The Art of Storytelling

Part 1 in “Creating Change through Influence” series

High Alpha is a venture studio pioneering a new model for entrepreneurship that unites company building and venture capital. We host a quarterly meeting of Marketing and Sales Leaders from across our Portfolio. Last month, we were privileged to welcome Doug Landis, Growth Partner at Emergence Capital, to share his thoughts on “The Art of Storytelling”.

It is impossible to create change without precise messaging, which aligns everyone on the goal and the specific methods of achieving it.

Before joining Emergence, Doug was Chief Storyteller at Box.com, where he was responsible for helping to change the way Box talked to and about their customers by infusing the voice of the customer in every aspect of the company. Prior to that role, Doug was responsible for accelerating the performance of global sales organizations at companies such as Box.com, Salesforce, and Google.

While Doug’s presentation specifically focused on enabling Sales and Marketing leaders to increase their clarity of messaging, his lessons are applicable no matter your role. Here’s a recap of what he shared with us:

65% of a presentation should be stories

Tell me the facts and I will learn;
Tell me the truth and I will believe;
Tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever.

 — Native American proverb

Humans have transferred knowledge through storytelling for millennia.

A story’s emotional journey helps us to retain information better, recalling it after the fact. Stories involve characters and are inherently structured, which help us to keep track of the large amounts of information they contain. Storytelling increases the likability and credibility of the speaker by creating rapport with the audience. Most importantly, good stories have a lesson.

So why don’t we tell more stories rather than presenting slides pockmarked with bullet points? Perhaps, in this age of efficiency, we’ve forgotten how.

All great stories contain 6 components, summarized by the mnemonic: “TRANCE”

Take Them on a Journey

The best stories contrast two realities: “What is” and “What can be.” The starker the contrast between these realities, the greater the urgency imparted upon your audience.

In meetings, attendees often have a preconceived notion of why they’re attending — it’s usually the title of the meeting on their calendar. They are living in the world of “what is”. They bring their frame of reference through which they view the world, along with their biases, critiques, alternatives and questions. If you allow participants to set the reason for the meeting, your priority will be in reacting to their worldview instead of casting your own vision. Take control of the meeting by changing their frame of reference in your opening statement, casting your vision for “what can be” and setting them up to follow you on a journey to that end over the course of the meeting.

Rule of 3

Much like a well-balanced photograph, great stories are divided into 3 parts: a beginning, middle, and end. This creates a mental framework that participants will be able to “hang” information upon and recall it later.

Now that you’ve changed your audience’s frame of reference, it’s up to you to rebuild their “information scaffold”. A 3-part story is a familiar framework, which enables participants to follow you through your logic-stream. Your audience still may not agree with your logic, but they often have to hear it end-to-end for the first time before they can react to it. This minimizes interruptions. You now have control of the frame of reference and the storyline. When a question arises, you don’t need to immediately address it. Instead, determine where it fits in your story and let the participant know the context for when it will be addressed.

Analogy and Metaphor

People like familiar things, especially when they’re challenged to think differently. It minimizes anxiety and allows them to draw on their experience set to approximate risks and obstacles.

I’ve heard that every script in Hollywood has a “high-concept pitch,” which allows the reader to immediately grasp the concept of the movie in 5 words. If I pitched you a movie called “Jaws in Space with Samuel L. Jackson,” I bet you’d have a pretty good idea of how the script would play out, who the target audience would be, and the magnitude of the budget required. Similarly, startups can create their own “high-concept pitch”.

Narrative

How you tell your story is as important as what you tell. The best stories don’t paint in all the details, allowing the listener to become an active participant.

How you tell your story is as important as what you tell.

Hemingway famously bet a friend he could write a story in just 6 words. How is this possible? He allowed the reader to paint in the details.

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn”

Painting in details of a death and effects on the family, a reader may be devastated reading these words; others are frustrated at an overzealous mother-in-law who overbought clothing items; yet others overjoyed by a giant child who grew so fast, he outpaced his clothes for the season. This story is all about what you bring to it.

Beyond holding the audience’s attention, this type of engagement provides a benefit to the storyteller as well. Storytelling increases the likability and credibility of the speaker by creating rapport with the audience.

Characters

People want to identify with your story… so give them characters they can relate to! When people can see their own lives in the hero’s struggle and their friends in the supporting actors, the story transcends fiction and becomes applicable to their lives.

But how do we craft such a compelling story? Charles Duhigg, author of Smarter Faster Better, shares insights that he learned from Disney film producer, Peter Del Vecho:

“We can always find the right story when we start asking ourselves what feels true…The thing that holds us back is when we forget to use our lives, what’s inside our heads, as raw material. That’s why the Disney method is so powerful, because it pushes us to dig deeper until we put ourselves on the screen.”

Emotion

All the best stories are filled with a heavy dose of emotion. The listener’s emotional journey helps them to retain information better, recalling it after the fact. One way to elicit emotion is through the creation and resolution of conflict.

Tension results in triumph.

So consider your audience: what is the overwhelming emotion that they feel when faced with the challenge you are presenting? Call it out. Make it explicit. Resolve the emotional tension by showing how your solution overcomes their challenge and ultimately makes them the hero of the story.

What’s your story?

So take a moment to consider: What change are you attempting to make? How does your vision of the future contrast with the present state? What has compelled you to devote your time to tackling this challenge? Then throw away that bullet-pointed presentation and craft a compelling story so that those who hear it will take with them after they leave the room.


High Alpha is a venture studio pioneering a new model for entrepreneurship that unites company building and venture capital.

Ryan serves as Director of Operations, where he works with High Alpha’s Leadership Team to provide world-class support for early-stage startups birthed out of the venture studio.

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