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The Secret Ingredient To Successful Business Storytelling: Presence


Robert (Bob) Riefstahl is the Founding Partner at 2Win! Global. His firm provides Sales, PreSales & Executive training worldwide.

Much is being said about the value of storytelling in business. Great stories that connect to a business objective can shift thinking, inspire action and even minimize conflict. For business executives, compelling storytelling is a critical ingredient to inspiring leadership.

For example, I often see senior executives present results and projections using slides packed with numbers, graphs and words. They attempt to surround all of this data with sterile explanations, and at the end of the presentation, they receive polite applause. Contrast that with leaders who present their results by telling a story, painting a mental and visual picture of their key messages and using simplified figures and graphics that support their story: They deliver a presentation that leaves the audience inspired about the future and wanting more.

Business leaders should build strong emotional connections to their messages. But, a great story on its own isn’t enough. Business leaders also need the “X” factor of telling stories that motivate and inspire. It’s called presence.

I believe presence is how you want an audience or individual to perceive you as you walk off a stage or out of a room. Presence isn’t about your ego; it’s about how your audience feels. In some instances, I want my audience inspired. Sometimes I like them motivated to change. I might even want to change their thinking.

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Great storytellers have the intention of how they want their audience to feel before they tell the story. Natural storytellers — the ones with “the gift” — flow into the intention of their story as they tell the story. For most of us (myself included), I find it most helpful to take a moment to consider my intention before I tell the story. Having a pre-planned intention to how you want your story to make people feel is the first step toward establishing presence and telling a successful story.

Presence starts with intention and builds with your physicality and vocal inflection.

Think of physicality as how you move on a stage or in a room full of people and what your facial expressions convey. Even in a virtual setting, physicality plays a role. If you think of the frame of your video, you want to keep your movements within that frame. Large arm movements, fast mouse movements and nervous movements can distract from your story. If you want to make an intimate point to a story, you can move closer to the camera and look directly into the lens.

If you’re presenting at an in-person event, your movements still need to be purposeful. For example, when I’m on a stage, I never stand behind a podium to tell a story. I use each section of the stage to pull audience members from every corner of the room into my story. These are purposeful movements — not pacing. Walk to a spot on the stage, stay there for at least 10 seconds, then move to the next position on the stage. Or, perhaps you’re standing in a conference room; your story movements should shrink but remain purposeful. You could lean in on the table if you’re trying to make a point within your story, for instance.

Facial expressions also play a crucial role in transmitting your intention. For example, suppose your intention is to motivate someone away from the status-quo of how they do something today. In that case, you’ll often accentuate the pain of their existing situation and a fear of loss if they don’t decide to change. If you smile while you tell your story, you’ll have a disconnect between your intention and your message. Consequently, your facial expression should transmit pain.

Finally, think of your vocal inflection as an invaluable tool for transmitting presence in a story. For example, if your intention is to inspire, you’ll tell critical parts of your story more rapidly and with a slightly higher pitch than your normal voice. Combine that with a smile and larger movements, and your presence will align with your intention.

Great storytellers naturally transmit presence with the right mixture of intention, physicality and vocal inflection. Make the conscious decision to be intentional with each component of presence, and you’ll soon find your stories will be welcomed and your intention achieved.


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