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Bottom Line Briefing (BLB) is a monthly compilation of significant articles that offers ideas to help you improve your association's operating efficiency.

Biesenbach on the Importance of Tales Well Told in the Association World
Special to Bottom Line Briefing
Rob Biesenbach is a corporate communications expert, author, and public speaker who specializes in helping organizations of all types improve their communications skills. Biesenbach has managed to take his experiences in both the business and entertainment worlds and craft a message in his workshops and speeches that compels audience members to become better storytellers. His business background includes more than a decade heading his own independent corporate communications/PR practice, as well as a stint as a vice president at Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide. His show-biz background includes studying acting, writing, and improvisation at the famed Second City Training Center in Chicago and subsequently appearing in over 150 stage, film, and commercial productions.

Biesenbach sat down with Bottom Line Briefing recently to discuss the importance of good storytelling in selling one's brand and motivating people. What follows is our chat:

BOTTOM LINE BRIEFING: How is it that you help people improve their communication skills?

ROB BIESENBACH: I work with both organizations and individuals in my workshops. Helping people become more skilled and confident communicators can help them enjoy more success in their careers and their lives. The approach I use comes from my background. Most of my career has been in corporate communications. But about a decade ago, I started acting. I actually found a lot of parallels between these two worlds of acting and business. They both require that you connect with an audience, that you express yourself creatively, and that you tell good stories. So, I brought those together in my books and workshops, and I have used them to help organizations, businesses, and individuals communicate better with the audience they're trying to reach.

BLB: Do you often talk to associations and association executives?

RB: Yes, I speak to a number of professional associations throughout the year. I certainly consider the association market an important one. I have an association background. My second job out of college was as communications director for the National Association of Attorneys General. As a result, I feel I have a good understanding of the challenges and rewards that come with serving an association's membership.

BLB: How important is it to be able to tell a story in selling one's brand?

RB: It's absolutely critical. People do not relate to facts, data, or ordinary information in the way they do with stories well told. Stories are unparalleled in their power for breaking down walls with an audience and being able to influence them to act. The authors of "Made to Stick," a highly influential book [by Chip and Dan Heath], found that after a presentation, 63 percent of audience members remember stories and only 5 percent remember statistics. Stories stick.

BLB: What are the keys to telling a good story and making it stick?

RB: First, you have to understand your audience. What are their issues? What are their concerns, their fears, their doubts? When you have a good understanding of that, then you can find a story that speaks to their specific concerns. Your story should have three basic components. One, the story should have a great character that people can relate to. There should be a goal for that character and an obstacle or a challenge that gets in the way of achieving their goal. The story should be all about how they overcome that challenge.

BLB: I am sure you've seen many instances of storytelling gone wrong. In your view, what makes for bad storytelling?

RB: There are a couple of ways you can go wrong. First, people often play fast and loose with the definition of "story." People will call almost anything a story these days. Stories, though, have certain universal elements. When a story doesn't have any conflict and it doesn't have a great central character, the message goes flat. The other big risk with storytellers is they go on and on. They don't know how to focus their story, especially in selling a brand or calling people to action. They try to put everything into it, and they lose their audience along the way. A great story has discipline. Every element has to drive things forward.

BLB: Are there some resources or outlets that you would recommend to association leaders reading this who want to better hone their communication and storytelling skills?

RB: A great resource is the book "Story," by Robert McKee. It’s the Bible for screenwriters, but plenty of everyday people use it to learn about the storytelling process. I also recommend the "Freakonomics" books and anything by Malcolm Gladwell. Those authors manage to take big, complex issues and bring them down to a human scale and put them in story form. Finally, there’s a wonderful "TED Talk" by Nancy Duarte, who’s a master storyteller. I also urge people to watch movies and good TV ... get a real understanding of how professional storytellers do it. Too often, businesses and associations look only at their competition and see how they're telling their stories and presenting themselves. I'd rather they look at "Breaking Bad" or "Romeo & Juliet." Those are some of the best stories out there. They're much more creative and compelling.

BLB: What do you love about your line of work?

RB: I love achieving a real connection with an audience. When a story really resonates, you can feel the energy of the room go up. You can see it in people's faces. You can hear them audibly go, "Awwww!" They get caught up in it. That to me is the power of stories. A story is not a passive experience. You're not just giving people information and having them sit back and take it in. If you tell a good story, it involves people. They relate to the protagonist, they identify with the struggle, and they're invested in the outcome. They literally put themselves inside that story to the point where they are thinking, "What would I do in this situation?" That's what makes it so powerful. Hearing a story is the closest you can come to actually experiencing an event.

BLB: Finally, what is the most challenging aspect of your work?

RB: Sometimes I have to speak in front of an audience that hasn't necessarily paid for tickets to come see me, but they've been ordered, "Hey, you're coming to this presentation." So, my challenge is then convincing the audience from the outset, "OK, I'm not going to waste your time. This IS going to be valuable to you!"


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