7 habits of highly effective storytellers

What makes a good storyteller?  Imagination, creativity, lots of stewing over words?

I don’t think so.  My view is not quite so romantic.  I think storytelling is more habit than hubris.


Well, I’ve been on the personal development bandwagon for as long as I can remember and like a lot of people trying to make their way in the corporate world, I read everything I could get my hands on. And still do.

Steven Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People was just one from the library of self-help manuals I turned to looking for insights into how I could be a more effective me. Some may query the effectiveness of my learning, having been witness to more than one life circumstance that I’ve faced with a singular lack of success, but on I’ve plodded.

Now with the power of technology I’m keen to share my own wisdom, just like Big Steve Covey, so here goes: the seven habits of highly effective storytellers.

#1 Storytellers listen caringly

Was there ever someone in your life who pointed out that you have two ears and one mouth and you should use them both in direct proportion to that 2:1 ratio? Well, I can say with certainty that I heard this more than once and it’s a concept that’s stuck with me, largely for the better.

A lot of times in relationships, particularly those with our nearest and dearest, we hear, “But, you’re not listening to me.” Did you ever stop and think, “Wow, you know, there could be some truth to that!”. More often than not we’re already on to the next point we want to make, without even stopping to hear a response or really listen to what our audience is saying.

Looking for disconnection? Not listening is the direct route.  Accelerated, with no stops.

By contrast, when we listen caringly (not because we have to but because we want to), regardless of whether it’s in person, via social media or, via an email, we open ourselves to opportunities to connect in all manner of ways and on many levels.  So yes, a good storyteller will listen caringly, because she will be tuned in to finding ways to connect.

The take-away?

You can practise this in EVERY relationship, business or personal, and via every channel and notice an immediate improvement in the degree to which you connect.  Even try it in one relationship for a week and see what happens.

#2 Storytellers communicate mindfully

Communicating mindfully is a direct (and constructive) fall out of listening carefully. In fact, I’d suggest that the two go hand in hand.

What communicating mindfully means is that you do not automatically respond to what someone is saying with something about you. Rather, you respond in a way that demonstrates you’ve listened AND understood AND appreciated their perspective or insight.

It is only possible to communicate mindfully when you have created the space that comes from listening caringly. Mindful communication says, “I’ve listened and understood you and thought through my response before opening my mouth.

You will know if someone is communicating mindfully because you will hear things like:

If I heard you correctly you said….

Thanks, I can really understand it from your perspective and….

What I think you said is…..

You will also know if someone is communicating mindfully because you will FEEL different. You feel acknowledged, listened to, appreciated, valued.

Wow. Last time I checked, these were all the hallmarks of good relationships – business or personal.

The take away for you?

There is no difference between how you communicate in business or personal relationships. In both spheres, if we truly care, we are seeking opportunities for deeper, more meaningful connections that lead to more enriched outcomes.

Could you do this in just one relationship this week?

#3 Storytellers share thoughtfully

Marketing your business, product, book or big idea is synonymous with being a master sharer, but not just any old sharing. Because there is sharing, and well, there is sharing.

Back in my engineering consulting days, sadly there was more than one occasion when I’ve sat in a client meeting with colleagues who almost fall over themselves to share just how good their services were. That may well be true, but here’s the thing.

If that doesn’t mean anything to the listener, then it’s time to put a lid on it.

A more thoughtful way to respond could be offering to share a relevant case study that highlighted a similar issue facing the client in front of you. Or introducing the client to another colleague who has specific experience in the area causing them grief.

 The take away?

Chest beating may be entirely appropriate in the jungle, and at a stretch even in the corporate jungle at one time, however enduring client (any) relationships requires sharing your knowledge, wisdom and experience in ways that mean something to the person with whom you’re sharing it. This requires thought, so time to lock in some thinking time for an important business or personal relationship.

#4 Storytellers take time out regularly

I love working. I really enjoy the hours at my computer reading, researching, and writing and there is no doubt that at times I feel fun or joy challenged, you know, like everything is so damn serious.

Fortunately, my life is such that it is necessary for me to also take time out. As much as I may rile against this at times, here’s what I’ve reluctantly come to accept.

Firstly, the stuff gets done anyway. Maybe not in my perfect timeframe and maybe not in the way I’d like, but ultimately I end up getting ‘the stuff’ done.

After working myself up into a pretzel perhaps one too many times, I’ve had to ask myself, is it really worth it? I could expend all that valuable energy carrying on about not wanting to take time out to socialise, relax, get back to nature OR I could just do it, and come back with a different perspective. And the bonus, I’m rejuvenated and ready to go again.

Secondly, regular time out is where all the good stories are found. Without fail when I’m out doing the ‘other stuff’ I come across more material, more ideas, new people, creative opportunities. Without this experience, I am less connected and less human.

Without having taken time out from working the nine to five grind, there is no way I would have been open to learning more about how to market more creatively. Without taking time out to be with new friends, I’d have missed the reminder I need that we’re all facing similar struggles, just because we’re human. Without time out, I’d never have found myself in a river in the outback, swimming just metres away from a crocodile. Funny (true) story.

Your take away?

Regular time out is necessary and it’s your responsibility. Make like Nike and just do it, knowing that the benefits are there.

#5 Storytellers scribe diligently

I am a note taker. Always have been.

Perhaps borne out of long university lectures, I felt that the notes gave me some kind of certainty that wasn’t possible from just listening to my lecturer drone on.

I’ve carried this note taking thing into my working life and to great benefit. Any meeting will find me listening and scribing. This means I have literally piles of notebooks filled with ideas, lists, meeting notes, drawings, and scribbles.

It is from these tomes that I am able to draw my raw data and formulate my ideas for material, clients and opportunities.

When it comes to client interaction, it is just another way I can show that I care. In any follow up email or correspondence, I can refer to my notes and confidently say, “here’s what you shared with me.”

Without actually saying it, this lets my client know that I cared enough. Often, they won’t even remember what they’ve said and are especially appreciative that someone has taken the time to assemble their thoughts and repeat them back.

Your take away?

There is a myriad of ways to take and keep notes, so there are just no excuses. A master storyteller will just make it part of what they do.

#6 Storytellers act purposefully

There are so many aspects to acting purposefully, it’s difficult to narrow it down, but I’m going to try here because we’re talking about storytelling in the context of marketing.

In the realm of marketing it means being clear about your message. It also means being clear about the impact you want your story (aka marketing) to have. You need to ask yourself some questions, like:

Who do you want to impact (men, women, kids, the planet)?

At what level to do you want to make an impact (community, national, global, celestial)?

What legacy do you want to leave?

What’s your timeframe for acting?

Now some of these questions go a little deeper than the average storytelling questions, but here’s why it’s necessary to ask them at least once.

The process of thinking through and answering these questions creates brain cells that give you greater certainty about what you’re doing.

And the take away?

There is very little that is more attractive to anyone than the certainty and confidence that emanates from someone who knows what they’re doing and why.

The way to cultivate the certainty that causes a person to act purposefully is to get clear about the big stuff, like your why.

#7 Storytellers measure progressively

The big joke about long trips is the “are we there yet?” question that inevitably arises from the mouths of babes (and not so babes).

As humans, it is just our nature to be ‘there’ already. People say it’s about the journey, but seriously, can’t we just be at the destination, like yesterday?

I’m writing this for myself in the hope that maybe it will make sense to you too.

Actually, that cliché is only a cliché because it’s true.

It is the journey and the person you become on the journey. While it’s important to have the end in mind (heck, maybe your goal is even set in concrete), measure your progress in the baby steps you’re making.

Why is this important?

The little steps are the story. They are the all important ordinary glue that hold it together. Underestimate them at your peril.

Failing to acknowledge these progressive forward steps is like taking a big mouthful of kryptonite. It kills off enthusiasm, it cultivates doubt, and it stymies creativity. Without this progressive measurement, it is very easy to overlook how we’re doing.

A wise woman I know (okay, it’s my mum) makes a list of each week of her mini achievements. This is a neat way of patting yourself on the back.

And the take away for you is?

Acknowledging the baby steps of forward progress is necessary.   If you’re too down on yourself, enlist the help of someone who thinks you’re rockin’ it. By taking this step we are equilibrating ourselves and make it much easier to stay on track.

So there they are, my seven habit for highly effective storytellers.  Acquiring some level of mastery will take you a long way down the road to better business {and personal} relationships.  If you’re more visual than wordy, check this out.  It’s my digging for storytelling gold infographic to get you on the road.

Have you thought about the habits you’ve consciously or unconsciously developed around your storytelling?  Why not share them here. You don’t know the impact you might have just by telling your story.

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