In 2014, Ben Horowitz — co-founder of the influential VC firm Andreesen-Horowitz — famously called storytelling “the most underrated skill.” Five years later, you’d be hard pressed to find a businessperson or leader who hasn’t been working on that skill. Dozens of books and thousands of articles have convinced us that storytelling is essential to capturing the most precious commodity of our modern age: attention.
Storytelling can help you in almost any endeavor, whether you want to open minds, land a job, ace a presentation, build an audience, close a deal, attract investors, or simply make a friend. A great story is a gift. It’s a spark of connection. It begins like any communication, with figuring out what you want to share and who you want to share it with — your message and audience — but then it gets magical.
Unlike a list of facts or data points, a story has narrative momentum. A beginning, a middle, and an end. It may be complex and meandering (Joyce’s Ulysses) or deceptively simple (For sale: baby shoes, never worn), but it’s always a journey. Stories draw us in, make us care, and move us from one place to another — emotionally, mentally, and sometimes even physically.
But when everybody’s a storyteller, how do you make your story stand out? What takes a story from good to great? You’ll have to go beyond the basics of audience, message, and structure to craft a story that’s real, relevant, and remembered.
Keep it real
Real is about earning trust. “Great stories are trusted,” says marketing guru Seth Godin. “Trust is the scarcest resource we’ve got left.”
Factual accuracy can be part of this — inflated statistics and exaggerated claims will quickly undermine trust. But I’m talking about a kind of realness than can exist even in fictional stories. A real story is clear and authentic.
Clear means people can follow it and understand it. It’s a combination of thoughtful structure, relatable language, and solid thinking. If you’re speaking in vague generalities, jumping around in time, or using a bunch of jargon, most people won’t bother to keep paying attention — let alone take your words to heart.
Authentic is more subjective and complex. To be perceived as authentic, your story needs enough depth, honesty, and specificity to feel real, to draw people in and make them believe in what you’re saying. It needs human truth behind it, something genuine that connects you to the audience.
Start with humility and vulnerability. If you or your company are the hero, bragging about your epic awesomeness, trust is impossible. Find the courage to show some struggle, some flaws, some endearing imperfection.
Even a B2B story can be authentic if it shows how your product or technology impacts people in relatable ways — makes their days easier, opportunities greater, or relationships deeper. Make your customers, or the end customers of your customers, the heroes.
Choose details with care. Strive for quality, not quantity. Ground your audience with specifics that they can imagine and relate to — the way you couldn’t stop worrying about the missing button on your shirt during that stressful job interview, the way the rain fell hard and fast through the funeral procession but stopped when the minister began to speak, the sticky notes all over people’s desks as they tried to cope with a hopelessly outdated software system.
Authenticity can be a sticky business. Creatives and academics love to debate the question of who owns a story or has the right to tell it. For example, can white people tell authentic stories about black people? Can men write authentic female characters? Author Zadie Smith has an interesting perspective. “I think of myself as a pretty inauthentic person,” she says. “It doesn’t really concern me. I can never make any claim to ownership. My claim is to love.”
Her point, I think, is that if you put your heart into your story, if you care enough to think through the subject matter, look at it from every perspective, and empathize with both your characters and your audience, then a kind of authenticity will arise on its own. Realness comes from being fully invested. You’re not just putting on a show. You’re paying attention, and you can feel it if you’ve gone off track.
I don’t claim to have all the answers on this, but here are two things I know. First, people own their own stories. If you’re going to tell a story about somebody else’s personal experience in a public forum, you darn well better get their permission — or take what you learn from them and tell your own unique “inspired by” story.
Second, when a person or a brand tells a story that’s not authentic to who they are, or who their customers are, it rarely goes well. Consider the way Gillette got hammered for its #metoo-inspired commercial.
Ultimately, stepping out of your comfort zone can be a wonderful thing for a storyteller, but authenticity requires staying true to who you are and who you’re talking to. Trust is hard to earn and easily broken.
Make it relevant
A relevant story is targeted and actionable. It’s the right story at the right time for the right person — and it leaves something of value behind. It answers the perennial questions: What’s in it for me? Why should I care?
If you’ve spent time thinking about your audience and message, you have the underpinnings of relevance. But you need to be deliberate about letting your audience know that your story is for them and communicating its value to them.
One shortcut is to build off something they already care about. Is there anyone in the world who didn’t get a Game of Thrones themed marketing email at some point during that week before the series finale? I got two that were interesting enough for me to open — one from a storytelling speaker that I follow, about how the final season was letting us down by rushing character development (yes!) and one from a marketing company with an interactive visualization exploring phrases commonly used by the main characters. In both cases, the GOT connection attracted my attention and made me care more about something that was already targeted to me. It added value and relevance. In a personal or business relationship, you can do the same thing just by being explicit about why you’re telling a story: “I’ve been thinking a lot about the challenge we’ve been having with Bob, and it reminded me of a project I worked on last year…”
Look for opportunities to personalize. A great storyteller adapts to each specific audience, rarely telling a story the same way twice. What details will this group or individual care most about? What characters will resonate most? If you’re telling a CEO the story of a major technology deployment, you’ll probably focus on the vision, ROI, and customer impact. But if you’re telling the same story to a team of engineers, you might focus on the experience of the IT team that owns the solution — what they learned during the deployment and how it freed them to focus on innovation instead of repetitive maintenance.
Tangible, specific outcomes also add relevance. Every story has an outcome, whether it’s the “result” of a case study or a more subtle shift in perspective or circumstance. The more clear and inspiring the outcome, the more motivated your audience will be to take it personally: “I want to do that! I want to feel that!” Strong metrics are great — and exponentially more valuable in the context of a story than on their own. Qualitative outcomes can also be compelling if they’re specific. For example, instead of saying “the CMO loved the solution,” get a great quote or describe her reaction the first time she saw it.
Emotion is remembered
You’ve probably heard the Maya Angelou quote: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
There’s a lot of truth in that — experience is everything — but it’s also true that if you make people feel, they’re more likely to remember what you said. Science tells us that strong feelings are closely tied to memory. When our brains detect an emotionally charged event, we pay better attention and remember at least 7x more.
Many stories build up to an emotional climax, but you can’t wait for that. You need to make an emotional impact right out of the gate. According to the well-publicized Microsoft study on the diminishing human attention span, you have less than eight seconds to hook your audience’s attention. Otherwise, you won’t even have a chance to stick in their memory.
Here are a few approaches to a strong, emotional hook, with examples from famous stories:
· Introduce an interesting character: “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader)
· Set up a challenge or conflict: “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” (Everything I Never Told You)
· Dive right into the action: “The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind or another…” (Where the Wild Things Are)
· Offer something intriguingly unexpected: “All children, except one, grow up.” (Peter Pan)
· Get personal: “I’m pretty much f*cked.” (The Martian)
· Preview a compelling outcome: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” (One Hundred Years of Solitude)
Emotional impact is strongest when “happy” and “sad/stressful” neurochemicals are juxtaposed. In TV and movies, we’re used to seeing ups and downs pressed close for maximum impact. Tender conversations precede tragic losses. A hero comes close to reaching her goal and then faces a setback. Directors and screenwriters do this because it works. The more you can make people feel the struggles in your story, the more they’ll appreciate the eventual resolution.
Engaging the senses is another way to amp up emotion. Use descriptive language to bring your listener into the experience, and take advantage of design, music, lighting — anything you have available.
One of the most memorable stories I ever heard was during my orientation at Speakeasy — a company that started out as Seattle’s first Internet café back in 1995 and had evolved to selling DSL, T1s, and VoIP by the time I joined as a copywriter in 2005. I’ll never forget meeting with two of the founders and a handful of other new employees in a small, narrow conference room with the lights dimmed. It felt like somebody’s living room. We sat around a fire together, but it wasn’t a fireplace. It was a video of the fire that burned the original Speakeasy Cafe to the ground in 2001. They told the story with tears in their eyes, leaving me with an indelible understanding of the company’s founding vision.
The power of story
The best stories are alive. They evolve with the times. They are simple at their core, but rich in execution. Some would argue that every story has been told before, and it’s true that the basic conflicts and story arcs have been recycled throughout the millennia. But there is so much in our world today that has never been before and so much we don’t know about what’s next. We will build the future through our stories. So, let’s be brave. Let’s be vulnerable and human. Let’s tell our best stories until they come true.
The Slowdown is brought to you by Slalom, a modern consulting firm focused on strategy, technology, and business transformation.