Help people understand “why” before you tell them “what” or “how”

Kepler Knott

Ever sit in on a presentation as you strain to read the small font delivered in a Tolstoyan-length PowerPoint, where each chart is packed with information? And then somewhere in the middle…you start thinking about lunch. You’re done!

On the flip side of that, have you ever sat with an elder, maybe a grandparent, who, with only a look in their eye, a memory and a smile, kept you in rapture about some seemingly small event that happened once in their lives.

In business so many of us fail to start with “why?” with our listeners or readers, and instead jump to “what” and “how”, which may mean it’s more about you than about them. 

If you believe that ideas rule the world and that stories – your story for your company, product or service, for example – are the best way to convey those ideas, then it pays to really think about your story and how you tell it. You've got to make it matter to your audience.

Mark Twain wrote a book How To Tell A Story, and even espoused his tongue-in-cheek Rules for Storytelling as a checklist that could serve many of us well. 

He talks about the “matter” of a story and then the “manner” of its telling, giving equal to weight to both, which might be a shock to the PowerPoint jockeys we’ve become. This is especially true when humor is involved…as they say, “timing is everything.”

And while Twain was talking about literature, with all its action, comedy, and drama, I think you will find his advice interesting, if not actionable, for story telling in business as well.  

A few of his suggestions stand out to me:

  • Good stories require that “crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader,” meaning overly artful turns of phrase. Our industry is rife with jargon that does more to obfuscate (uh, I mean confuse) meaning rather than clarify and illuminate. Twain says we should “eschew surplusage”…indeed! 
  • “They require that the author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages in his tale and in their fate.” How can we personify and personalize our work with each other and with clients? How do you make the numbers come to life?
  • And then he offers a few one-line tidbits for the storyteller who should…“say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it,” and “use the right word, not its second cousin.” Last, he simply states that good storytellers “employ a simple and straightforward style.”

At TechCXO and in my work with clients, we help people conceive, develop and tell stories that matter to their stakeholders...prospects, partners, investors and analysts-media alike. Guidelines like those above apply very well to our work because so often we are trying to help clients and peers envisage, embark on, and complete a journey.

Learn to tell the story behind your work and why it involves and impacts all the people involved…and make your grandmother proud!

This article was republished with permission from the author, Kepler Knott, a partner at Tech CXO. Click here to read the original post on LinkedIn.