The ancient art of storytelling is not just for authors, entertainers, and schoolteachers. Storytelling is a powerful tool for business people who must communicate with their clients or colleagues about their work. Academician Murray Nossel teaches people in business how to harness the near-magical power of storytelling. He has spent 30 years helping people tell stories using his “Narativ Method of Listening and Storytelling,” a specialized system he developed to help businesspeople communicate effectively.
Nossel explains that to be a good storyteller, you must listen with care to other people when they share their stories. He focuses on the communication facet of storytelling, not the script, and that’s part of what makes his hands-on manual so helpful. Businesspeople, teachers, students, those pitching ideas and anyone who ever feels shy speaking in public can benefit from Nossel’s lessons.
Academician Murray Nossel teaches people in business how to harness the near-magical power of storytelling. He has spent 30 years helping people tell stories using his “Narativ Method of Listening and Storytelling.” Nossel explains that to be a good storyteller, you must listen with care to other people when they share their stories. He focuses on the communication facet of storytelling, not the script, and that’s part of what makes his hands-on manual so helpful. According to his system, listening and speaking fuel one another to build a genuine connection.
- The ancient art of storytelling is the most effective way to communicate because stories connect people.
- The “Narativ Method of Listening and Storytelling” rests on six principles:
- First, your brain is hardwired for storytelling.
- Second, “everyone has a story.” Place your audience directly in your story’s action by asking, “What happened?”
- Third, you can become a great storyteller. Offer factual information based on the five senses, not on opinions, interpretations or judgments.
- Fourth, as you become a more prolific storyteller, your stories will improve.
- Fifth, “storytelling is every person’s access to creativity.” To tell a story well, heed the details.
- Sixth, storytelling is reciprocal. Listening as an audience member and telling the story as the narrator are shared experiences.
- Your story needs three elements: a compelling beginning, an “emotional turning point” and a meaningful conclusion.
- The Narativ Method has three phases: “excavating” to develop your story, “crafting” to organize it, and then “presenting” it to others. Don’t just tell your story. Perform it.
Millions of messages, commercial and otherwise, blast at you constantly. How can anyone who must communicate breakthrough this endless din? One simple way: Tell stories. The concept that explains the power of storytelling is simple and straightforward: Stories connect people. Storytelling enables you to penetrate the noise and make a strong impression on any audience. Even if you’re not a natural storyteller, with practice you can become proficient enough to enthrall any audience, no matter the size, on any occasion.
“Storytelling has the power to transform…it restructures our communication through our becoming aware of the reciprocal relationship between listening and telling.”
The “Narativ Method of Listening and Storytelling” teaches that active listening matters every bit as much as engaging speaking and storytelling. For effective communication, listening well may turn out to be even more vital than relating your story. Listening with care inspires others to listen to you. Listening is an act of generosity. So few people feel listened to that you will immediately establish a connection and stir gratitude when you listen. No communication can occur without listening. The Narativ Method follows six storytelling principles:
“Humans Are Hardwired for Story”
As early humans emerged, primitive language and basic storytelling became essential tools for communication. Prehistoric humans had valuable information to communicate, including, most importantly, teaching their children how to stay alive. Early humans told stories designed to save their listeners’ lives. Stories helped ancient people assign meaning to and make sense of a hostile, chaotic, dangerous and predator-filled environment.
“We, your listeners, will follow you wherever your story takes us. Take the lead, know where you’re going and we’ll go with you. In fact, we’ll want to go with you.”
Storytelling has been central to the human experience for so many millennia it has become hardwired in the brain. Research makes it clear that storytelling is now a basic human “neurobiological function.” Certain networks of cells in the brain are associated directly with storytelling. Neurological research performed using positron emission tomography (PET) scanners shows that specific brain sections light up when people listen to or tell stories. As you tell more stories, your brain cells wire together more efficiently. As you become a more prolific storyteller, your stories will improve. Your brain is ready to help.
“Everyone Has a Story”
Just about anyone can tell a good story that resonates strongly with an audience. This includes you, even if you don’t believe you have a story to tell. Every person has stories to share with others. At some time – multiple times, most likely – something happened in your life that bears telling, something that will intrigue and instruct your audience. Your task is to “excavate” the most promising event from the vast experiences of your life and figure out the best way to communicate it to others. The right story should illuminate how you came to be who you are today. Think of this as your “origin story.” You will be more successful with this exploratory effort if you are in touch with yourself about the ways that telling your story will help you.
“Storytelling joins the head to the heart – it brings to life with emotional power the data, facts and figures embedded in concepts such as cost-benefit analysis.”
Recognizing and honing your origin story experience will help you figure out how to “tell a business story in a personal way.” The valuable experience of planning, constructing and telling your personal story will be a great assist when you later plan, construct and tell business stories. As you practice telling your personal story – your first story – you’ll learn how to pack emotional power into your business stories.
“Everyone Can Learn to Tell His or Her Story Better”
You can mine good story material from everything you perceive through your senses – sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. To connect your listeners to the emotional core of your story, plan and pattern it to include these sensory elements. Handled adroitly, storytelling is an art form with numerous components: scenes and characters, voice modulation, dramatic use of your body – including gesture, posture and movement – and the emotional connections you must establish with your audience. Remember: You don’t just tell your story. You perform your story.
“Everyone’s Story Will Evolve”
Audiences love stories. But nobody loves hearing the same story told the same way more than once. Always permit your stories to evolve. Let your story become more complex as you mature and accept your complexity. Add the insights you’ve gained in the time that has passed since the most important event in the story happened. Make your increased knowledge and insight part of your tale. Never keep a story in any one rigid form. Adapt every story to the particular venue or environment of its telling. Tailor your story and its message to each particular audience.
“Storytelling Is Every Person’s Access to Creativity”
Creativity is “the bringing together of already existing elements in a novel or surprising way.” By this definition, creativity is not the sole province of writers, musicians, dancers, film directors, poets, and other artists. Creativity is an elementary human trait, something every person can employ to his or her benefit and advantage. Like creativity, storytelling is truly democratic. Everyone can tell a story, and everyone has stories to tell.
“The Narativ method of listening and telling embraces challenging emotions and situations with honesty and bravery.”
To tell a story well, heed the details. Build your story from its details, using an accretion of small moments and insights. Keep your story fresh. As you develop it, you’ll make numerous creative decisions and explore many options. You can take a panoramic view or zoom in on details. You can focus on one of the five senses or all of them.
The “Reciprocal Relationship”
Applying the Narativ approach, plan your story with two primary considerations in mind: Listening as an audience member and telling the story as the narrator are completely reciprocal. Storytelling and listening nourish one another. Without audiences to receive them, stories do not exist. They remain mere words on a page or sounds and images on a screen. Since the dawn of language, storytellers need audiences, and audiences need storytellers. This reciprocity is the core of the Narativ Method: Storytelling influences listening and listening influences storytelling. Carefully assess your “listening environment” before you tell your stories. Understand that quality listening depends on being receptive, attentive and nonjudgmental.
“Opening with What Happened?”
Your story must always answer the question: “What happened?” The Narativ Method calls for describing the specific events that happened according to what you saw, “heard, smelled, tasted and touched.” Put your mental “What happened?” camera to work. Remember and recite what actually occurred. Beginning your story with the actual event immediately places your audience directly in your story’s action – but without any context. As your audience grows increasingly curious, add context bit by bit. This building mystery intrigues your audience. Your goal is to earn their neurological responses to storytelling so you connect with them.
“Listening and telling never live apart.”
Keep the opening of your story simple and straightforward. Rely on one or two initial, short sentences to rivet your listeners’ attention. Approach your story’s structure as a succession of “What happened?” moments, arranged “event by event, slowly but surely.” Your story should always have three elements:
- “Beginning”: Your take-off must be compelling and intriguing. Here you must engage all of your audience members – right away – and command their attention.
- “Emotional turning point”: This is a dramatic conflict that the main character of your story must solve. At this moment, your protagonist or the story itself transforms and the arc of your story changes.
- “Ending”: Your story’s finale need not be immediately apparent. Often, the “story creation process” will determine the ending. It will evolve as you create your narrative. And as your story evolves, don’t be surprised if your ending surprises you.
The Narrative Method’s Three Phases
The Narrative Method of Listening and Storytelling engages through three phases:
Excavating is the process of developing ideas for your stories. During this phase, think of yourself as an archeologist. You are exploring the promising dig site of your own overall life experiences. As you excavate, you may discover that something unexpected replaces the bright, shiny object you originally starting digging for – that is, it is better than the main storyline you thought you’d feature. At this stage, keep an open mind about selecting the best story to present and what its content and themes may be. You might start digging in search of one story and discover an entirely new one. Your most powerful story may “lie just below the surface.” So keep digging.
“If you want to see an example of absolute mastery of the ‘What happened?’ approach to storytelling, look no further than Steve Jobs’s commencement address at Stanford University.”
The two essential components of excavation are discovering a “rationale for storytelling and a call to action.” Some typical business stories could cover why you started your business, what makes sales calls effective, what your newest project is or what new products your firm will introduce shortly. Finish your story with a specific task you want your audience members to perform: to buy something, for example, to click on a site or to heed the message you impart. Avoid vagueness. Establish specificity as you work toward a definitive goal in the telling of each story. Answer two important questions: Why are you telling this particular tale, and why are you telling it now? Possible reasons why you selected a certain story might be to “inspire change,” “increase collaboration,” “resolve conflict,” “share learning” or “build culture.”
“You’ve got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail.” (jazz musician Charlie Parker)
Be wary of obstacles that may prevent people from listening. To succeed as a storyteller, identify and eliminate these obstacles. Some typical obstacles include electronic devices – ask people to turn off their phones and laptops – “lack of focus” and “goal misalignment.” To solve a lack of focus, be sure the meeting is necessary and will interest people. Take a pass if it is not. To address misaligned goals, “create a common language” and discuss shared objectives. When actors perform in front of live audiences, they work in environments in which the audience knows they must sit still and pay attention. Actors do not perform while the people in the audience exercise in a gym, pray in church, line up to make bank deposits or try to fall sleep in their beds. Pick your spots: Find the right time and place for your stories.
Crafting means organizing the elements of your stories. As you plan a story, seek to capture your audience members’ interest right away. If you seize their attention immediately, you’ll have the best opportunity to hold their interest throughout your presentation. Confine your content to the reactions of the five senses. Cite only “factual details,” no interpretations, commentary or “internal experience.” Answer these questions:
- “What did you hear?”: “What did you say to someone?” “What did that person say to you?”
- “What did you see?”: Consider “settings, colors, shapes, clothes.”
- “What did you taste?”: Did you eat or drink something distinctive?
- “What did you smell?”: How did aromas create a context for your story’s events and emotions?
- “What did you touch?”: Describe how things felt in a way that lets your audience feel them, too.
Presenting means communicating your story to your audience and connecting with them. When you present, your body becomes “an instrument of telling.” Before getting up in front of your audience, relax your body and your mind. Consider the physical space where you’re presenting. Emotionally embrace the space; fully inhabit it. Make it your own. Stand relaxed and tall. Don’t be afraid to move around the stage. Your main goal is to command the attention of your audience. Align every element of the Narrative Method in service of this goal. If you listen as you speak, and show the audience how you connect emotionally to your story, their attention will be yours.
About the Author
Murray Nossel, Ph.D., co-founded Narativ with Dr. Paul Browde in 2000 and has taught storytelling for 25 years in more than 50 countries.