Lisa Cotton, Founder and CEO Ideology Group 

Often when you hear someone talk about their career and life experience, their narrative tends to be peppered with executive speak and a dry sequential list of their corporate achievements. The result? Their story sounds just like everyone else’s experience and just doesn’t break through.

There is an art and science to storytelling. If it’s well-crafted and well told, it not only helps convince others of your values and beliefs, but it can also help you clarify your own work and life goals. 

Great storytelling gives you the confidence to take the listener on a journey of your career; your achievements; your challenges and the many insights you gained along the way. It’s not just a story of your successes, but a compelling narrative of your personal and professional growth.

One of the best books on the power of storytelling is Made to Stick by Chip Heath, a professor of organisational behaviour at Stanford University, and his brother Dan Heath, a former researcher at Harvard Business School. They examine why some stories stick and others don’t. They cite the following key principles to break through and make people sit up and listen:

Simplicity: Finding the essential core of your story. We must be masters of ‘exclusion’ and relentlessly prioritise information.

Unexpectedness: How do we get people to pay attention to our story? We need to violate their expectations: open up gaps in their knowledge, then fill those gaps with our narrative.

Concreteness: How do we make people understand? We must explain our story in terms of human actions - sensory information. This is where business speak goes awry. It’s often so ambiguous it’s meaningless.

Credibility: How do we make people believe? How do you get people to listen without scepticism? Your story has to carry credibility. Don’t grasp for hard numbers. Think about what human interactions enabled you to achieve success.

Emotions: How do we get people to care? Feelings inspire people to act. For example, we’re not going to get people to save energy because of climate change, it’s easier to convince them to do so by invoking self-interest – for example, when they’re presented with the tangible truth of heightened temperatures leading to power cuts.

Sadly, today, many corporations dismiss the idea of stories as too soft and replace them with dry data and forgettable platitudes. Only stories can create the emotional pull that creates a connection with the listener. And in this digital society, connection is what we crave.

I’ve met so many talented executives who don’t think they have an interesting story. Being a C-suite executive or partner in a law firm is what you do but it’s not who you are. We all wear different hats in our everyday lives: father or mother; mentor; chef; or investor. When you reach your transition years, you have a depth of life experience that has shaped who you are. We all have a story. Well told, it has the power to stimulate and inspire, and you never know, it might just be that catalyst to help you to start living the life you really want.

About the Author

Prior to establishing Ideology Group, Lisa was co-founder and CEO of The Funding Network. In 2017, she was named ‘Third Sector CEO of the Year’, and was included in Pro-Bono Australia’s ‘Impact 25’ list of people who have had  significant influence on the for-purpose sector. She’s a Board Director of the Stella Prize, and sits on Australian Futures Project Advisory Board and Swinburne University’s Social Innovation Research Institute Advisory Committee. Lisa is a regular speaker, panellist and facilitator on the power of community contribution and purpose

Lisa Cotton