Capturing a compelling personal story:

Starting from the Aha! moment

Directions for use: Play the video above before reading the text below

16 lessons for an engaging I-story

The invitation:

You’ve just experienced an example of an Aha! moment.

The offer:

Now you’re ready for some guidance on capturing an Aha! moment yourself.

1. It’s always about one person talking to another

You can’t tell a compelling story to yourself. There needs to be a teller and a listener. The listener makes it possible for the story to emerge. The word for this is ‘elicitation’, and it’s a skill that anyone can develop. A good elicitor is curious, interested, warm and supportive — but doesn’t overdo it. A good elicitor tunes themselves to the storyteller.

2. Either the storyteller or the elicitor can make the first move

If you have a story that you want to tell, you can find an elicitor to help you. Or the elicitor can seek out the storyteller. Either way works fine. And the practice ends up much the same either way.

3. You need to get the setup right

The circumstances are important. Both storyteller and elicitor need to be in the mood — ready to be reflective and thoughtful. The atmosphere should be calm. The room should be quiet and free of distractions. If the elicitor takes the lead, the storyteller needs to become clear about what’s required of them and how the story may be used. If the storyteller initiates, the elicitor should be able to reinforce the practice guidelines.

4. The storyteller and the future audience deserve equal consideration

The elicitor is the intermediary between the storyteller and the future audience and pays equal attention to both. The elicitor’s work is a bit like a conductor of a piece of free-form music — drawing out something that has an inviting emotional shape, that rises to a good level of expressive intensity and that can reach a natural conclusion in a timespan that can capture audience attention.

5. You’re making an audio recording of the story

The medium for the Aha! story is the storyteller’s voice. And the best way to present the storyteller’s voice is in an audio recording. Video is not appropriate for this work, because it invites more of a performance and therefore reduces sponteneity and authenticity. Storytellers are more self-conscious being filmed. Story users are distracted by the moving image. And the production values required of video are unecessary here.

6. You’re looking for the story that’s just ready to be told

There’s an idea called ‘story aliveness’ that attributes agency to a story — that suggests that the story knows when it’s time to appear. To reach such an Aha! moment, you’re looking just below the surface, to something that’s already present with the storyteller and only needs a good excuse to emerge. And by definition, it hasn’t been told before. So it’s a special moment of opportunity and privilege.

7. It’s always an ‘I-story’ about a personal experience

The aim is to start by entering and engaging with the world of the storyteller. Instead of talking about something abstract, distant and settled, this is an account of an unfolding moment or event in the storyteller’s life. Audience members — future story users — are invited to experience this moment for themselves so that they can relate it to something in their own life. It’s a flash of personal and emotional recognition that creates an impulse to go further and to discover more.

8. The hesitations and imperfections are part of it all

It’s not a polished, carefully crafted piece of oratory, but a glimpse of something that is being articulated for the first time. So the first requirement is to capture something real, that includes its uncertainties and repetitions. The lack of polish is self-authenticating and part of the attraction of the I-story. You can do some judicious tidying up (thinking about the audience as well as honouring the storyteller) in the audio edit.

9. You mustn’t rush or gloss over an underlying struggle

A real Aha! moment emerges from struggle. So capturing the struggle is just as important as its outcome or resolution. And sometimes it’s the struggle by itself that provokes the recognition and opens up the desire to know more and to go further. So don’t ‘tidy away’ the stuff that leads to the point of the story.

10. You’re looking to bring out the individuality and the yearning of the storyteller

From Christian Madsbjerg & Mikkel B Rasmussen, The Moment of Clarity: Using the Human Sciences to Solve Your Toughest Business Problems, (hardcover image) Harvard Business Review Press, 2014

In this work you’re drawing out the content of the story and its ‘moment of clarity’.

But you’re also presenting the storyteller as a person: their character, their expressiveness, their humanity, and their yearning: where they are heading in what they are doing. So aspects of the story that reflect these qualities should be included where possible.

11. You want to end up with something that’s no more than 3 minutes long

This is the really hard part. To respect the potential audience — the story users — you’re looking to produce an audio story that’s no more than 3 minutes long. This turns out to be a real discipline. Typically a three minute story distills out from anything between ten and thirty minutes of audio recording. So the conversation between the elicitor and storyteller can be as expansive as feels comfortable to both. But the finished extract should probably be the emotional core of the whole exchange. The rest of the recording may become part of the text-based ‘offer’ that can follow.

12. As well as the story, you want images of the teller and of the narrative

The I-story should include an image of the storyteller. It’s probably best to take a few photographs after the recording session, and let the storyteller choose one they’re happy with. It’s also a good idea to illustrate the audio with an image that evokes the sense of the story. You should discuss and agree how to do this at the time. And if a formal release from the storyteller is required, you should arrange to do this, probably after the edited story is produced.

13. When you edit the story, you can separate the Aha! from the So What

The Aha! story will be the emotional hook that pulls the user into a deeper relationship with the purpose and intention of the storyteller. So it doesn’t need to include any instructional or explanatory details (the So What). Often these are entwined with the storyteller’s account of the event or phenomenon. The audio edit is the opportunity to separate out these two aspects of the communication so that it becomes more compelling, invitational and ultimately useful.

14. The story title is crucial: it reveals where the storyteller is heading

Perhaps the most artful aspect of the craft of I-stories is the way that they are titled. Like newspaper headlines, the title needs to be brief and vivid. However, the similarity ends there. The purpose of the newspaper headline is to wave a flag that says, “Look here to read about this!” The I-story title, on the other hand, is about more than the content of the story: it’s about the storyteller and what they are reaching for. So it has a certain directionality, a pointing-towards, that can recruit someone else who may be thinking of heading in the same direction. Moreover, the I-story title may not be static and permanent: it might develop and morph with re-use as others discover more in their experience of the story.

15. What the story points towards can be a separate piece of work

In a medium like Medium, the I-Story and the So What are bundled together. But here they may be separated in a number of different ways: in format, in time or in space. For example, the work of crafting the So What could be collaborative, reflecting different readings of the I-story.

It could be educational, as a programme or an event rather than a text.

It could be conversational and deliberative, as in a Loomio thread. But in any event, it need not be coterminous with the I-Story.

16. I-stories make magic together

A small collection of I-stories — linked by an idea or a theme and played as a continuous sequence — can make something magical together. The stories “speak” to one another and create a new and deeper context for each other. A sequence can be a great learning tool, because it forms ‘a unity of unmerged voices’ that makes differences and dissonances meaningful and tractable. This quality invites a new kind of conversation and a different experience of collaboration among the story users.


Photo credit: Sera Photography. Elicitor: Rob Guthrie