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Have you ever found yourself preparing for a class presentation wondering how to make it more engaging, or unsure of how to best answer a particular question in a job interview? Storytelling is a tool that can help you to communicate effectively in a variety of situations.
Mark Jones, Chief Storyteller and CEO at brand storytelling agency Filtered Media, has more than 20 years' experience in professional storytelling as a journalist, editor, publisher and speaker, working with iconic brands including Coca-Cola, Microsoft and Google.
Mark knows the importance of telling a story well, and knowing the difference between casual stories we tell each other and storytelling with a professional purpose.
"The first thing to remember when it comes to understanding the purpose of storytelling in a professional context is that regardless of your role in a company or, if you're a student in a group project, we all have to communicate clearly. We all need to get things done, and that means communicating an idea, leading a team or participating in a meeting," Mark says.
How storytelling changes the game
Mark says it's common for people to think they shouldn't appear too emotional or earnest when telling a story. Examples might be talking about your experience in a job interview or speaking in front of your class at uni. However, he says the opposite is true. Emotions make the difference between an average story and a brilliant one.
"We spend so much time in our left brain and overthinking logic, facts, figures and data. The challenge is, once you've done your thinking how can you simplify that into one idea?" he says. "How can you communicate this idea in a powerful, emotive way? People will remember your idea if you deliver it with passion, emotion and a story that captures their attention."
The goal is overcoming what Mark calls the Vision Reality Gap. He explains that when you communicate, or tell a story, you create a vision in the minds of the audience. That vision might be a better world you imagine, or a direction you think your group should take. The reality is how your audience perceives that vision. Do they believe you? Does your vision match their reality – how they see the world, and what they believe to be true about what's possible in the future.
For example, Mark says imagine working on a group project and developing a vision or goal your team should achieve. You tell a story, sharing your vision of the future and painting a picture of success.
"Your job in that moment is to convince the table, the people around you, that the message or vision you have is believable and achievable, and you use whatever words and ideas you have to describe that future," Mark says.
Mark says your audience will naturally critique your ideas, comparing it to their vision of the future – their own reality. The gap between your vision and their reality is where your personal beliefs and views of the world collide. And as a storyteller, your mission is to close that gap so your team can move forward with confidence.
"Stories are what moves us from one state to another. For example, you might move from not believing a person to believing a person, you may move from having no idea about a concept to not only understanding that concept, but believing in that concept," Mark says.
Channeling your passion
Mark appreciates that for students who may not have much life experience yet, it can be difficult to tell a story with confidence. But regardless of where you're at in life, most people are passionate about something – the environment, politics, food, music, movies, money. Sometimes that's all you need.
"For students starting out in finance and accounting, I would encourage you to realise you're entering a profession in which you have the opportunity to influence those around you by telling stories. If you're applying for an internship or a job, be sure to tell the hiring managers a story about your passion, or a story about your vision for the industry, and where you see yourself in that story," he says.
"This is not a story about numbers, this is a story about you in that world. If it's a job interview, when you're preparing answers to all the tough questions, think to yourself, 'What are the relevant stories that apply to those questions?'"
The opportunity is to position yourself as 'hero' or lead character in the story of your life. "Show the sense of excitement and describe how you felt on the day. That's going to take you to the next level of performance in a job interview," Mark says.
The right model for you
Another great thing about storytelling is there isn't one set way of doing things. In fact, there are several models you can try before finding the one that suits you best. One storytelling model you could try is Mark's own Beliefonomics™ framework which involves combining emotion and logic. The key to a powerful story, he says, is tapping into the hearts and minds of your audience.
"It's a simple Venn diagram of hearts on one side and minds on the other. If you get the right mix of hearts and minds in your storytelling, you create a belief moment - a point in time when we are shifted from one state of understanding the story to another," he says.
Countless examples of emotive storytelling exist, from documentaries like former presidential candidate Al Gore's classic 2006 documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, which woke an entire generation up to the reality of climate change with emotive and factual storytelling.
In more recent times, author and organising consultant Marie Kondo's method has resonated with millions worldwide. Mark explains the "heart" connection Marie makes with the audience through her Netflix series Tidying Up With Marie Kondo inspires them to believe in her message and put her techniques into practice - the "mind" component of her story.
While both examples are the product of professional storytellers, they can offer valuable lessons for your next presentation, report, or essay. Mark says it's important to take the time to consider how you'll foster an emotional connection with your audience, and how you'll use those emotions to "wrap up" the facts of the story, appealing to our rational minds.
Finally, Mark says it's important to remember storytelling requires a dedication to practice: "Rehearse your story. If you want to become an excellent storyteller there's no shortcut to success."