Storytelling for Small Business – @SayItWithStory

David LeeIf you’ve ever been to a conference or presentation, you know that not all speakers have the gift of being able to really engage their audience. What is it that makes some speakers have an edge over other speakers, and how can you get that edge for yourself?

The brain is designed to think and remember in terms of stories. By being an effective storyteller, you can not only make your point hit home harder, but it will also be more memorable to your audience. By learning new ways to tell your stories, such as personalizing them and making them relatable to your audience, you can engage them in ways that will make your message more memorable.

David Lee is an author, speaker and founder of HumanNature@Work. He helps organizations on topics related to leadership, communication and customer service, using his innovative and powerful storytelling techniques.

Rich:  Hey everybody, today I am here with David Lee, the founder of HumanNature@Work and David has worked with organizations and spoken at conferences throughout North America and Australia, and is the author of nearly 100 articles and book chapters on topics related to leadership, communication and customer service.

He is also the author of How to Add Powerful Storytelling Techniques To Your Training published by ASTD Press. He began his work in the use of stories as a communication device over 25 years ago when he practiced and taught hypnosis and therapeutic storytelling in the field of mind/body medicine. But more recently his work focuses on helping business owners and leaders communicate with the marketplace, their customers and their employees in a more interesting and persuasive way, by adding stories to their communication repertoire.

David, welcome to the show.

David:  Hey, thanks for having me.

Rich:  It’s my pleasure. And maybe we’ll have to have you on again to to talk about hypnosis, because that’s always an interesting subject.

So I saw you speak a few weeks ago at the Social Media Breakfast here in Maine, and I really loved what you had to say about storytelling, which is why I brought you here. Not it feels like right now in social media circles there is this “content marketing craze” going on. And along with that, storytelling has become a topic of conversation in these marketing circles. Why do you feel storytelling is so important.

David:  Well first off, stories are just so much more interesting than talking in abstractions. So if you think about articles that catch your attention they usually involve stories. So number 1, it’s way more interesting. Number 2, the human brain is designed to think in terms of stories and remember in terms of stories, so it’s a fantastic vehicle for having your point not only hit home harder, but also be memorable. So it’s a double whammy in terms of it’s effectiveness.

Rich:  So that makes a lot of sense. So stories, basically, they almost anchor us into something we can wrap our heads around rather than you telling me something and I don’t understand exactly what’s going on. And if I understand what you’re saying , our brains are actually geared for these stories, almost like they’re open receptacles waiting for stories to be dropped into them so it just fits more naturally.

David:  Absolutely.

Rich:  Alright. Well I get it. I like the idea that I want to tell more stories, whether on my podcast or my blog or when I’m standing in front of an audience. What if I don’t feel like I’m a born storyteller? There are those people that can seem to tell any story and make it fascinating. How do I become a better storyteller?

David:  First off, what I found over the years is a lot of times people don’t think of themselves as a born storyteller or a good storyteller. They just don’t realize they’ve been telling stories for years in an effective way They just think of it as they were just sharing some experience they had. In fact, a friend and colleague of mine – who’s one of the best storytellers I’ve come across – in the beginning would ask me why I was taking notes when she was telling me a story. And I’d say it was because it was an awesome story and a great teaching story. And what happened over the months and now years is now she realizes that she can and already has told great stories, but how to use them in a more intentional way.

So part of it is being more conscious of a story isn’t being like Garrison Keillor or some standup comic, it’s how we recount experiences that we’ve had, and then being more conscious of what’s a useful application of this. That being said, there obviously are effective ways of telling stories and boring ways of telling stories, so it is a skill that can be improved upon.

Rich:  Can you give us some examples of what are good and what are bad storytelling techniques, and maybe some ways that we can get better at telling these stories then?

David:  Absolutely, So one of the things I recommend that people do in the beginning is make a list of experiences that they’ve had that really caught their attention.Either they were surprised by what happened or it was funny or it was intriguing. And then ask, “How can I use this as a story?”

So I’ll give you an example. So oftentimes I speak on resilience and dealing with change, and I know for entrepreneurs dealing with resilience and setbacks is a really important skill to have.  And oftentimes when we’re in the midst of some challenging situation it’s easy to get caught up in the drama and not see the possibility.

Now let’s say I’m teaching that point, I can simply say in every crisis there’s an opportunity. Well ok, that comes across as a platitude or as a slogan. Or I can share an experience I had a few years ago, and it goes like this; So I was power walking down a country road and it was a hot, summer day, and because of a knee injury I couldn’t run but I wanted to get some cardio going, so I’m walking as fast as I can. As I’m walking, I see these little caterpillars on the road, and I don’t want them to get smooshed but I also don’t want to stop and become their shepherd and push them gently off the road. So what I do instead is I take off my tank top and as I’m walking down the road I’m whooshing it back and forth like a windshield wiper and whooshing them off the road. And as that’s happening, I find myself thinking, “What’s happening here?”  Well, from the caterpillar’s perspective one minute everything is cool and now suddenly they’re getting punted into the brush, and so it’s a disaster.

From my perspective though, I have the bigger picture perspective, I can see that it’s actually a gift to them and saving their lives. And so I thought, “What is this like?” And so one of the things it made me think about is it’s like in the human experience when life deals us a blow or business crashes and burns, we go through bankruptcy, we lose our job, the big campaign doesn’t work or whatever, it’s natural and human to see the disaster in it to see the bad side. What about if we take a broader perspective and say, “What could be the hidden opportunity here?”

And so that’s an example of taking a simple, everyday life experience that I said, “Ok, this is interesting. Now how can I use this simple, little experience as a story that can make a useful teaching point?”  So the first step I recommend people take to be effective storytellers is to capture those stories and think about how you can use them, and then share them with people and ask them for feedback.  Am I using too much detail, am I talking in abstractions, am I going on and on with extraneous details, etc?

Rich:  Well I think that makes a lot of sense. So basically we go throughout our daily business, we’re collecting these stories and we need to be aware that almost everything that happens could be a story, and then what are the lessons that we can pull from these.

Now do these stories always have to come from us and our experiences, or can they also be things we see in the news or even references to movies that might be a shared experience with our audience?

David:  So absolutely other sources, and I’ll give you an example in a moment. What I do recommend – and speaking from personal experience – if you’re speaking in front of a group and you’re nervous, I almost always recommend starting off with a story when you’re doing a presentation, because it draw people in and it’s interesting versus a long, drawn out intro.

If you’re nervous, I recommend telling a story from personal experience because you’ve lived it and it doesn’t take a lot of memorizing or remembering on the spot the details, because you have that in your experience. So I  just takes the pressure off. That being said, absolutely drawing from other examples that you witness.

In fact, here’s a great example of starting off with a story, and why you want to start off with a story, and it comes from your conference, Rich, the Agents Of Change.  I loved Pat Flynn’s starting off, his talk with the example of his wife who was a Backstreet Boys fan. And he used that as a really charming opener to capture of idea of how do you create raving fans. So he doesn’t just take bullet points of what you need to do in content marketing to establish raving fans, he started off with that. And because it was a personal story and incredibly well told and it was charming, it not only illustrated the point – and one of his big points which I loved was entering the conversation that’s going on in your ideal client’s mind – it was also a great example of using a story to have people bond with you emotionally. You think in business we talk about the know/like/trust act, so sharing a personal story connects you at the human level. So that was a great example of using a personal story to get people to bond with you, to illustrate the point that he was making.

Now let me take it one step farther. I remember after listening to Pat and going to the men’s room and there was a guy in there and I remember saying to him, “Man, this is a rocking conference!” – and it had just started – and he goes, “Yeah, this is great.” I said, “Didn’t you love his story?”, and he said, “I’ve heard it over the years and he’s really refined it.” I said, “Oh, really?” I asked if they were friends and said they were and that he’s gotten coaching on how to fine tune it. And it turns out that I didn’t know it was Greg Hickman and it turns out Greg was speaking next.

And I thought, what a great example of speaking to the original point of, I’m sure that story was already good, but because he got coaching and refinement of the details and the nuances, it took a good story and made it awesome.

Rich:  Absolutely. Well, that makes a lot of sense and definitely getting the coaching can help do that. And so that’s one option for people is certainly to learn some of the skills, to have somebody that’s a professional coach teach you how to take things to the next level.

When it comes to structuring a story, do you have any strategies around how we can structure or stories for maximum impact?

David:  Yeah. And actually if I could just tie up one thing, because I feel like I might not have directly answered your question about other people’s stories. So in the future I will use the Pat Flynn example as one of many great examples of how to start off a presentation with a story to really hook the audience and bond with them. So that’s an example of somebody else’s story that you can tell  that illustrates it.

So how to structure a story, there are different story structures, I’ll give a couple of examples that are especially helpful for entrepreneurs and small business owners. One is what I call a “pain and promise” story. And this is a great story both to start out if you’re giving a presentation to hook your audience and help them see what[s in it for them and why they should listen to this person.

So I’ll describe the “pain and promise” story structure.  And that’s basically your own experience around a problem that they’re dealing with. So let’s say it’s not having people listen to your presentation or trying to deal with objections when you know your services would be a great fit for someone but they’re not getting it despite what you think you’re explaining well, it’s just not making sense to them. So in “pain and promise” stories, you share a story that: Step 1, is to share the pain whether it’s your pain or a client that you’ve helped pain. Step 2, is enter as the knight in shining armor solution. Step 3, is what happened to them, what was the benefit and positive outcome because of your solution.

And it can also be if it’s your own story, the “knight in shining armor” could be how it helped you, or the discovery that you made that finally helped put the pieces of the puzzle together and how it made a difference in your own life and you’re sharing it with others. So the “pain and promise” story is a simple type of story that is really powerful.

Rich:  Alright, that almost sounds like the Hero’s Quest, doesn’t it?

David:  Yeah, yeah.

Rich:  So you were talking about the fact that stories can make our points more sticky. What do you mean by that?

David:  So I recommend every entrepreneur, every consultant read Made To Stick, by Chip and Dan Heath.

Rich:  I love that book. We’ll have a link to that in the show notes for sure.

David: And so they talk about six characteristics of messages that are sticky. So messages that hit home that pack a punch. They don’t just hit people at an intellectual level, it’s like a punch in the gut. They pack a punch and they’re memorable, and that’s sticky. And so stories make points sticky, or even just analogies, because they impact at a visceral level.

So for instance, I’ll give you an example of an analogy. You mentioned, Rich, about movies. one of the areas that I work a lot in is in leadership development. And one of the points that I try to make is if you don’t make it safe enough for people with less power to speak up, you’re not going to get feedback on what you’re doing that’s getting in the way of the results you want. So that’s an abstract message and that’s easy for people to blow off, especially the people who most need the message.

So one of the things that I’ve done over the years is to try to make that message sticky and make it pack a punch, is I would share – and this is kind of interesting – in terms of I will share what I now realize is an imaginary memory from the movie, Casino. Did you ever see the movie Casino?

Rich:  You know, its been a while, I think I saw it years ago.

David:  Ok. Well I will share my imaginary memory. I watched it again recently and it turns out what I remembered is not what actually happened but my memory fits the story better, so I’m going to use my memory. Now when I tell it I let people know this is my memory of it.

So here’s the scene, so Joe Pesci is a mobster and he’s involved in the casino industry in Las Vegas. His brother starts a restaurant and here’s the scene, the local police departments are at Joe Pesci’s brother’s restaurant and they’re chatting it up with the owner and some of the employees. You realize as the scene unfolds what they’re there for is to get their free lunch. So one of the perks of power as cops is they get free food. Now you think about it, if you’re a mob run restaurant, you want to keep the cops happy. You don’t want to say that it bugs you that the cops lean on you for free food, so they don’t say anything. But as you see the relationship how they’re laughing and joking, it’s clear that it doesn’t bother them, it’s clear that they’re buddies.

So then the scene shifts from an area in the restaurant in the dining area to the kitchen where the staff is making the sandwiches for the police officers, they cut the bread, they put the lettuce, the salami, the tomatoes and they spit in the sandwiches.  They close up the sandwiches, bring it out front  and hand them to the thankful cops, and the cops head of to eat their spit-filled sandwiches.

And when I’m facilitating a group with this, I ask them, “So what’s going on here?”  and so we talk about issues like because it’s not in the best interest for the restaurant owners to voice their complaints and how they’re upset about this, they don’t say anything overtly, but they find a way to express their displeasure by spitting in the sandwiches. And how often to employees, if they feel like they’re treated with disrespect, if they’re being micromanaged, whatever things leadership is doing that they’re unhappy about, but they don’t feel safe enough to speak up and  say it really bugs them, they shut up. But they find a way to spit in a sandwich by not working as hard , calling in sick, etc.

And here’s the problem with leadership is they end up believing that power brings immunity from feedback but not consequences.  And so they labor under the illusion of a consequence free behavior because there’s not overt consequences, but their sandwich is getting spit in. So that’s kind of a gross way of getting the point across, but I like it even though I don’t like gross humor. I like it because it does make the point sticky.

Rich:  Absolutely. And people are going to remember that visual, obviously, for a long time to come. And when we think back on presentations or blog posts that we’ve read or listened to, we often forget the facts and figures, but we remember the stories.

Before I even got started with Flyte – so this like 25 years ago – I used to do sales. I never took any sales courses, but my boss had given my the Brian Tracy Sales and Success tapes, and I listened to them all the time and he used to tell all these fantastic stories in them, some of which I still remember to this day and I sometimes even retell. Like the guy that was the #1 sales producer for selling ball pein hammers. I just remember that very dramatically and could visualize it as I was listening to Brian Tracy tell the story. So I do think whether you’re telling your own stories – which you should be collecting –  or also using cultural references, like whether it’s from Casino or Simpsons or whatever you use that’s going to help you connect with your audience, because those are touchstones and immediately show that there is a connection between you and your audience.

This is a critical way, it’s also almost shorthand for making that emotional connection with somebody. And like you said,  you want to build trust because that’s one of the first most critical steps in business.

David:  You got it.


Rich:  Now I know there;s a lot more that you have to share with us, but we are running low on time, so if people want to dig a little bit deeper and kind of improve their storytelling skills or get some more information about how they can get to be better storytellers, where would you send them, David?

David:  I would send them to my website, And what I’ll put together is there’s a lot of material on the site and I will put a marketing agent special page for your folks, I’ll do /tma and I’ll put a selection of some of the most useful how to get started posts and recordings and videos.

Rich:  That sounds great, so we’ll create a link to it from our website so everybody can get your  specialized package just for listening to the podcast.  Alright, well David thanks a lot for your time today, I really appreciate it.

David:  Thank you for having me.


Show Notes:

Find more valuable information on the resource page that David set up especially for The Marketing Agents Podcast listeners.

FInd out more about David Lee here.

Read David’s book, How To Add Powerful Storytelling Techniques To Your Training.

Learn more about the storytelling coaching and programs David provides at

Follow David on Twitter.