In Performance of a Lifetime’s work with clients on performing as storytellers, the coaching and the direction we’ve given has been as varied as the stories and the people themselves. When we ask people to do a different performance than what they would normally do, like to give their talk as if this is the best news ever, or you’re talking to an audience of five-year-olds, or you’re a fiery preacher doing the Sunday sermon, they surprise themselves. They surprise one another. We’ve had people who were awkward and stiff transform in ways you could never ever have guessed. People who can’t bear to be separated from their data points come alive. Suddenly, they gesture freely, their faces become expressive, they fill the space. They’re not just some everyman or everywoman, sitting in a chair telling a story. They choose how to stand and speak, when to be quiet. They look at the options for expression and deliberately decide which of them to use in each moment. A new performance direction/character, either for a typical business presentation or for an already interesting story, automatically brings to life all kinds of possibilities that you don’t even know are there.
There are a few principles that make these performances effective, and I want to share them with you:
- Be brave; share something personal and meaningful to you.
More often than not, there is a way to share something about you personally in addition to the business objective at hand. It takes some exploration and support, but it’s well worth the effort — for you personally and professionally, and for us, the audience.
- Paint a picture; provide detail and color.
Think of your story as made up of two elements: the forward motion of the narrative (this happened, then this, then this, etc.) and the color (everything else, including descriptions, sounds, smells, and emotions). Make sure you include both!
- Include your audience.
Ask yourself, What role do my listeners play in the story I have to tell? What’s their stake in the outcome?
- Mix it up; start in the middle of the action.
Compare these two opening passages:
– On March 9, 2016, I participated in a workshop with Performance of a Lifetime. It took place at our Florham Park office.
– I had never been so scared in my life. There I was, standing on a stage in front of my entire department. . .Which one makes you more likely to lean in? This “start in the middle” technique has been perfected by the pros in the TV business, who get paid to capture our eyeballs immediately lest we change the channel and miss the ten minutes of ads that follow the opening sequence.
- Act it out; play different characters.
If you depend exclusively on verbal ability, you might end up sedating your audience. Unleash your dormant talent for bringing a crowd to its feet by shifting to another character.
- Answer the question: What do you want your audience to think, do, and feel?
First, when you craft your story, start with your own answers. What do you think, what do you want to do, how do you feel? Then think about your audience again: What do they currently think, do, and feel? What’s the difference between their answers and yours? The journey between them can provide much of the raw material for a story.
Becoming a great performer of stories has many benefits, not just in business but in life — from regaling co-workers around the watercooler to entertaining a potential spouse; from making a presentation that lands a big account to convincing a middle school to accept your kid; from letting your organization know just how good you really are to inspiring your employees to take on a new challenge or getting them to care about something they didn’t know they needed to care about.
But there’s another benefit, maybe less immediately visible, and it’s a big part of why I care so much about your storytelling performance.
Activating your ability to tell stories can also be a way of reigniting learning and development, both others’ and your own. Yes, most stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. But stories are also ongoing. They can change as we change, and we are changed by them. We learn and grow as we reconsider them and when we tell them to others. We all have our stories. And by performing them, we also create brand-new stories. About who we are and what we’re about.
So what’s your story?
Cathy Rose Salit is a performer and the founder of Performance of a Lifetime. Her book, Performance Breakthrough: A Radical Approach to Success at Work (Hachette Books) is on sale everywhere books are sold.