve. So could you share a few ideas on how leaders could improve or practice their business storytelling skills with us and with the audience?
Yeah, we’re busy enough with the demands of work, the demands of home and family, more and more things. I really advocate for storytelling, but I definitely empathize that it takes time. It takes practice. My philosophy is rather do it in slow drips, small drips, but on an ongoing basis, rather than take a huge avalanche and drink it by the fire hose and then don’t do anything about it. So if you take a course, good for you. If you’d go to training, good for you. But then the question is after the training, after you hear a great speaker after this session, what are you going to do? Because nobody I guarantee you, no matter how good they are, is going to magically baptize you and turn you into a good storyteller.
So think about instead every single day, “What is one thing I can practice to become a better storyteller?” And I guarantee you, even after a month, you will be all that much better. So some of the ideas for what you can do, that one thing you can do every day is perhaps practice I-R-S. You can even use it writing an email. You don’t have to create this platform or create this opportunity for you to stand in front of people to tell stories. Think of the subject line as your intriguing beginning. Think of your first two paragraphs as your riveting middle. Think of your end of the email as your satisfying end. But it needs to be very brief, 150 words most. If you just try to practice that for a week, every single email, as much as you can, the subject line is very enticing, very intriguing. You’ll be set. And there are so many ideas that we have and we share in our newsletters or articles and whatnot. It’s about the slow drip. It’s about practicing every day.
How would you know let’s say if you do it with the email, how would you know that you’re improving? Would you incorporate some sort of feedback in it? Like so the person may be asked, do you prefer my emails right now than you liked them before? Like how could you like also incorporate them in this feedback loop to know that you are in the right direction?
Yeah, that’s a great question. So how do you know you’re on the right track? Because maybe in sort of intriguing beginning, I read your headline. I said, “I’m not going to do that. I’m not going to even open it.” And so I would start with someone you trust, someone you’re close to. Someone who will be honest and open to you. I would, in addition, to keep doing it, I would ask periodically. “So did you want to open that email more so than average or did it make no difference? Was it not intriguing? Did you understand what is it that I’m trying to get you to do?” Be very specific with what you’re asking instead of asking, “Hey, do you like my email?” Cause they wouldn’t know what you’re practicing and going after.
Another thing that I would really recommend is in addition to telling better stories, I think we all need to do a better job collecting stories. And that is done by asking great questions. Here’s another thing that you can practice. What is one great question that I can ask today that gets other people to tell me their stories?
So you could actually incorporate the stories of your colleagues and build them in and say, if you are working on strategy or selling to clients, right?
Yes. Otherwise what’s coming from you tends to be all from a similar point of view. That’s the monotony and what seemed like it’s not that exciting anymore is because where you are drawing the source of the stories – from yourself. But versus if you incorporate other people’s stories, naturally other point of view and other voices, that’s going to enrich your stories.
That makes sense. I also noticed something on your website that you offer a guide for story clubs. And I was very intrigued by it, so I’d love to learn more. I’m sure also our audience would love to learn more. What are story clubs?
Yeah. So this is taken sort of borrow from a book club idea. Whether you have been in one or not, the basic idea is that a smart group of people all read the same book. And then there are discussion guides for the group to basically get a deeper understanding of the book and the point of views and the story and whatnot. The story club is a do-it-yourself, facilitated guide as a companion to my book, Let The Story Do The Work. The point of it is that speaking of practice, if you can afford the time once a week to get together with two or three friends and then go through different points of the book and select an exercise together so that you can give each other feedback. So that’s that companion guide is free. Amazon now sells my book cheaper than I can get my own book at the authors rates. So it’s really a no-brainer investment, I think on yourself and your company.
That’s great. We’ll add this link to your speaker page so that the audience can find this guide easily. I would like to go through a few questions from our audience that we have received that are related to leadership and how you can incorporate a story. So we have received one question from our attendee, a marketing manager, “How to manage people who are the same age as you? How to build your credibility as a leader with them?
So I think inherent the subtext of that story is you’re managing people at the same age as you, or maybe even older than you. So the subtext of that is, “Who are you? Who are you to manage me?” And it goes back to tell me about yourself, who are you that I should respect you and follow you and work not only work for you but work hard for you. I think the number one thing is if the situation applies, I would totally just acknowledge that we’re at the same age and we bring in different experiences. I think this is why I’m in this position. And if you acknowledge, just acknowledge that something that could be a source of tension, then the funny thing is that when you acknowledge, it dissipates. Maybe not completely, but it dissipates.
Number two is that I would think about as much shared experience as possible. You know, maybe working a part-time or two or three part-time jobs to put yourself through college. Maybe a love for sports or a sports team. Maybe how much you hate scheduling software that you guys have to use. You know, the list is endless. Besides acknowledging and besides think of a shared experience to share stories with.
And number three is I encourage people to think about what are two or three character-defining stories that you ought to share with everyone, especially if you’re trying to prove your place, your current place in the company. For example, I don’t share that often, but if the situation calls for it, I will say my husband and I at a time before we were married, we had a two-year long-distance relationship before a time of conference calls. So before there was Skype and there’s two generations before Skype. I worked in Eastern Washington and he worked in Brussels, and we did that for two years and it was hard. It was challenging. It really pushed us, it really tested us. But I think to this day, this is probably the hardest thing and the thing that I’m most proud of. So to me, that is a character-defining story that you, even though it had nothing to do with work. But to me, that shows your character more so than any other examples that I can think of.
As you mentioned, it helps you as well to connect on this more emotional level, right? So you build this relationship with the person that you tell the story to.
Yes. Because everyone, even if they can’t identify with this specific situation, maybe they’ve never had a long-distance relationship, don’t know anybody who had a long-distance relationship, but I would say that most people have had to deal with something in their life that’s really challenging and that’s the core emotion that you are sharing with that person.
Yeah, I definitely did so I can relate. It was challenging. I have done it, but we already had video calls. I would say I admire you for sure.
We also got another question from a VP of sales. He asked if you could share a few ideas on how he could convince executives to make a buying decision.
Sure. How can you convince decision-makers of a buying decision? Again, implying that they don’t want to, or there’s resistance to the idea. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have to persuade anything. You just go shopping, right? So again, I would start with acknowledging what’s in the room. I would acknowledge what you know at your best ability where the hesitations come from, where the resistance comes from, where maybe even the fear comes from in a very respectful, gentle way. And so just get it out there. Never mind if you don’t agree with it. Never mind if you think it’s the silliest thing to worry about. It doesn’t matter because there’s a persuasive power when you hear your own thoughts, especially your own feelings through the voice of another human being. It’s like the best destabilizing mechanism when you’re dealing with someone who does not agree with you or what you think you should do.
There’s tons of research on that actually that people don’t hear until they feel heard. It’s basic human nature. And then once you’ve acknowledged their point of view, then I would then go about thinking the mistakes that people make is that they will tend to jump right into it. Like, “We shouldn’t have to do manual verification anymore. This is the 21st century.” Whatever it is that you want to persuade, I’ve seen clients just tend to jump right into it before they acknowledge it. Wait until you acknowledged then you go into the meat part of what most people start with and that is here are the reasons. And then don’t end with it. End with a very concrete, tangible picture of the future of what is it you’re buying for. Articulate in a very concrete way, the future with this thing that you’re trying to buy. That’s what a satisfying end really means.
So kind of this promise as well that you show to the audience, like a change for the better.
Yeah. How would it be different? I’ve seen plenty of examples that it doesn’t have to be this long elaborate explanation. One very simple way I’ve seen to paint a picture of a future was, “Here’s currently how Salesforce spends their time, five, six categories and percentage breakdown of how they spend their time.” And then, “Here’s the future time allocation of how our Salesforce will spend their time, the same category, but very different distributions.” So here’s the current status quo and here’s the future with this new implementation software implemented. Of course, the part that everybody despises, hate doing shrink itself by more than half, and then thus creating more room for relationship and business development and more sales and more revenue. That’s the part that moves people and that’s the part that is very visually clear that what we hate shrink a lot, and what everybody loves expanded by quite a bit. So it’s one picture that tells all and you don’t have to go into too much of an elaborate explanation at all.
Yeah. People love also some data points always. It’s good to always have something.
The right one is so powerful.
Exactly. The last question is from an educational social enterprise. We don’t sell products to customers in our social media, but we post content to create collaboration and share the impact, insights, and inspiration. What kind of stories can further help us to advance our cause?
The cause-based selling, those are in some level harder in some level easier. But if you know what your stories should pinpoint, you can minimize the challenge of that kind of selling and maximize the benefit. One thing is to understand the identifiable victim effect. That basically is saying that people can’t relate to millions and billions and trillions. They just can’t. But people can relate to one person, especially with a face. As some of my fundraising colleagues said, “Put a face on the case.” And so we would rather call it an identifiable beneficiary impact. And that is having a face to identify with a cause.
Number two is showing before and after. I would caution that there’s often a systemic issue that is stalling progress. Sometimes years, sometimes centuries. And so I did encourage people to pinpoint challenges and change. But we have to be very careful about not portraying the challenge as so great that it backfires. Because if the challenge is so great, what often happens is that people go, “Well, there’s nothing can be done about it.” So showing the before, but be very careful about where you draw the line of the challenge.
And then the last thing I would encourage people to think about. What are some basic facts of lives that you can lean on to carry whether it’s your campaign, whether it’s your cause? I recently am working with a group of people. I’m certifying them to do story facilitations with me. So they get to use all our tools and a training process. One of them talked about how she was about to go to a restaurant, but waiting for an elevator with her husband. The elevator is very slow and they’re just growing impatient, tapping their feet and wondering if they should just take the stairs. It’s just on the third floor, we can take the stairs. And then they didn’t realize that somebody with them waiting for the elevator sitting on a wheelchair can hear them debate should they wait or should they take the stairs? And then eventually the gentlemen in the wheelchair turn to them and say, “Take it, take the stairs because you can.”
Wow. That’s powerful.
So take it because you can. It’s so simple, you don’t have any big fancy words, but that really speaks to some basic fundamental truth about lives. That is gold. If you struck gold, you should definitely use it.
That’s a very good story. I think it’s also something that people can connect a bit more and it taps into their emotions as well. Thank you so much, Esther. It was really a pleasure to have you here with us and then to learn from you. Thanks for sharing your knowledge, your insights with the audience of The Business Storyteller Summit.
I’m sure all of us learned a lot as well from it. I think if people would want to learn more about how to apply storytelling to leadership, they could definitely check out your book or your website. Maybe you could also shortly tell a bit about the training that you’re offering?
Obviously, the book is such an easy, low-cost way to invest in yourself. If you want more structured feedback, if you want to be able to be trained as well as apply what you learn immediately – on a pitch deck, whether it’s job interviews, whatever it may be. Because my training is based only on what are your current challenges that telling better stories can help create a more positive impact. So it’s the same process and same framework, but I apply it to the particular situations that you are facing. It’s very interactive. I love it and people have fun. It’s usually 90 minutes, two hours per session, and even a whole day, two days. When you’re immersed in it, you’re engaged with it. You don’t pay attention to time.
This type of training is always the best ones when you’re really engaged. You learn by doing. Thank you once again, Esther and goodbye.
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