Google the term “storytelling in business” and you’ll get 17 million results. Storytelling is clearly a hot topic, and we’re all told repeatedly we should use more stories in our everyday communications.
Yet one question goes unanswered in most of these reports: what exactly is a story?
Let me give you a hint: a quote from Steve Jobs is not a story. A customer testimonial is not necessarily a story. A picture of a dog in the rain may or may not be a story.
A true story — one that carries the full impact a story promises — contains certain fundamental elements.
So What Is a Story?
A colleague of mine sought to answer this question for a book he was writing. His research led him to 82 different definitions of story!
The one he settled on happened to be the definition I was taught at Chicago’s famed Second City, the birthplace of comic legends from John Belushi to Tina Fey. Its training center is also where thousands of ordinary people like me go to study the art of improvisational and sketch comedy.
They taught us that story is a character in pursuit of a goal in the face of some challenge or obstacle. How that character resolves that challenge provides the dramatic interest that keeps us captivated.
Now you can layer on other elements, from an ironic twist to a moral lesson, but these are the essential building blocks for crafting a simple, effective story.
Story at Work
One of my favorite stories involved a company I worked with that manufactures candy and gum. They wanted to demonstrate their commitment to quality, so we went looking for stories.
I was talking to a woman down on the production line named Estela. Her job was to inspect the gum before it went out the door. When I asked her what she did to ensure quality, she walked me through her processes from start to finish, showed me a checklist of all the criteria she looks for and demonstrated how the x-ray machine works.
It was interesting, but it wasn’t a story. It was just information.
So I asked her what her kids think of what she does. That’s when she lit up. She pointed to a code on the back of one of the gum packages. That code tells you exactly when and where the gum was made, right down to the individual shift and production line.
The kicker is, her children can read the code. So when her family goes to the store, the kids run straight to the candy aisle, turn over the packages of gum and when they find the right code, they yell, “This is mommy’s gum! My mommy made this gum!”
Now that’s a story. It’s got a great character at its center: a mom. Her goal is quality, and among the challenges she faces is complacency — how do you maintain your focus on what many would consider a mundane, repetitive task?
She resolves that challenge by thinking of her customers as family.
Three things make this story especially effective.
Think about the great characters from TV and movies: Walter White, Tony Soprano, Indiana Jones. They’re what keep us tuned in. It’s why we’ve been watching “I Love Lucy” for more than half a century. It’s right there in the title: we love her.
So your number one job as a storyteller is to find a character that resonates with your audience. And what’s more relatable than a mom looking out for the health and well-being of her children?
In the end, nobody really cares about processes or programs — they care about people.
Emotion Fuels Stories
Emotion is what gets us involved in a story. When Ryan Gosling or Jennifer Lawrence pour their hearts into a role, we feel what they feel.
An emotional appeal breaks down our defenses, leaving us more open to influence. Yet so many erstwhile storytellers would get hung up on the technical aspects of Estela’s story, and it would end up looking like this:
“Our employees are committed to quality. They use state-of-the-art technology and inspect every pack of gum according to 32 proprietary criteria — all to ensure that the gum you buy is as fresh and good as the day it left our door.”
But that’s not a story. First, there’s no character. And second, it’s all data and information. It doesn’t stir the soul.
As renowned marketer Seth Godin says, “The market is not seduced by logic. People are moved by stories and drama and hints and clues and discovery. Logic is a battering ram.”
Focus is Essential
Just as important as what goes into a great story is what you leave out. Because a perfectly good story can be ruined when it’s weighed down with a lot of unnecessary detail.
In sketch writing classes they taught us that every scene starts with a strong premise and every word and action must support that premise. It has to drive the story forward.
So you may have a joke that’s guaranteed to send your audience rolling on the floor laughing. But if it doesn’t address the premise, it has to be cut. Funny for the sake of funny is not good enough.
Similarly, every story we tell must have an objective. And any extraneous fact or detail that doesn’t serve that objective must be cut. Interesting for the sake of interesting is not good enough.
Question every detail. Eliminate the interesting, but not mission-critical, asides. Cut the irrelevant names, dates and numbers. Get rid of the clutter and keep the story moving forward.
Everybody Can Tell a Story
While some people play fast and loose with the definition of story, others are intimidated and think storytelling is just for the experts.
But I’ve found that with a simple structure, anyone can tell a decent story. We may not reach the heights of Mark Twain or Martin Scorsese, but that’s okay. No weekend golfer expects to play like Tiger Woods.
Start by thinking of your audience’s big challenges. What’s stopping them from achieving their goals? Find a character who’s overcome those obstacles. It could be an historical figure, someone you work with, or even a member of the audience you’re trying to reach.
Work the key story elements. Find the emotional core. Cut the fat. And keep refining and polishing your story until you’ve got it right.
If you can learn to craft and tell a good story, there’s almost no limit to what you can do: lead employees, sell to customers, rally teams, nail a job interview, earn a raise and much more.
Just focus on the fundamentals.
Rob Biesenbach is fighting to put an end to dull, ordinary communications in our time. He helps his corporate clients cut through the clutter to engage employees, customers and other audiences. He is also a Second City trained actor. He brings these worlds together in his workshops and books — Act Like You Mean Business and 11 Deadly Presentation Sins — which are helping people become more skilled, confident communicators so they can enjoy more success in life. You can follow him on Twitter: @RobBiesenbach
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