Great storytelling: Examples from Alibaba Founder, Jack Ma


May 17, 2018 - Dom Barnard

Watch five short examples of effective storytelling from one of the most powerful men in the world, Jack Ma. Notice his choice of language, personal stories and use of humour to engage the audience.

The interview was at a Global Shapers event, an initiative of the World Economic Forum, and can be watched in full here:

Read the video transcript at the bottom of the article (link here)

Why use storytelling?

Storytelling is the ability to captivate someone or a group of people with an engaging narrative that influences them and makes them feel like they were a part of the story. People remember stories much better then facts and figures. It is one of the most important skills you can learn to master.

Stories vs. data

The general consensus is that stories are more influential than data. This has been demonstrated a number of times, including 1980 at the University of Michigan. More recent research in a 2007 study conducted at Carnegie Mellon University found that donors explicitly give more to story-only appeals compared to data-only appeals.

If possible, add data to your stories to help emphasise these points. For examples, note how Jack Ma is specific with hours worked by his grandfather, himself and future generations. These add credibility to his narrative.

Techniques Jack Ma uses to tell great stories

Jack Ma demonstrated how to tell great stories that draw the listener in. Here are some techniques he uses.

1. Be authentic

For storytelling to work it must be done in a way that is authentic. It may even require you to be vulnerable and share your challenges and failures. This type of storytelling is intensely brave and powerful.

Ma often tells the story of his many failures trying to find a job. He happily shares his failures with the audience to reinforce the point he was no different to us when he started out

When you tell your stories authentically and share the things you have learned, you’ll build an emotional connection with people and develop a relationship with them.

2. Why should the audience listen

The audience will listen if they think they can benefit from your story in some way. With Jack Ma, we are hoping to better understand how he became a successful leader and if there are any tips we can use ourselves.

Engage your audience and tell them something that they are interested in. If there are no interesting elements in your story, you will lose the audience’s attention.

3. Keep the story simple

Good stories are easy to understand and follow along with. A simple story is also easier to listen to, because the overall lesson is easy to grasp and summarise. No one likes a story to be complex and if it is, you’ll quickly confuse your audience.

4. Practice telling stories

Jack Ma has been interviewed hundreds (thousands?) of times and told these same stories many times too. Practice is the only way to get the timing and level of information correct, by judging the reactions of the audience.

Practice as much as you can, in front of a mirror, to your friends, in virtual reality. Practice, practice, practice.

Jack Ma telling a story

5. Connect with the audience

Making the stories relatable to the people watching is a great way to connect with the audience. You can also interact with the audience (ask questions, get people to raise hands after a questions, etc.) or use humour as Ma does.

6. The narrative

The style of narration is essential to keep the listener hooked until the very end of your story. Going into too much unnecessary detail will make them switch off. But skipping through essential details and subplots will leave them unfulfilled at the end.

Ma does a great job with this, you’ll notice that he spends plenty of time at the heart of the story and not too much time explaining heavy details around the main points.

7. Allow the audience to visualise your story

Ma usually tells stories from this personal life. He’s an expert at painting a picture of what he was feeling at the time of the story and includes details to help you visualise them. This is one of the key advantages of telling a story from your personal life, you’ll find it much easier to paint a picture of the events of the story and any necessary surrounding detail.

8. Monitor your audience

This is where eye contact comes in useful. By constantly monitoring your audience, you’ll quickly learn:

  • If your stories are having an impact
  • Whether you need to speed up your story
  • If your humour is working

Primarily you are trying to sense whether he audience is engaged, or if they are getting restless. If you sense restlessness, you need to cut your story short. Get to the point quickly. Sometimes just end it before you get to the point if they are really unfocused. It won't matter. They aren't paying attention anyway.

In a regular conversation, everyone is there voluntarily. They can break off and go elsewhere whenever they want. However, if you are speaking at a conference, your audience is captive and can’t just walk of. This makes it imperative that you monitor your audience to understand when you move on from your story if it’s not being well received.

Jack Ma stories (video transcript)

Story 1

I’ve failed so many times. People probably know that I’ve applied for so many jobs. Over 30 jobs, all rejected, not even given a chance. 24 of us were interviewed for a KFC job. 23 were accepted, I was the only guy rejected. 6 people went looking for a place job, 5 accepted, I was the only one [rejected]. My cousin and I applied to be a server in a 4 start hotel in my city, we waiting in a long queue for 2 hours, he was accepted, I was rejected. So my mother looked at me, uhh. I knew this was a training course for me. Before 30 years old, I was a failure, I never gave up.

Story 2

Now AI comes, robots come. My grandfather worked 16 hours a day, he said he was very busy. We work 8 hours a day, we say we are very busy. Our children may only work 3 hours or 4 hours a day for 3 days a week. I bet they will say they are very busy. When you work only 3 hours a day for 4 days a week, what are you going to do, you’re going to travel around.

Story 3

I had a huge debate with my colleagues. Several years ago there was a big earthquake in China and Japan, we donated like $20k to Japan, $10-15k to China, and people asked why we donated so little because we have a lot of money. And my point is, no matter how much money you donate, 2m, 20m, that money compared to that problem is tiny, you can’t change a lot of things there. The [reason] you donate is because you change yourself. When you change the world is changing.

Story 4

And the case study goes up and they start teaching a lot of universities. The next 5 years they invited me to go to the case study, and they always find a competitor of my company. After every case study, Alibaba will die and that company will succeed. All the students agreed. Actually, every 5 years all the competitors die, Alibaba survived. How can you study this kind of success story? Learn from the mistakes of other people, no matter how smart you are, you will encounter these mistakes. You learn from mistakes not because you will be able to avoid mistakes, [but instead] when these mistakes come, you’ll know how to deal with them.

Story 5

When human beings in the future compete with machines on knowledge, you don’t have a chance. Computer is always going to be smarter than you are. When there is a car, forget who can run faster. When there is a plane, don’t think you can fly. When there is a computer, you know the computer is always smarter than you. They don’t forget, they remember everything, they never get angry, they calculate things faster. But a computer can never be as wise as a man. What’s the difference between smart and wisdom? My view is, smart people see something other people don’t see. A wise person sees something they pretend they did not see. A smart person knows what they want. A wise person knows what they do not want.