[One way to practice storytelling is to narrate it to someone else. Ask what they inferred from it. This will tell you if the story makes the point you want to make. Photograph by Jim Pennucci under Creative Commons]
I was practicing in a bunker down in Texas and this good old boy with a big hat stopped to watch. The first shot he saw me hit went in the hole. He said, “You got 50 bucks if you knock the next one in.” I holed the next one. Then he says, “You got $100 if you hole the next one.” In it went for three in a row. As he peeled off the bills he said, “Boy, I’ve never seen anyone so lucky in my life.” And I shot back, “Well, the harder I practice, the luckier I get.”
This is what golf legend Gary Player said in an interview in Golf Digest in 2002.
We’ve all perhaps read Malcolm Gladwell’s very popular “10,000 hours” theory—that you need those many hours of practice to master a skill. And definitely everyone in India has heard about, in awe, the number of hours of practice a legend like Sachin Tendulkar put in even till his last test match. But why? Is there no easy way out when trying to muster (or master) a new skill?
There is a scientific reason why a new skill that initially feels awkward, post hours of practice feels smooth, natural and almost second nature.
Whenever we undertake any kind of task, various parts of our brain need to get activated. Our brain needs to coordinate a complex set of actions involving visual and audio processing, verbal language processing, motor function and more. What practice is actually doing is helping the brain optimise for this set of coordinated activities.
So, there is no getting away from practice when we are learning a new skill. And this is also true for a new skill like storytelling.
This is why storytelling cannot be learnt by just attending a workshop or training programme. A workshop is important to transfer the knowledge, structure, tools and techniques, but it is repeated practice in real on-the-job situations that will make it feel easy and natural.
While no one debates that you need to practice, behavioural research shows that the quality of practice is just as important as the quantity. Research also shows that expert-level performance is primarily the result of expert-level practice. This concept is known as deliberate practice. It seems obvious when you think about it. I could play badminton every evening with my neighbours but that would not help me qualify for any serious competitive event. To be an expert at it, I would need to be coached by someone who can help me design a highly structured activity with the specific goal of improving performance. This is definitely different from simple repetition of a task. We need to design and perform a programme of activities focused on developing specific skills.
In his book Talent is Overrated, Geoff Colvin asserts that high performers are not necessarily naturally talented but they engage in deliberate practice.
There is a beautiful story in the book about how Benjamin Franklin developed himself a programme for improving his writing skills.
“First, he found examples of prose clearly superior to anything he could produce, a bound volume of the Spectator, the great English periodical written by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele. Any of us might have done something similar. But Franklin then embarked on a remarkable programme that few of us would ever have thought of.
“It began with his reading a Spectator article and making brief notes on the meaning of each sentence; a few days later he would take up the notes and try to express the meaning of each sentence in his own words. When done, he compared his essay with the original, ‘discovered some of my faults, and corrected them.’
“One of the faults he noticed was his poor vocabulary. What could he do about that? He realized that writing poetry required an extensive ‘stock of words’ because he might need to express any given meaning in many different ways depending on the demands of rhyme or meter. So he would rewrite Spectator essays in verse. Then, after he had forgotten them, he would take his versified essays and rewrite them in prose, again comparing his efforts with the original. ”
Corbett Barr, the creator of the web resource www.expertenough.com, has looked through research into the history of education and through recent scientific experiments to come up with a list of four essential components of deliberate practice.
1. You must be motivated to attend to the task and exert effort to improve your performance.
2. The design of the task should take into account your pre-existing knowledge so that the task can be correctly understood after a brief period of instruction.
3. You should receive immediate feedback on the results of your performance.
4. You should repeatedly perform the same or similar tasks.
It is important to note that without adequate feedback about your performance during practice, efficient learning is impossible and improvement is minimal.
Simple practice isn’t enough to rapidly gain skills. Mere repetition of an activity won’t lead to improved performance.
Your practice must be intentional, aimed at improving performance, designed for your current skill level, combined with immediate feedback, and repetitious.
So, when someone asks me how they could harness the power of stories in their business communication, I tell them that first they should find a way to understand the basic tools and techniques—this can be done by reading some great books on the subject such as Shawn Callahan’s Putting Stories to Work, Stephen Denning’s The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling: Mastering the Art and Discipline of Business Narrative and Annette Simmons’ The Story Factor. Alternatively, they could find a workshop that has been endorsed by people like them. After the knowledge transfer beings the process of practice. Deliberate practice.
While the best way to engage in deliberate practice is to find yourself a story coach, you could do the following yourself.
1. Find a story that you can use to make a point in your next speech or presentation.
2. Practice telling the story. When you practice telling the story look for words and phrases that make the story visual. We remember pictures much better than facts and data. The other thing I recommend is to record your self. An audio recording is good enough. When you listen to your recording you will figure out which parts work and which don’t. This is the time when you must also ask yourself whether every sentence of the story is required to complete the story and make the business point you want to make. Remove anything that you can do without.
3. Narrate the story to at least three people, ideally representative of your final audience, and ask them what they inferred from the story. This test drive is to make sure that the story really makes the point you want to make. It also helps further sharpen your story because your subconscious mind picks up cues from the listeners’ body language and forces you to automatically tighten the parts that don’t work and stress on the parts that do.
4. Use it in the occasion you decided to. If you have a colleague or friend in the audience, tell them in advance that you are going to tell a story and they should tell you after the presentation whether they spotted it and remember it. They surely will and this will feed into your motivation to continue the journey.
So, as you decide to embark on the journey to be a powerful business storyteller, or indeed acquire any new skill, keep in mind the requirement of deliberate practice and build that element into your programme.