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Storytelling for Leaders: Delivery and Length

This lesson is a part of an audio course Storytelling for Leaders by Paul Andrew Smith

There’s a reason I saved delivery for the end of this course. And that’s because it’s not nearly as important as the other topics we’ve covered. Seriously. It would be far better to tell the right story in a mediocre fashion than tell the wrong story with a stunning performance. A story that delivers the right message, with the proper structure, emotion, surprise, details, and dialogue, will compel your audience to act even if you don’t make good eye contact, slouch in your chair, fidget with your hands, stutter occasionally, or even forget to smile.

Now, will your stories be more effective if you learn to master those oral delivery and body language components? Of course. But they can still be very effective without them. The story is more important than the delivery.

Alright, having said that, I will give you a few thoughts on both oral and written delivery. Let’s start with oral:

  1. A perfect delivery is not perfect. Your goal in delivery is to be conversational, not perfect. Most people use five or six “ums” and “ers” per minute in normal conversation. Your stories should be the same. It’s more genuine and authentic anyway.
  2. Good storytelling is invisible. A story should blend into the conversation seamlessly, without drawing attention to the fact that it’s “a story” that’s being told. If the tone of your voice changes when you move into your story like a kindergarten teacher opening up story-time with a group of five-year-olds, you’re doing it wrong.
  3. Don’t memorize your stories. In my research on sales stories, I asked professional buyers what makes a sales pitch sound like a sales pitch. Almost all of them told me it was when the tone of the conversation changed from extemporaneous and conversational to memorized and scripted. And when that happens, their defenses immediately go up. The way to avoid that, whether you’re talking to a buyer or your boss, is pretty simple. Don’t memorize your stories. And the best way to not memorize your stories is to never script them out word for word in the first place. Just write down the outline of the story in bullet point form by answering the 8 questions you learned in the lesson on story structure. And remember that outline. Not a script. Then every time you tell that story, it’ll sound like the first time you’ve ever told it—because it will be the first time you’ve ever told the story exactly that way.

Now, if you’re going to deliver your stories in writing—in an email or a memo or on your website—obviously you will need to script it out word for word. In those cases, here are some guidelines to follow, starting with this overall advice: write the way you’d like to speak.

In other words, write the way you think you might speak if you were speaking at your best—without all the “ums” and “ers” and starts and stops—but with all the charm of a conversational tone. If you do that, you’ll avoid the trap of having your interesting story sound like a dry corporate memo.

Here’s how to make your written stories sound more like spoken ones:

  1. Use shorter sentences: aim for 15-18 words per sentence, which is typical for speaking, instead of 20 or more words per sentence, which is more normal for memos.
  2. Use simpler words: for example, instead of the more sophisticated, corporate-sounding word “leverage,” use the simpler word, “use”. When you’re done, 15% or fewer of your words should be three syllables or greater.
  3. Use active voice: in a memo, you might write, “Our proposal was rejected by the committee.” But you’d never say those words out loud to another human being. Right? You’d say, “The committee rejected our proposal.” The first sentence is in the passive voice. The subject of the sentence (the proposal) is being acted on. The spoken version is in the active voice. In it, the subject (the committee) is doing the acting. Passive voice makes your story sound pretentious and unnatural, especially in storytelling.
  4. Grade your writing, seriously: once you’ve written your first draft, run your story through a Flesch-Kincaid grade level checker either online or in your favorite word processing program. You want your writing to be somewhere in the seventh to tenth grade reading level, and preferably at the low end of that. Great novelists like John Grisham write on a seventh to eighth grade level. Professional journalists in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times write on an eighth to tenth grade level. And those are smart people. But corporate memos were written by business people typically score in the 12-20 range on this scale, and it’s awful, especially for storytelling. If your story scores over a 10, re-write it with shorter sentences and smaller words. Then recheck your score. Your audience will thank you.

Okay, here's a related topic… How long should these stories be? So, I’ve conducted over 300 one-on-one interviews with executives across dozens of industries and in 25 countries around the world. And I’ve documented about 3,000 individual business stories. So, I have a pretty decent dataset to draw on to answer that question. The answer is that for leadership stories, the average story is about four minutes long, mostly ranging somewhere from three to five minutes. And since the average English speaker speaks about 150 words a minute. That’s around 600 words on average.

For sales stories, the average length was about half that—around two minutes long, ranging from one to three minutes. And it shouldn’t be too hard to figure out why leadership stories are twice as long as sales stories. Because they can be. Leaders are typically speaking to their employees. Salespeople are talking to a very busy buyer with a shorter attention span. But notice that in neither case are these long stories. None of them are 10 or 15-minute stories. These stories are two to four minutes long. That’s it.

Now, do you think most people are more at risk of having their stories be too long or too short? Right? Too long. Most of us have a hard time telling a story succinctly.

So, if that’s you, here’s how to shorten them. First, of all, don’t just start blindly cutting parts out of your story until it’s short enough, even if you think you’re cutting out the least important stuff. And the reason is, you might accidentally cut out the entire answer to one of the eight questions. Well, then what you have is an incomplete story. A better method is to go back to your outline where you’ve answered all eight questions and start deleting the least important bullet points. But don’t delete all of them in a single box, or you’ll end up with that incomplete story.

Okay, just one more lesson ahead where I’ll wrap it up and give you a few tips to start putting your storytelling skills to work for you.

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Written by

Paul Andrew Smith