Story Checklist — How to tell if your story is working.

There are no truths, just stories."

Bernd Doppler¹

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.

Your ‘narrative’ isn’t a ‘story’.

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.

A Story checklist.

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.

Your story is driven by characters we can relate to.

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:

  • 2.84 GHz Octa-Core (Qualcomm®Snapdragon™855) Processor

  • 128 GB RAM: 6 GB Storage

  • 6.4” QHD+ OLED FullVision™ Display

  • Android Pie Operating System

You might struggle to know what I am even talking about.⁷

Now, what if I told you that with this you could:

  • Stream the latest episode of Stranger Things with no buffering.

  • Call your grandmother in Denver on video with no lag, and,

  • Play 80 Days or Fortnite while you are sitting on college hill.

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.

Your story has a spine.

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 is simple.

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.