The years following graduation were especially hard for me as a young professional. I was eager to have an impact in the “real” world, but I was struggling to have my ideas heard. I wanted my contributions to be impactful, but first I had to learn how to communicate.
I started studying how master communicators such as Oprah Winfrey, screenwriters such as Lena Dunham and authors like Malcolm Gladwell engaged their audiences by leveraging different ways of telling stories and evoking emotions.
In the process, I drafted a playbook to help me accelerate success, my ideas slowly taking shape as I tested this new found knowledge. Finally, I had what I wanted: a series of clear communication tips to help you sound like a pro in any industry, at any stage of your career.
Tip #1 Tell a tale
Share a personal story with emotional appeal
“The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” — Muriel Rukeyser
We’ve all experienced this before — politicians opting to share anecdotes instead of focusing on the hard numbers of their proposed policies. How many times have we heard that “an unemployed mother of two in California will be able to give her children a good education” or “a student in the Midwest will easily find a job after graduation.” Why do politicians rely so often on storytelling?
According to West Wing Writers, a speechwriting and communications strategy firm in D.C., 63 percent of people recall stories a speaker tells, yet only 5 percent can remember a single statistic — even when the speech includes vastly more statistics than stories.
Since I work in a news company, I often share my personal story to tell people why I am passionate about the industry. The story goes like this: My Italian father was on a train in Paris when he noticed a group of soldiers bothering a Portuguese woman as she was trying to read a newspaper. He approached the soldiers, telling them to leave the woman alone.
Then he wrote his phone number on the front page of the woman’s paper, saying, “If you are ever in Rome, give me a call and I’ll show you around.” One year later he received a call from the woman on the train, who was visiting Italy with a friend. She had kept the paper. That was the beginning of my parents’ relationship — and why I can say that newspapers are in my DNA.
THE TAKEAWAY: Tell a story about yourself that evokes emotions. If you come from humble beginnings, tell people how you got from point A to point B to achieve your passion. Selectively shape your narrative so that it’s one people remember.
Tip #2 The rule of three
Build arguments around three facts
“The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.” — Hans Hofmann
Edgar Dale, an American Educationist who is most notably known for the development of the “Cone of Experience,” found that the average person only remembers about 20 percent of what he or she hears. That means that when you talk to your boss, your colleagues or customers, they are likely to retain less than half of the conversation.
So how do you make sure you get your point across? Entrepreneur and former McKinsey consultant Ameer Ranadive believes the rule of three is what persuades his clients to take action. Ranadive writes, “1. Your argument gets their attention and is memorable, 2. You are forced to choose the three most important reasons, 3. You sound more structured, confident and decisive when you speak.”
I use Ranadive’s rule of three at work and in my everyday life, so much so that I have developed a reputation among my friends for having an interesting opinion about everything. When they ask, “What do you think about X?” I always answer, “Well, I can tell you three things about X. …” I do this even when I don’t know much about whatever X happens to be, but since my ideas are well-structured, they sound smart. Now that my secret is out, use it to your advantage.
THE TAKEAWAY: Any answer, argument or presentation should be built around three facts. Do this and you sound informed but still keep things brief. And don’t underestimate the little things — for example,when sending a report in attachment, summarize the most important information first.
Tip #3 Mine the nugget
Find the unexpected side of the story
“You see things; and you say ‘why?’ But I dream of things that never were, and I say ‘why not?'” — George Bernard Shaw
Since it was launched in September 2012, digital news website Quartz has achieved immense growth, reaching millions of social media users. How? By extracting the “golden nugget,” the most unusual or unexpected side of the story. For example, a story on pollution and mislabeling in the tuna industry gets compressed into the headline, “59 percent of America’s ‘tuna’ isn’t actually tuna.” That sums up the real meat of the story, so to speak.
Two neuroscientists found our brains to be designed to desire the unexpected. In an experiment, they gave blindfolded subjects squirts of water and juice to drink — some followed a predictable pattern while others came in random order. The neuroscientists discovered that reward pathways in the brain react more strongly when exposed to stimuli unexpectedly — in this case, the random order of drinks. In simpler terms, our brains love surprises!
When I first started working for a news company, the reports I sent to my supervisor, a former business journalist, often came back to me with the question, “What’s the story?” The story (aka the nugget) was always buried at the end of my write-up. This is why my work was not getting noticed, my supervisor told me. People were not interested in making the commitment to read what I wrote unless I engaged them right off the bat. Once I began mining the nugget, I finally received the recognition I had been waiting for.
THE TAKEAWAY: Always look for the most interesting angle. When you send links to colleagues, summarize the report with the most surprising or fascinating tidbit — the golden nugget. You save your coworkers time and glean a conversation starter in turn.
Author: Francesco Marconi, strategy manager for The Associated Press and fellow at Columbia Journalism School. Follow him on Twitter @fpmarconi.
This commentary first featured on the CNBC blog