Everything is a story. And storytelling is becoming the ‘it-girl’ of in-demand skills.²³⁴⁵ But what is a story? Are you good at telling one?
When my son was six years old, he came home from school and told me a story. “I got on the bus and saw my friend, Ryan.” And then... “We sat next to each other.” And then... “Ryan wanted to sit in another seat.” And then... “He asked Jason if he could move.” And then... “Jason said, ‘No’.” And then...
That particular story lasted what felt like an hour — a sequence of events strung together by ‘and’ and ‘ then’ told by an enthusiastic six year old boy. You have been numbed by similar stories, told by adults and kids alike. A dull recounting of events strung together by grammatically eye-watering conjunctions.
My son’s story was not a story. And yet it’s like most business ‘stories’. A litany of densely packed information connected by bullet points. The only difference — in a business story, there are rarely characters like Ryan or Jason. There is no bad news. Every problem becomes a challenge, and every challenge reworked to an opportunity.
Why has ‘Narrative’ taken a place in the pantheon of abused business words beside ‘Synergy’? How do we explain the rise of ‘Storytelling’ as a skill — but we see no equivalent rise in the act of storytelling? The answer is simple. We’re taking our PowerPoint decks, and strategy slides, and re-labelling them ‘narratives.’ And we’re doing that without understanding what a story is, or how to tap into the potential of storytelling.
We have spent years working with large organizations on how to tell their stories. Storytelling is the most powerful tool you have — to develop leaders, to shape culture, and drive business transformation.
When a story moves you, there is a mechanic at work. A pattern behind the story honed over generations. All good stories share common elements. And if you understand them, if you can use them, you’re on your way to becoming a better storyteller.
If you want your story to be a story, it will have six elements.
Your story... is driven by characters we can relate to. (In other words, the audience has to care about them.)
Your story... has a spine. (It has to have an easy to follow structure.)
Your story... is simple. (That says it all.)
Your story... is evocative and provocative. (You have to engage people, not bore people.)
Your story... has vivid words and actions. (Get their brain firing with you.)
Your story... frames how we think about the world. (Put them on the same page.)
We’ll dig a little deeper into each one of these. If you use this checklist and practice it, you will become a better storyteller.
Here’s a dirty little secret: You are not the hero of your story. The person you are talking to is the hero of your story. Or at least they have to relate to the hero of your story.
Kurt Vonnegut said, in his rules for storytelling, “Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”⁶
Companies get this wrong all the time. They make themselves the hero of the story. If I showed you this:
You might struggle to know what I am even talking about.⁷
Now, what if I told you that with this you could:
You may be a lot more interested. This is not about, ‘it’, it is about you and what you can do.
This is real life. Driven by characters we can relate to. I was running a series of storytelling workshops in London with a client. One executive, James, was chatting to me after, and said, “I have a big meeting with the Bank of England tomorrow. Would you mind looking at my deck? I am not sure we’re telling a story.” We repaired to the hotel bar and started flipping through his presentation. Sure enough, the first ten pages were all about James’ company: its Purpose, its Brand, its global footprint, its clients. Nothing about the central bank, or what they cared about. By the end of the evening, James decided to take a risk. He would make the meeting all about the Bank. He would make them the hero of the story.
To make a long story short, he came in the following day with a new light in his eye.
“We did it! we changed everything, and turned the pitch on its head. They talked for hours, it’s the best meeting we’ve ever had, we cracked it.” He made it about them. The bankers became the heroes of his story.
Once your story has characters the audience can relate to, it has to have a spine.
Structure is huge. All the stories you like have a strong structure. The ones you don’t like, the ones you get lost in, don’t. We’ve all watched movies with no plot.
Every fairy tale, every movie, every book has a structure. Some of them are instantly recognizable.
This one is the structure of most fairy tales. It’s also the structure used in Pixar movies.
People that think they are great storytellers often run afoul of structure. The CEO of a large global ad agency was a great storyteller. We worked with him on strategy, culture and leadership as he steered the business through a merger. And this CEO — let’s call him Leonard — could get people eating out of the palm of his hand. He was so entertaining. Crowds loved him. It was all drama. All highs. So as he worked through this merger, he would go along and give town halls to explain the vision and the strategy. And, like clockwork, people loved it. You could ask them afterward, “How was Leonard?” The answer? “Brilliant!”, “Great!”, “He’s Awesome!”.
The problem for Leonard was the second question. When you asked, “What did he ask you to do,” or “what is the strategy?” they would, to a person, look up and to the left, “hmm ... .” They couldn’t answer. Leonard entertained so much, packed in so much drama, that it was all highs, no lows. There was no structure. He was all over the map. And that lack of structure broke the effectiveness of his story.
A simple way for you to think about your story structure is to think in three acts — Hook, Meat, and Payoff. It’s the beginning, middle, and end. How do I hook people in, get them engaged, and paying attention? The Meat, how do I chunk and cut up my content, in a way that makes it easy to digest? And the Payoff — what’s in it for them, or how do I get them doing what I need them to do?
Your story has characters the audience relates to, it has a spine. Now make it simple.
People don’t have time. If you can make it shorter, make it shorter. If you can cut a word out, cut a word out. Don’t ramble on.
Did you know that the formal Gettysburg address was 2 hours long? Edward Everett was the keynote speaker. Running time — 2 hours. From one of the most famous orators of the time.
Abe Lincoln was just the wrap-up. He took two minutes. But that’s the one you learn about in history class.
This applies to everything we do. For all forms of storytelling — visual storytelling, product and brand stories, Powerpoint, sales storytelling, conversations with customers.
Simple is not easy. It requires time and thought.
Here is a typical remote control.
Here are the instructions for that remote control.
Here are the instructions for a nuclear power plant.
(to be fair, this is one page of many)
And here is what people actually use on their remote control.
You can pack a story into six words. This is one of the most famous: “For Sale, baby shoes, never worn.” Reputedly by Hemingway. They are dramas in one breath. People write these for fun. There are Reddit groups and Facebook pages where people practice microfiction. You can even go away to camp and learn this stuff.
So here’s some advice. Next time you’re thinking through how to message something or talk about something — Practice your stories in six words.
Your story has the audience empathizing with its characters, it has a strong structure. You have made it simple. Now you must draw people in.
Playwright David Mamet wrote, “the scene must be dramatic, and advance the action.”⁸ What you are trying to do, whether you’re speaking to a customer or a colleague is to advance the action. To get them to do something.
You could be trying to get them to buy. You could be trying to get them to buy-in. You could be trying to shape a behavior. That’s always been part of the purpose of stories. To provoke action and reaction.
If you’re reading “Green Eggs and Ham” to your four-year-old, you’re not literally trying to get them to eat green eggs. You’re probably looking for two things. First, to please, please, please, go to sleep, this is definitely the last story, and second, to maybe be a little more adventurous with your food choices.
A good story changes us. It enters our minds and re-writes a fraction of the code that runs our thoughts.
I remember a story I was told about twenty-five years ago now. But the story stretches further back than that. In the pre-internet age, there used to be such a thing as a travel agent. Shops in the high street where if you wanted to book a family vacation, you would go in and browse the catalogs on the shelf, of far off and distant lands.
That’s not the story. The story is about an airline. The first airline booking system — the thing that predates Kayak.com and Booking.com was a system that IBM built for American Airlines. They called it Sabre. They put dial-up terminals in the office of every travel agent, and rather than call up individual airlines, travel agents could look up what flights were available on Thursday between New York and Chicago.
That was clever, but that wasn’t the genius of the system or the point of the story. It was this.
When Sabre displayed what flights were available, it displayed them in Alphabetical order. Great if your company name is American, and your chief competitor is Delta, PanAm, or TWA.
That’s the point of the story that always stuck with me — it evoked a recognition of how I use technology and provoked a change in my thinking. I worked later in the first generation of the .com era, and in digital strategy. It taught me two things. First, when you build something, make sure you own the eyeball. That’s massively valuable real estate. And second, people are lazy. Make sure you think about that in your design.
Your story has the audience relating to the hero, it has a clear arc. It’s simple. Your audience is engaged. Now the nuts and bolts. Your story needs to have vivid words and actions.
This is the brain science of stories. The words you use have a profound effect on how people understand, engage with, and remember your story.
For instance, when we hear vivid descriptive words like, “he had leathery hands” or “the singer had a velvety voice” the parts of the brain that deal with touch light up.⁹
When we hear action words like “Pablo kicked the ball” the parts of the brain that would help us kick a ball light up.¹⁰
If you’re telling stories, you want people’s brains to light up. You want them to emotionally connect. When we emotionally connect with stories, our brains release oxytocin — an addictive neurochemical which helps us empathize with the characters. That’s why our palms sweat when Tom Cruise jumps off a cliff or dodges bullets.¹¹
Firstly, the language is evocative. We all know what the weekend is like, and we all know how we speak on weekends, and how it’s subtly different from our corporate, 9-to-5 speak.
For some reason, we come to corporate America and we think to fit in, we have to follow the code. We start using big words and corporate jargon — and then, if we ever knew what they meant, we forget what they mean.
Here’s a quick tip. Use ‘use’, not ‘utilize.’ There is no difference in meaning. They mean the same thing: to employ for some purpose. The difference is 2 syllables, 4 letters, and 4 grades in reading ease. When you use ‘utilize’, it makes you look like you’re trying too hard.
Somehow — and this is not your fault — you’ve picked up that utilizing multi-syllabic confabulations because you lucubrated assiduously will make you seem perspicacious. Sorry, that’s a bad habit. I meant that you’ve picked up that using big words because you studied hard will make you seem smarter.
We’re getting to the end of our checklist. Your story is driven by characters we can relate to. Check. It has a strong spine. Check. It is simple. Check. It’s evocative and provocative. Check. Your story has vivid words and actions. Check.
Last, your story has to frame how we think about the world. All good stories do this. The Sabre story did this to me. We take random sequences of events and string them together so that they make sense to us. It doesn’t have to be true. This is what Nicholas Taleb calls the “Narrative Fallacy.”¹² Regardless, that story frames our worldview.
Changing language changes what we think is real. One famous piece of research looked at the footage of a car crash. Interviewees watched the footage and were asked to estimate the vehicles’ pre-crash speeds. The experiment showed that perceptions of speed were altered by how interviewers asked the question, “About how fast were the cars going when they __________ each other?” Different words were used — ranging from contacted to smashed. This changed the speed estimate by as much as 10 mph.¹³
Using words that rhyme alters our perception of truthiness. Words that rhyme, and have a certain ring to them, seem truer to us. The same with stories.¹⁴ The simpler the story, the more believable.¹⁵ Lastly, the emotion that stories take us through, help encode learning.¹⁶
So there’s power in stories to change how people think about the world.
It’s difficult to remember dry facts and figures, but you’ll more easily remember a story. A few years ago, the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, did this. Do you know how many space flights, including satellites and unmanned probes, are launched in a year? Most people guess in the low twenties. Because they never hear about them. In fact, there were over 450 space missions, including satellite launches, probes and manned missions in 2018.¹⁷
Modi did something very clever. He said, “We sent a mission to Mars, for less than it cost to make the movie Gravity.”¹⁸ That one sentence went viral. It was picked up by newspapers, created buzz on social media, and covered on television.
Why? How did this one of many space flights stand out above the noise? In one sentence, Modi told a story. That story frames how India wants you to think about them. The first part, “sent a mission to Mars”; a technologically advanced nation. The second part, “for less than it cost to make the movie Gravity”; it's cost-effective to do business here.
That’s framing how to think about the world.
It’s not just governments, businesses do it too.
Amazon has told a story about the online future for years — clicks vs bricks, cloud services, drones — and for a long time, it wasn’t believed. But that story now creates tremendous value for them in the stock market. Same with Tesla and their future of electric, autonomous vehicles.
And that’s your job. To meet customers where they are and keep telling that story. To tell that story customer by customer, sale by sale.
And then.... That’s it. That’s the end of the story.
¹ This is translated from the original German, “Es gibt keine Wahrheit, nur Geschichten.” This is a line spoken by the character Bernd Doppler in Dark, which if you haven’t seen it, is one of the best shows on Netflix.
² Carla Rudder “IT Talent: Storytelling a Core Skill for 2020 and Beyond.” The Enterprisers Project A Community Helping CIOs and IT Leaders Solve Problems, 29 Jan. 2020.
³ Miller, Jason. “The Rise of Storytelling in Marketing – as Told by LinkedIn Data.” LinkedIn, 4 Dec. 2017.
⁴ Pate, Deanna. “The Top Skills In Demand For 2020—And How to Learn Them.” 13 Jan. 2020.
⁵ Wiles, Jackie. “Turn Employees Into Storytellers.” 7 June 2018.
⁶ Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1999. N. pag. Print.
⁷ These are the Specs for LG V50 ThinQ™ 5G.
⁸ Mamet, David. "Memo to the Writers of The Unit." Movieline. CBS, 23 Mar. 2010. Web. 06 May 2016.
⁹ "Hearing Metaphors Activates Sensory Brain Regions." Hearing Metaphors Activates Sensory Brain Regions. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Dec. 2015.
¹⁰ Boulenger, Véronique, Olaf Hauk, and Friedemann Pulvermüller. "Grasping ideas with the motor system: semantic somatotopy in idiom comprehension."Cerebral cortex 19.8 (2009): 1905-1914.
¹¹ Zak, Paul J. "Why Inspiring Stories Make Us React: The Neuroscience of Narrative." Cerebrum (2015).
¹² Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. "The Narrative Fallacy." The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2010. 62-84. Print.
¹³ Reber, Rolf, and Norbert Schwarz. “Effects of perceptual fluency on judgments of truth.” Consciousness and cognition 8.3 (1999): 338-342.
¹⁴ McGlone, M. S., & Tofighbakhsh, J. (2000). Birds of a Feather Flock Conjointly (?): Rhyme as Reason in Aphorisms. Psychological Science, 11(5), 424–428.
¹⁵ Lombrozo, Tania. "Simplicity and probability in causal explanation." Cognitive psychology 55.3 (2007): 232-257.
¹⁶ Damasio, Descartes Error.
¹⁷ “2018 In Spaceflight.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 16 July 2019
¹⁸ “India's Mars Mission Cost Less than Movie Gravity: Modi's Speech at PSLV-C23 Launch.” Firstpost, 21 Dec. 2014.