When I was growing up in rural Minnesota, I always took the bus to school. In good weather (which isn’t exactly a hallmark of rural Minnesota) that trip lasted an hour there and an hour back. One day, I arrived back home and trudged up the driveway to our front door. I knew I’d be the only one home at that hour, and I was excited for that little bit of independence that middle-schoolers crave. Having the house to yourself even for just a little bit is a big deal when you’re that age.
There was just one problem: The door was locked. Now, this was the early ’90s. There were no cell phones, and my mom wasn’t going to be home for a while. So I did what many angsty tweens would do in this situation: I tried to break down the door. I kicked. I pounded my fists. I even used my shoulder as a battering ram, all to no avail. Eventually, my mom came home with my younger siblings in tow. There I sat, pouting on the doormat, defeated after what felt like a lifelong battle against my front door.
“The door is locked!” I exclaimed.
My mom looked at me for a moment, then said, “Did you look under the doormat? The key is under there.”
I share this embarrassing story for a couple of reasons. First, it contains the details (the door kicks, the middle-of-nowhere setting) and the identifiable character (an angst-ridden middle-schooler) that are key to your own successful storytelling. But more importantly, you may have experienced something similar in your life or career. You may have encountered your fair share of closed minds or other obstacles standing between you and your goals.
When it comes to opening and influencing a closed mind, we often approach it the same way I approached my fight against the front door. We use our logic, our stats, our reasoning and our convictions, but no matter how hard we try, we can’t get that mind to open. All the while, the key is right in front of us. That key is storytelling.
Storytelling is how you gain influence and, ultimately, achieve your success. I’ve spent more than a decade telling stories to some of the world’s leading companies. Through speeches, keynotes and my book, Stories That Stick, I help people unlock the power of storytelling and use that power to attain goals in their work and lives. I want to do the same for you as Chief Storytelling Officer of SUCCESS.
To do that, the SUCCESS team and I recently surveyed readers just like you. We wanted to find out what you think is holding you back from success in work and in life. Specifically, we wanted to know if you feel like you have influence and the other tools you need to achieve your goals.
The survey results were fascinating. We learned that most of our readers desire influence, but they often feel as if it’s always just out of reach. You have ideas to share, but you may not feel confident enough to share them. You may even struggle with impostor syndrome, which I can definitely relate to. Many readers shared that they have trouble capturing and keeping an audience’s attention, which I know can be quite the challenge. After poring over these survey results, we decided to create a course for ambitious readers like you.
I’m here to help you discover the power of storytelling and gain the influence you seek. You’ve kicked, pounded and rammed that door long enough. Now, it’s time to unlock it. As you’ll find, the key isn’t as elusive as you might think.
You can be an influencer.
To kick things off, let’s dispel some common myths and misconceptions. First of all, influence is not about the number of followers you have or the number of square feet in your office. It’s definitely not about a trendy wardrobe or a blue checkmark. You don’t need any of that to cut through the noise at work or online, and you don’t need that to be an influencer. So, what do you need? Better yet, what the heck is real influence, anyway?
Influence is all about shaping the actions and opinions of other people. If you can share your ideas in a way that causes someone to listen and then act, you are an influencer. And believe me: When you show up as your true, authentic self and share your passions consistently and persuasively, your audience—whether online or in person—will respond. The best way to share those passions is a tool we discussed above: storytelling.
When you tell your stories, your audience participates alongside you. That’s why it works. While you were reading my middle school story above, you were probably imagining me walking up a snowy driveway after a long bus ride. You might have pictured me kicking the door with all my might, then pouting when it wouldn’t budge. You envisioned these details in your mind, which made you a crucial part of my telling of the story. Your audience will do the same thing when you tell your story.
Imagine you’re interviewing for the position or promotion you covet, or pitching your talents to a client as a solopreneur. Now, picture this: That interviewer or potential client is hanging on your every word. Their eyes light up, and you know, just know, that everything you’re saying is resonating with your audience. That’s the impact you can have as a storyteller. But before I share some tactics that will help you captivate your audience, let’s talk about what makes stories so powerful.
Storytelling is your key.
One day, a young marine biologist named Christine Figgener was working with her team off the coast of Costa Rica. Figgener and her cohorts were catching sea turtles to gather data for her thesis, and one of the team members noticed something peculiar about a turtle on the boat. When they looked closer, the marine biologists noticed the turtle had something stuck up its nose.
While someone recorded, Figgener’s team tried to twist and tug the foreign object from the turtle’s nose. The seadweller was clearly agitated, and at one point, the turtle started bleeding. Finally, the marine biologists pulled the object free, and Figgener was furious. It was a plastic straw, one of the millions of single-use plastic items that end up in the oceans every year. This wasn’t the first time something like this happened.
Before meeting this terrified turtle, Figgener had seen dozens of turtles who had accidentally eaten plastic. She and her team even came across a turtle caught in a plastic bag. But this turtle was different.
Figgener uploaded the video, and it quickly went viral. The marine biologist suddenly found herself with a global platform she could use to educate others about the dangers of plastic pollution. Ultimately, her efforts started the global anti-straw movement that we’re in the midst of today. In 2020, Starbucks completely phased out the use of straws. Disney and dozens of other internationally recognized hotels and eateries have done the same. Across the world, people and companies have banded together to reduce the use of plastic straws, and while this movement has been years in the making, there’s no denying the obvious: One story about one turtle influenced massive amounts of change.
Stories have power, as researchers agree. Numerous studies detail how humans are moved by stories and often compelled to act, whether it be a major motion picture, a video about a struggling turtle or a story shared by someone they know.
When you walk someone through a narrative arc, you invite them to join you on a journey. And when the story is well-told, you build the trust that is essential to success in your career and life.
As I mentioned above, your story is an invitation. As your colleague, client, boss or interviewer listens to your words, they’ll be adding their own images. It’s almost like they’re telling the story alongside you, creating an experience rife with imagination and feeling. That, in turn, will make you stand above the crowd. When that person looks back on all the candidates they interviewed for the position you’re seeking, or considers who to award their business, they’ll look at their list of candidates. There, at very top, will be your name, and you’ll have your storytelling to thank for that.
Of course, you can’t expect any story to help you gain the influence you need. It takes a special kind of narrative to open closed minds and rise above the noise. To craft that story, you may even have to silence your toughest critic: you. But you can get there, and I’m here to help.
Calm Your Nerves for Greater Impact
Public speaking is a key component of storytelling, and if that terrifies you, you’re not alone. More than 75 percent of the population has some kind of anxiety about public speaking, including me! But sometimes it’s unavoidable, and being able to present well makes a huge difference in practically every profession. Here are some things you can do to calm your nerves and stand out at work.
- Open presentations with a story. The nods and laughs of your audience will settle you down.
- Keep telling stories throughout your presentation. This drives emotion so your audience can feel the impact of the action you want them to take.
- Raise your voice. This is especially valuable in work meetings. A well-told story that demands attention can draw people in and open them up to the ideas you’re presenting.
3 Keys to a Great Story
- Include relatable characters. Maybe that character is you. Everyone can resonate with the stress of starting a new job or taking on an enormous project. When your audience can relate to you, they’ll be hooked.
- Sprinkle in key details. Include the color of the car or what the weather was like that day. As long as you keep these details brief, they’ll add some interesting flavor to your narrative.
- Avoid throwing in the kitchen sink. Your story doesn’t have to happen in sequence, and it doesn’t have to include every feeling or nuance of that particular day. If you feel like you’re sharing too much detail, you’re probably right.
Read Next: How to Use Your Influence to Help Others
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2021 issue of SUCCESS magazine.
Photo by Santi Nuñez/Stocksy United