A common skill I often hear referenced as either lacking in new grads or in online career development literature is communication. In the various industry meetings I sit in on, employers observe that soft skills, and communication in particular, is something that needs to be fostered in students. One problem I have with the idea that we should develop better communication skills is that, on its own, the idea is hard to action. What does it mean to communicate better?
At its core, communication is the process of taking an idea from one mind and trying to reproduce it in the mind of another person. When I was exposed to communication theory in undergrad, I was taught the basic mechanics of the transmission model. The transmitter encodes and sends a message through some medium, and the receiver decodes the message and attempts to understand it. If you take out considerations of how messages can be disrupted en route (think: playing the telephone game), a frequent problem I encounter with communication is poorly encoding/decoding a message. When you are trying to send a message, explain an idea, persuade, evoke empathy, etc. in others, how you choose to structure you message becomes critical. A tool you can use is storytelling.
I was first exposed to storytelling as a serious mode of communication in 2012 through my local Community Foundation. They had a pilot project called the Centre for Community Knowledge, which helped train local nonprofits and charities to tell their stories better. The thinking was that if you could effectively tell your story, you could more easily connect with volunteers, donors, and others to champion your cause. There, the instructors provided workshops for organizations to draft compelling stories, film them, and present them on the Centre’s platform.
Storytelling is hard. Selecting the right details and presenting them in the right sequence in order to maximize impact is challenging. I still consider myself an amateur when it comes to the skill of storytelling. But in the five years since I first learned about telling stories in the nonprofit world, I’ve learn 4 core truths about storytelling on why it’s a skillset worth developing.
1.) Effective storytelling is mindful of the audience.
You can’t tell an effective story if you don’t consider who your audience is. Everything hinges on knowing who you are speaking to – their experiences, their knowledge, their interests and wants, their attitudes, etc. How you craft a message will differ if you are speaking to children versus conservatives versus students. Is your audience open to your message, or are they hostile? Are you trying to convey information, persuade them to change their minds, or entertain them? You can’t tell a good story if you don’t think through these considerations.
2.) It’s not about wowing or captivating; it’s about connection.
Sometimes, we get bogged down in thinking about storytelling or speeches from the entertainment point of view – how do I captivate my audience? How do I grab their attention and hold it? But effective storytelling is not about captivating your audience, but rather it’s about building a connection with them. It’s about making an idea relatable, in terms your audience understands. If you can make your audience connect with you as a person, or at least your story, then you are effectively communicating with them.
3.) Theory and data is hard to understand; that’s why stories and metaphors are so important.
If you take a cursory look at the most common scientific theories, you will find an interesting phenomenon: you’ll often see that the theory is communicated through some sort of analogy or metaphor. That is largely because the concepts being described behind the observations are not immediately accessible to everyone. People don’t understand what gravity is, or what light is, or what evolution is. So, science communicates complex models through stories. Selecting stories to fit data and theory is challenging because you don’t want to leave out important details, but if you can choose the right story to tell, you can open up whole new worlds of understanding for your audience.
4.) Stories are often told with a purpose in mind.
Does every story need a point? No, not really. We can tell stories simple to entertain one another. But effective stories are often effective because they are communicating an important message to the audience; a lesson, a purpose, a greater understanding. In earlier civilizations, we created myths to explain the world and transmit values through the generations. To borrow a phrase from Simon Sinek, the nonprofits I mentioned above were seeking to communicate their Why to their audience – why they do what they do. Good stories often tell more than an amusing account of events. They impart lessons that edify the audience.
Storytelling is only one way to effectively communicate. I don’t mean to say it’s the only form you should use (I doubt the engineers I work with want my reports to them to be parables about data), but it’s worth developing as a skill if you want to be able to connect with others to share your ideas and vision. Whether you are seeking to entertain your friends, break down a complex idea, or persuade someone to follow you, being able to tell a good story will go a long way in bridging the gap between you and others.