Several years ago, I had the privilege of working in New York City with the folks at MTV.
The session was all about storytelling — how to select, design, rehearse and deliver an impactful and highly engaging personal story in business.
When you listen to a well-told story, parts of your brain respond as if you were actually inside the story. It’s as if everyone listening has a mini movie playing in their minds. The audience watches your story as they each see it unfolding in their own brain.
If somebody talks about the smell of fresh baked cookies, our olfactory cortex lights up.
When a storyteller describes catching a ball, our motor cortex responds, since this is the part of the brain associated with hand movement.
The most fascinating part is that the effects also happen to the person telling the story. When the story is being told, both the storyteller and the listeners’ brains begin to light up in sync with one another.
This is the electricity you feel when a story is being told well, and the audience is absolutely captivated.
During the storytelling session, an MTV employee, Rebecca, told a very brave and personal story about lying to her parents when they asked about her plans for the weekend while they were going to be away.
As her story of the small backyard pool party with just a few friends turned into a 100-person, out-of-control, drunken rave with strangers, and ultimately most of the local police force, the audience became more and more anxious. Our palms got sweaty and our breathing heightened. Each one of us was living her story.
When Rebecca then told us about the conversation she had to have with her parents (who flew home early from their weekend away) she started to cry, as did many of the listeners.
Rebecca approached me at the end of the session and apologized, explaining that she certainly hadn’t planned to cry.
I reassured her that what happened to her, and to the audience, was a testament to her storytelling skills. When someone is telling a story and our brains respond as if we are living the story ourselves, we feel a powerful and empathetic connection to the storyteller. Scientifically, the feeling of empathy releases oxytocin in our system. Oxytocin is nicknamed the “bonding chemical” because it creates feelings of connection and trust.
This is the first step in becoming an outstanding storyteller. Think of telling a story as making a movie inside your listener’s head. Make your descriptions rich and incredibly detailed. Activate the sensory cortex in your audience by focusing on smell, touch, sound and your feelings in the story.
Rebecca’s well-told story at MTV included excruciating detail on preparing the backyard for the party, the smell of the plastic inflatables being blown up for the pool, the soft, extra-large towels hung over the patio furniture and the fresh bags of ice hitting the cans of beer in the cooler.
Before COVID, I was back in New York working with a different department at Viacom. On my way to their office, I headed to Starbucks in Times Square to grab a coffee.
As I was standing in line waiting for my coffee, someone tapped me on the shoulder and asked, “Hey. You are that woman from Canada who told the story about the bad, bad steak … am I right?” (Watch my recent IABC webinar recording to hear the complete story.)
And yes, she was right!
Wow. What are the odds of standing in the busiest Starbucks in North America and not only running into Rebecca, but her remembering my story? “Hey,” I said, “How are you Rebecca? Your story was about that fateful small pool party gone horribly wrong.”
In business, telling a personal story to drive home a point is the most compelling way to deliver your message.
The best stories, no matter how many complex details they may include, have a very clear message. In Rebecca’s detailed story, the simple underlying truth was “tell a lie once, and all your truths become questionable.”
Sharing a personal story shows people that you are human and willing to be vulnerable. It also gives your audience a chance to experience the real you. At the end of the day, we all want to work with people we can relate to, but being truly relatable requires a willingness to open up and allow your authentic self to be seen.
Being memorable is all about being real. Offering a piece of yourself to your audience through a personal story makes you, and your presentation, both authentic and enjoyable.
A leader in business for over 30 years and three-time nominee of Rotman’s Canadian Woman Entrepreneur of the Year Award, Marilyn Barefoot is one of the most sought-after innovators and creative problem solvers. As a speaker, coach and ideator, Marilyn’s unique ability to reinvigorate, revitalize and problem solve creatively has helped a broad spectrum of companies jump over their biggest hurdles.
Marilyn’s previous experience as CEO of Square Peg Inc., and in senior leadership positions at some of the world’s largest global agencies (BBDO, Cossette, Vickers & Benson, Bozell Palmer Bonner), led her to create countless award-winning campaigns for tier-one companies including: Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, General Mills, Nike and Microsoft. Marilyn’s firsthand knowledge of business leadership cultivated her ability to lead other leaders, galvanizing the strengths of CEOS and associates alike. Marilyn brings a dynamic mix of extensive experience, training and passion for creative problem solving to her high-energy sessions. All of which have a proven track record for producing powerful results.
Find more tips for impactful storytelling from Marilyn, visit her website, and subscribe to FootNotes®.