3 business storytelling strategies to help you explain complex ideas

Long gone are the days of polymaths like Leonardo DiVinci with the skills of an artist, doctor, engineer, sculptor, architect and so on. Today, in our increasingly complex world, we tend to be specialists whose knowledge is deeply rooted in a specific discipline. The result is that knowledge is often isolated. This silo effect can even occur within a single company.

One of our clients in Healthcare Technology has a marketing department with over 150 employees working in more than 10 different teams. Each team – brand, website, data analytics, enablement, etc. – has a specialty and internal goals. Marketing must present itself as a cohesive whole to its internal stakeholders, such as sales and operations, and external stakeholders, such as customers and partners. However, they don’t have a process to share their work across teams. How much learning is lost because their expertise is not shared?

When team members meet at cross-functional meetings, their expertise is not communicated effectively. For example, the analysis team gives full download of data, gets into the weeds, uses technical jargon and details that the audience can not find sparse.

We’re so engrossed in our subject that we forget what it’s like to be an outsider. We work to prove our worth rather than convince our audience to see the value for themselves.

The barriers to cross-sector communication continue in our data-loaded workplace. Interrupt the pings of electronic devices. The challenge of the three Vs (volume, speed, and variety) of data is more frustrating than informative. When distractions and information abound, attention must be earned. We must have our audience:

  1. Attention – do they even turn on?
  2. Understand – follow and understand them?
  3. Caring – Why should they care, enough to do something about it?

A good story will grab your audience’s attention, but how do you make sure they understand and are interested in your complex ideas in the shortest possible time? If your listeners don’t get it, they most likely won’t tell you. After all, who would want to publicly admit that they don’t understand it or – it doesn’t matter?

This is the first in a series of articles aimed at giving you strategies to make complex topics simple and easy to understand. In this article, we’ll cover those seemingly universal, abstract concepts like “stakeholder,” “teamwork,” or “direct communication” that aren’t as obvious or as simple as they sound. Because we can take these types of ordinary abstractions for granted, they often create stumbling blocks to effective communication.

To discuss these common—yet complex—ideas with a team, or even just another person, it helps to define your terms. When you say “equity” or “corporate culture”, what do you mean? A dictionary definition is often not enough in these contexts, but business storytelling strategies can help.

At a recent professional development meeting for our certified story facilitators, we took on the challenge of describing one of those elusive concepts in 200 words or less. The following examples offer different structures to try when you need to define an abstract idea with your audience.

#1 Tell a story… where the key idea you want to discuss is missing.

If you define an abstract noun by leaving it absent from the story, your audience will feel the need for it. Here’s a story about what happens when direct communication is lacking, shared by Certified Story Facilitator Chuen Chuen Yeo.

Many years ago my colleague and I were working on a project. I thought everything was going fine. Then one day my boss called me into the office and empathetically said she knew how passionate I was, but I needed to involve my colleague in the decision-making process.

I was annoyed because I had no idea my colleague was upset, but I kept my cool and nodded.

My colleague was waiting in front of the boss’s office and she started, “Well, Chuen Chuen, I think I need to be direct, so I went to our boss….” I later learned that she was faced with a decision I was thinking about , wasn’t happy that we met her together, so she decided to talk to our boss.

What is direct communication? Speak directly to the person concerned about the issue rather than beating around the bush.

Chuen Chuen uses this story when hiring new employees to help them understand their leadership style and what is expected of them when it comes to communicating with other team members in their new role.

#2 Tell a story…where the key idea evokes an emotion

In the next example, my colleague Reena Kansal offers a story from an anthology of essays American Like Me, Reflections On Life Between Cultures, edited by America Ferrera. In this story, Reshma Saujani demonstrates the complexity hidden in a simple idea:

When I order the Grand Chai Tea Latte at Starbucks, I almost always lie. It’s a white lie, as innocent and airy as the froth on the drink, and carefully engineered to make life easier for all of us.

“May I know your name, ma’am?”

“Maya,” I say efficiently, whipping out my credit card.

The Barista is a lavender-haired teenager with eyeliner so exquisite and precise that for a fleeting moment I wish I had chosen a more mysterious name, one that might impress her, as exactly nothing seems to do. She scribbles Maya on the side of the mug with her marker and I think of Maya. The real Maya whose name I stole for my Starbucks order.

She happens to be my niece. She’s a pretty fifteen-year-old who has no idea I borrow her name on a regular basis. But I do this because the baristas can spell and pronounce it correctly every time.

We say and hear our name several times a day, often without really thinking about it. However, it is connected to our identity, family and sense of belonging and has deeper roots than what may appear on the surface.

This story reveals many of the ideas entangled in the single abstract noun ‘name’ and makes the listener question their own relationship to names. Asking your team to share personal but non-private stories like these can spark emotion and build trust among team members while providing meaningful approaches to understanding an organization’s value for diversity during a DEI training session.

#3 Tell a story… by standing on the shoulders of giants

Just like you don’t have to reinvent the wheel, you don’t always have to come up with an original personal story to illustrate a complex subject. Some topics have already been illustrated in a way that allows you to clarify their importance. Therefore, start collecting offers. When you hear someone explain something in a way that captures your imagination, copy it into a document with useful quotations. You never know when you’ll need to use it. Here’s a scene from a recent experience.

The best way anyone has described their power is through the New York Times Bestselling Author Harlan Coben. With 33 crime novels and 7 million copies sold, he knows his power.

In an interview with the Freakonomics podcast on Suspense and Surprise, Harlan Coben says, “I often have missing characters in my books, and a missing component is really interesting. In a missing person versus a murder, if a person is dead, they’re dead. I’m just trying to solve the crime. But when a person goes missing, there is hope. Hope can be the cruellest thing in the world. It can crush your heart like an eggshell or it can make it beat faster. You up the ante by giving people hope, and you up the ante by simply leaving out something that you might be able to complete.

When clients ask questions about the right emotions to evoke in executive storytelling, the first part of the answer is…it depends. It depends on what you want to achieve. You have to connect your goal with the right emotion. But nobody likes an answer that starts with “it depends,” so the second part of the answer is clearer. No matter what emotion you choose for your goal, your story should end with hope. Coben’s story about the power of hope helps listeners understand why. It shows the power of emotions.

Learn the other business storytelling strategy to get the complex across.

What general but complex ideas do you need to define and discuss with your team? What strategy will you use to help your team move the discussion along clearly?



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