27 Apr 21 / Blog

Business storytelling

If you’re a technical expert – a lawyer, finance professional, researcher, policy expert, IT professional – then you already know that there are times when it’s hard to engage your audiences. Business storytelling is the answer!

Now that the world has moved online, the opportunity for engagement with the audiences that you need to influence is greater than ever before.

For your online presentations, you want to create engaging content that speaks to your audience and their needs.

Watch the replay of this event to find out how to turn your data into a story that your audience wants to hear. You’ll learn how to:

  • Turn your data into a narrative that captivates and engages
  • Tell stories like a Netflix screenwriter
  • Get the balance right between style and substance to influence your audiences

Business storytelling


Telling stories with data Transcript

A really good afternoon to you all!

I’d like to welcome you on this beautiful, sunny day in Northern Ireland. It’s great to see the sunshine; definitely after some of the weather that we’ve had.

Welcome to your event on Telling Stories with Data.

If you’re an expert, a technical expert and you find yourself working with people who don’t share your expertise and yet you need to present to them to make an influential case to persuade them around to your point of view, well, this is the session for you. Looking at the image on the slide in front of us, the question that we’ll answer in today’s event is how to filter all of that data, so that you present a meaningful story to your audience.

Before I get started, a little bit of data protection. Today’s event is being recorded. If you don’t want to appear in the event at any point, all you need to do is keep your camera off and I was a Girl Guide, I was a Girl Scout; just as we said in the Scouts, you’ll leave no trace. The recording will be e-mailed out to you afterwards, so if you’ve got any colleagues or anybody that you think would benefit from watching the event back afterwards, feel free to share that link with them.

I’m asking you to stay on mute for the duration of the event, simply to prevent background noises from hijacking our session. I’ll have you away by one o’clock today but if you’ve got any questions or anything that you want to ask me, I’ll stick around at the end for a question and answer session and that’s when we’ll turn the mute button off and let you jump in with anything that you want to ask me.

My name is Camilla Long and you can see me on the screen in front of you there with my lovely business partner, Sarah Travers. Together, we founded Bespoke Communications just about six years ago. I’m a former software developer and a reformed stockbroker and I now work with Sarah as a Public Speaking Coach and Skills and Communication Skills Expert within Bespoke Communications.

And I remember, really clearly, the day that my presentations changed forever. It’s going back a number of years; it wasn’t today or yesterday. I was working in London as a stockbroker at the time, for the French bank Credit Agricole. It was a hot summer’s day and I’d been asked to stand in for our Director who was on holiday. I’d been asked to present to the Senior Leadership Team meeting. My job was to present on our team’s progress and to make the case for additional customer service resource. We were slammed; we were flat out; we didn’t have a minute to breathe; we were processing new business faster than you could imagine and we really needed some support.

So, look, for those of you IT experts in the audience with me today, I’m all about cause and effect. So, I was going to do my homework for this presentation. I went away and I gathered all of our customer activity data. I looked at the sales data. I’d sat down and I’d prepared a Return-on-Investment calculation together with my Director, who by now was lying on a beach leaving me to it. So, I had everything laid out; I was all set to go; there was no way I was going to walk into a room with my CEO, my COO and all of the division heads, without making sure that I had all of the facts and figures at my disposal.

So off I went, stood up in the boardroom on that hot day. I remember it clearly; I was in the boardroom at the top of our building; we were located directly opposite the Lloyd’s building in the city of London. For those of you that know it, that iconic, fabulous structure and I’d a fabulous view out across to Lloyd’s. And I cranked up my Powerpoint.

It was about five minutes into that presentation when my Chief Exec looked at his watch, asked me to wrap up and to email the numbers over to him in an Excel spreadsheet afterwards and I realised this presentation was going absolutely nowhere. The rest of the table? Nobody even looked up from their papers. I took my seat. I remember the aircon clunked overhead. It was oppressively stuffy in that room and I honestly felt like I could burn up for the rest of the meeting as I sat there; and I watched the lifts on the outside of the Lloyd’s building go up and down.

That was really the challenge that I had that day. That was the moment where I realised, you know, I’ve just blown this. I had drowned my audience in detail and you know, that was just about 20 years ago and I have gone on since then to recover from that really disastrous experience. Since then, I’ve worked with clients; I’ve closed multi-million-pound deals, honestly, with some of the largest banks and investment houses in the world; I’ve gone on and run my own businesses and today I work as a public speaking coach, working with people, with one common aim really, to help them to present with impact to the audiences that need to know them. And at today’s event, what I’d like to do is to help you to avoid those types of mistakes.

The three most common mistakes that I see people make in their presentations at work:

The first is… hiding their personality behind their slides.

The second is… wearing the wrong shoes. Now, this is a figurative shoe-wearing exercise. Really what I’m talking about here, in our presentations, the first thing that we need to do is to step into our audience’s shoes and to help them to care about what it is that we’re presenting, just as much as we do.

And the third one… it’s that deluge of information; that’s me in that boardroom all those years ago, drowning your audience in detail. Now, as a technical expert, this is not about dumbing down. This is about filtering. Go back to that first image of the sieve. This is about filtering the information that you choose to present.

So, let’s imagine a workplace scenario. Let’s imagine, for example, that you’re this HR manager and you’ve spent the last six months working with a supplier on the most amazing HR system that you can imagine. You’re dead excited because finally, you’re going to be able to do the job that you’re actually paid to do, instead of running around reacting all the time, fighting fires and always being on the back foot.

But the problem with your brand shiny new HR system is that, just like Mother Hubbard who went to the cupboard and found that cupboard was bare, every time you go to the system, there is no data in there. The rest of the team are not using the system. So your job is to go out there and present to them and to pitch them and to persuade all of those line managers all around the business, to update that system, so that you can do your job.

You might not be an HR manager; you might work in finance or legal; or you may be an expert in construction, marketing, procurement, engineering, any number of professions. But really, what I’ve described there, is a very typical workplace scenario. And really, when it comes to those types of presentations, what you’re looking at here is, you’re asking your audience to break the habit of a lifetime. Have I any reformed smokers with me today? Eileen, your hands going up! Well, there are a few hands going up! And Angela, the hypnotherapist, has actually walked that journey herself, so fabulous that you understand what your clients are going through, Angela.

It’s not easy to break a habit. Breaking a habit takes a lot of work. So for you to stand up in front of your audience and to persuade them to change a habit, they really do need to be bought into what it is that you’re saying.

Or maybe it’s not a habit that you’re asking them to change. Maybe like me back in that boardroom all those years ago, you’re asking your audience to part with money or with time or resource, in order to help you to do your job better. Really, in your presentation then, it’s not about data, it’s about creating a sense of purpose; it’s about connecting with your audience; and it’s about making sure, above all else, that there’s clarity about what the message is that you want to convey.

What are the ways that you can go about doing that? Well, look, the first thing is to step back from the mastermind approach to presentations. This is not about showing your audience every detail of every piece of information that you know. It’s about going back and stepping into those – your audiences’ – shoes and thinking about your purpose, your connection and the clarity of the presentation.

And what device is better to do that, than with the use of stories.

Here’s some expert storytellers that I can introduce you to today. Kieran Kelly is a Blockchain expert. Kieran is a TEDx Derry, Londonderry speaker and for almost 20 years, Kieran has been working in technology, developing and delivering security solutions for government and aerospace clients. Now, he’s no stranger to the speaking world but for him to stand up on the red TEDx dot and make something as complex as Blockchain and distributed ledger technology accessible to a lay-audience, took some doing. I suggest you watch his talk for some great ideas and how stories can help you to make those connections. He made a very technically complex subject, very accessible to an audience that didn’t need to share any of that expertise.

Deiric McCann, another fabulous TEDx speaker that I worked with last year. Deiric’s TEDx Cookstown talk was on “The Invisible Epidemic”. Derek is an emotional intelligence expert and again, no stranger to the speaking stage, Deiric’s entire TED talk hinges on the story of his client, Anna, that he opens with. So he managed to take something very complex, very abstract and make it really concrete for his audience, by simply using the story of Anna. Watch his talk and you’ll get a lot from it to how to manage our worries and bear in mind, that Derek gave his talk right in the middle of the build-up to all that has gone on during the pandemic last year. He certainly was looking down the barrel of a tsunami of worry at the time.

And another third fabulous speaker whose talk, who used a story to great effect is Jennifer McKeever, former president of the Londonderry Chamber of Commerce and Managing Director of her family-owned business, Airporter. Jennifer’s TED talk is really a manifesto about getting involved in public life and she manages to make that very accessible by using personal stories in her talk. The power of story is really a great way to connect with your audiences and to provide that clarity for them.

So, three steps that you can all take to build those stories into your presentations.

Step one: we look at building that narrative, so turning your data into a narrative that captivates and engages. This is all about purpose and connection and up on the screen in front of me, here we’ve got one of the probably most widely shared TED speakers of all time, Simon Sinek, with his fabulous TED talk on how great leaders inspire action; and in that Ted talk, Sinek exposes this model, this start-with-why model of communication that all great communicators share.

Really, what he’s talking about there is, if you can get inside your audience’s head before you start a single slide, well, that’s really good. But what’s even better, is if you can get inside their heart. So start with why; turn your communication on its head and for those of us who are perhaps looking at a raft of data that we need to analyse, there are three basic stories that you tell with that that data.

There’s the What story: analysing the data; what’s going on with the story?

What’s a little bit more challenging for us to do, is to get underneath that and find out Why that is happening.

And then, lessons learned and how we move forward from there.

And the one that’s always the easiest, first to go to when we’re looking at large chunks of data, is the What story. It’s always easier to go along and analyse this story than it is to get underneath it and discover why and then actually, what do you do with it? How do you use the lessons from that data to move forward?

And look, remember that people persuade themselves. You can never persuade somebody to do something that they haven’t bought into. Let’s go back to Deiric McCann’s TEDx talk on the Invisible Epidemic of Worry. Nobody in the history of the world, ever, stopped worrying because somebody told them to. So, watch Deiric’s TED talk to see a master of show-don’t-tell in action. And it does hinge on start-with-why and that story and that connection that he makes.

So, if I was to think back to my presentation in the boardroom that day, really, standing up there with my Excel spreadsheets and my PowerPoint charts was really not the place to start. If I’d started with stories of the nightmare of the last three customers we on-boarded and how much time it was taking and how much time it was sucking away from our resource as a sales team, when our job was to go out there and get new customers; and, bearing in mind, that every single person around that table, their annual bonus was tied to my performance as a sales person, I think I would have got their attention, if I’d gone in there with that story straightaway. That was my big mistake and that was a big turning point for me. So those stories help you to create that sense of purpose and that sense of connection with your audience. A message is nothing without context and those stories could help you to make sure that your audience understands why they’re there and why they should care.

So, you’ve decided you’re going to use stories. Well, the next challenge is How do you tell them? And this always seems to people to be a little bit of a dark art, like the ancient Irish tradition of the Seanchaí around the fire. Or, you know, we all watch those charismatic comedians who stand up there and seem to just hold you in the palm of their hand as they tell you a story; and that’s the bit that’s really off-putting for so many people. So, let’s delve in and see.

How do you tell a story in your presentation, in your own way, if you’re not that charismatic storyteller; if you’re coming at the world from a point of logic, as I do; how do you go about telling the stories? Well, look, it’s a universal truth that “facts tell but stories sell” and it’s really all about stories that look like your audience. This is the first thing to remember with your presentation. Take the pressure off yourself and make your presentation all about your audience; and as a presenter it can be far more comfortable to stick to the data than mine our experience for stories but a story is a medium for your message. And if you start to think of stories as a way of organising information to share with your audience and gives them that “Aha!” moment, that light bulb moment, well, watch how it takes the pressure off you in your next presentation. That story’s from your own experience, it’s much more easy for you to recount that than it is to remember a big, long ream of facts and figures.

A story helps you to avoid sermonising;

a story helps you to avoid abstractions that your audience can’t grasp;

a story helps to make you relatable as a presenter; and

a story helps to make your presentation shareable.

How do the people who attended your presentation talk about it afterwards? Will they talk about that lovely graph that you put up? Or will they talk about the story that you shared? If they felt something, if you inspired them, if you make them feel your proposition is worthwhile, that’s the thing that they’ll share with their friends, with their co-workers after presentation is over.

And that, my friends, is how you amplify your influence with the audiences that need to know you. What are they saying about you when you’re not even in the room?

Now, when I start to talk about stories, people look me in the eye and they tell me “I have no stories and if you think that I am going to stand up and tell them a story from my childhood, you’ve got another think coming! Well, you know, I agree with them! There’s a time and a place for personal stories and that room full of finance directors in that presentation about cutting the numbers is probably not the time for them, although occasionally it is…. but luckily, there are several different stories that you can pull on and those personal stories are just one.

There are loads of business stories that you can find in your own experience; business stories that create a sense of identity, that help you to build a community around a common purpose; stories of how your business came about; stories of the people that your business helps; customer stories. Business stories inspire just as much as personal stories.

And then we can look at the very specific stories. They tend to be the more personal ones.

Or you can call on universal stories that are talked about in popular culture or the media. Like, for example, one that is, Elaine, I see you on the call today and I know that that lovely Leicester City story for me the last day was a real… was a real eye-opener. Leicester City… look, I don’t know, I’m sure I have football fans with me on the call today but about, was it about 2015, 2016, I think? Leicester City, complete underdogs, went into the Premier League and managed to lift the trophy. The story of the underdog and how they overcame all odds. There are lessons in that for us.

Now, one little caveat there. The more personal the story is, the more close the story is to your audience, the more it’s going to connect and the more they’ll relate to it, although there is space to to use those universal stories, there are lessons to be shared there as well.

Take the example of my client recently. He’s a legal expert and for the last two years he’s been working on EU exit legislation and he looked at me and he said, “Camilla, I have to do this presentation to an audience of manufacturing clients in two weeks’ time. I am going to bore the pants off them because all I can talk about is statutes and legislation and import documentation. What am I going to do?” So I looked at him and I said, “Well, let’s see what stories we…” And he  looked at me and he said, “No, no, I have no stories. I promise you, there isn’t a single story.” And I said, “Well, let’s take a look and see over the last, we’ve now had 3or 4 months since EU exit legislation has been enforced. What are the moments that you’re most proud of in that time?” And he looked at me and he thought, “Actually, there are quite a few.” There were several of his clients who ended up in quite sticky situations and he’d been able to employ this piece of legislation or that piece of legislation to help them. And the one story that he picked out to start with was the story of -I’m changing some details here to make sure that nobody is recognisable in this story – but broadly speaking, he told me the story of his client, a leading manufacturing company here in Northern Ireland. As a result of EU exit, had changed their supply chain and had a new supplier of aluminium that they’d worked with a few times before January 1st. He phoned my client, let’s call him Steven, in a complete panic and said, “Oh my gosh, I have an entire shipment of aluminium on the way from India and I’ve just discovered that it’s going to incur several £100,000 worth of tariffs that I hadn’t anticipated.”

So, Stephen knuckles down, gets to work, starts looking through the statute books and by the time that container had reached the coast of France, he’d managed to work out what instruments to employ in order to make sure that the import tariffs that my client was expecting were exactly as expected. No additional £100,000s of pounds and, you know, he said his client had come on the phone and said “Look, Stephen, this could put our lights out. This could knock us out of business. This is a really, really big deal.”

So that was the story that he told and what do you think that audience of leaders of manufacturing companies were talking about after Stephen’s presentation? Were they talking about import document ABC? Or were they talking about Statute XYZ? Absolutely not! They were talking about the story of how expert advice could help them out of very tight situations.

So really, a story is a medium for your message and bear in mind, who is the hero of any story that you tell? Thinking about this one…[pic] and sometimes when we think about it, we can make ourselves the hero of the story. The story is always all about your client; making that story relatable; making the central character of your story relatable to your audience is the key thing; the hero is always the audience that’s sitting in front of you. And here [pic] we have our tanker on its way from India with the non-tariffed steel.

Look, that’s really what I talk about here. That story that Steven told about his client took less than 90 seconds to tell. You don’t have to be the greatest wit in the world. You don’t have to stand up there with charisma and, you know, leaning over with a glass of wine in your hand, telling the funniest story that you’ve ever heard. These stories are about how you make a connection with your audience and if we think about Stephen’s story about his client with tanker full of steel at the centre of that was a central character, it was somebody who looked like his audience. It was an experienced operations director in the manufacturing business; that’s the central character that we’re looking at here. This central character’s in a leading manufacturing business. That’s the situation. The struggle that this character was experiencing was on unexpected import tariff that actually had the potential to close his business down and then the solution was Stephen coming along, combing the statute books and helping him out. There was a little piece of dialogue in there too, where Steven was able to use direct quotes from the conversations he’d had with his client that just make that story relatable. That’s where the emotion is. Bring your audience to a time and a place. Don’t forget the dialogue. Dialogue will help you out every single step of the way. Remember, the dialogue brings them to a time and a place and it makes your audience feel something. “Oh, my goodness, that could have been me. Oh what a situation to find yourself in!”

And for this next image, I have to thank my lovely friend Michelle who sends me a thought for the day, every day and this was the thought that arrived for me last Saturday. “We don’t remember days, we remember moments.” When it comes to you telling stories and your presentations, find the moments, mine the moments and use them for your micro stories.

And the last thing I’m going to touch on before I wrap up is this whole idea of style versus substance. What we’re talking about here is what you say versus how you say it and so many people talk about we know … we know those annoying people who just seem to be born with all the charisma in the world. And they seem to be able to stand up in front of a meeting and say absolutely nothing but just hook everybody in. And it’s a question I ask on my executive presence programmes all the time; “Which do you think is more important? What you’re saying or how you say it?” And actually, surprisingly, the jury is out. But let me emphasise to you here today that actually, if you’re going to concentrate on one or the other, make sure that at any point, to build trust with your audience because they are listening, they are tuning in, they’re not idiots. Focus on what it is that you’ve got to say.

Now I recognise that there are times when you may very well have something of huge importance to say but you’re not finding a way to say it in the given situation. I’ve sat in those meetings where I’ve wanted to say something but haven’t felt equipped with the tools to say it. All I can say to you there is, step back to that shoes slide. There’s very little that, if you approach it with empathy for the audience that you’re speaking with, there’s very little that can’t be said, provided you approach it from the point of view of the audience that you’re speaking with.

Don’t get me wrong. There are absolutely devices that help the medicine to go down. So rhetoric, repetition of key phrases, I’ve used that in this presentation already today. Rhetorical questions, metaphors, similes but the one device that’s going to help you out every step of the way is that story and don’t forget to employ it. So your story will help you to give style to your substance, especially if it’s a difficult message.

And that really brings us back to how those stories can help you with your purpose, your connection and your clarity.

Now, if you’d like to learn more about the art of storytelling, well, I’d like to invite you to join the Speakeasy Club by Bespoke communications. The Speakeasy Club is a video presenting and Public speaking course for business, delivered online and really, in all of my years of working with people in business as a public speaking coach, I’ve found that your success as a public speaker comes down to three things:

It’s your mindset and the knowledge that you can do it.

It’s a toolset of approaches and techniques that you can use to help you to get that a message across effectively.

And the third thing is the discipline and the habits to make sure that your best self shows up on the day.

And these are all things that you can work on by yourself. And please do connect with me on LinkedIn; I share advice for public speakers on there all the time. And our website Bespokecomms.net is stuffed with advice and information. So do hop on their and check us out.

But if you’d like additional accountability and expert facilitation, well, the Speakeasy Club could well be of interest to you. Our Speakeasy club has helped hundreds of people to go on to land global clients, to become thought leaders in their industry, to land the big job that they were after.

Bespoke Communications offers public speaking courses in Northern Ireland, and virtually on Teams, Zoom or the platform of your choice.

If you enjoyed this blog post, check out our other blog posts here.

If you’d like to explore your own training and development needs, or the needs of your team, book a virtual coffee with us here.

If you've enjoyed reading about Data Storytelling then you might be interested in attending a course.