Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world today.
Stories have power. They delight, enchant, touch, teach, recall, inspire, motivate, challenge. They help us understand. They imprint a picture on our minds. Want to make a point or raise an issue? Tell a story. — Janet Litherland
Stories are all around us. They are what move us, make us feel alive, and inspire us. Our appetite for stories is a reflection of the basic human need to understand patterns of life — not merely as an intellectual exercise but as a personal, emotional experience. Stories are the way to reach out to people and emotionally connect.
Yet most of us are used to the business-as-usual approach to communicating ideas, looking at the umpteenth Powerpoint bullet list or Word document. We may even build presentations that we ourselves wouldn’t want to sit through. Why do we do that? How is it that we such expert story consumers that we can confidently walk out of a movie after only a few minutes, but we often fail to recognize both the importance of a good story and the weakness of our own approaches to communication when it’s our turn on the stage? What happens if we move beyond business-as-usual, and start building content that is engaging and powerful, by harnessing the energy of the well-told story?
The research we did to write The Dragonfly Effect showed us that the power of a story is a profound one: it can help you connect with and move your audience, and make your material more memorable. (And over here at Camp Dragonfly, we are always reminding ourselves of this and work to make more meaningful connections with our intended audience.) Maya Angelou once said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” And what’s the best way to make people feel? By telling a compelling story.
So, how do you go about constructing a story? There are some easy steps to follow to get started. First, establish your starting point by asking yourself these basic questions: Who is the audience? What is your goal in telling your story? Are you persuading someone to invest in your company? Are you trying to gain buy-in for an idea among your co-workers? Are you trying to inspire people to support a cause, an individual, or save someone’s life?
If you’re trying to do any of these, consider the below guideposts for good storytelling.
Seven Tips for Storytelling
- Stories are about people. People connect with other people, so make sure you focus your story on the real-life characters of your story. Even if your organization (a) is devoted to saving flora and/or fauna, (b) toils in the dense thicket of policy change, or (c) helps other organizations work more effectively, human beings are still driving the action. So focus on the people involved. People are what serve as the audience’s guide through the story, and what an audience will connect with.
- Let your characters speak for themselves. An important part of storytelling is making the story personable and relatable. When characters speak to each other in a story, it lends immediacy urgency and authenticity to the piece. So use direct quotes and let characters speak in idiosyncratic voices, lending credibility to the dialogue.
- Audiences bore easily. Let’s face it: these days, our attention spans are strained and unless you’re keeping people interested, you are wasting your breath. So when telling a story, get them engaged: make them wonder “what happens next?” or “how is this going to turn out?” As the people in your story pursue their goal, they must run into obstacles, surprises, or something that makes the audience sit up and take notice.
- Stories stir up emotions. Human beings are not inclined to think about things they don’t care about. Stories stir emotions not to be manipulative, not simply for melodramatic effect, but to break through the white noise of information that continuously inundates us and to deliver the message: this is worth your attention.
- Stories don’t tell: they show. Show don’t tell is the most fundamental maxim of storytelling, and for good reason. Your audience should see a picture, feel the conflict, and become more involved with the story – not just be receptacles for a long list of facts.
- Stories have at least one “moment of truth.” The best stories show us something about how we should treat ourselves, others, or the world around us. Call it an “Aha” moment – that point when your story conveys a message that really makes your audience say, “Yes! That’s a powerful idea.”
- Stories have a clear meaning. When the final line is spoken, your audience should know exactly why they took this journey with you. In the end, this may be the most important rule of all. If your audience can’t answer the question, “What was the story all about?” it won’t matter if you followed rules one through six.
This last point is the most important. Nancy Duarte refers to it the “STAR moment” (Something To Always Remember): What do you want the audience to feel? What do you want the audience to remember? What was the critical moment in the story? Make sure you know what message you want your audience to come away with, so that the story you’ve told is one your audience can retell, too. For more insight, see Slideology and Resonate, two remarkable books about visual storytelling.
What’s the secret to telling a great story? Step out from the background, get ahead of the numbers, and put a name, face, and some personality behind your effort and you will see increased engagement. Harness the power of the personal. People forget facts, but they never forget a great story.
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