Like all the best stories, this one pitches us in to the heart of the action. We see a hero, battle-hardened and resolute. We share his history through a series of flashbacks. He has yet more challenges to come, including reconciliation with his love interest, besieged by admirers in his absence. Supernatural forces are all around. Sounds like a new Marvel blockbuster, perhaps? The latest bestselling fantasy novel? In fact, it’s a story that’s over 2,500 years old, the original Odyssey written by the ancient Greek poet, Homer – and the basis of so many stories that have resonated with us since.
Stories are almost as old as humanity, universal to the human experience. From the earliest prehistoric cave drawings or Homer’s epic poems to today’s world of audiobooks and social media, stories have always helped us to make sense of the world around us, to empathise with others, to share information in a memorable way. According to author, Jonah Sachs, “We are programmed through our evolutionary biology to be both consumers and creators of story.” Whether told visually, orally or in writing, we instinctively know that to be true.
What’s sometimes less clear is that storytelling is not just the preserve of novelists, artists or film-makers. Whether we acknowledge it or not, we tell stories all of the time - to inform, entertain and persuade. And even if we’re not natural storytellers, it’s a skill that can be developed and honed. As leaders, if we’re going to move beyond mere description and explanation, if we really want to persuade and influence, telling compelling and relevant stories can make all the difference to the quality and impact of our communications. We need to understand why storytelling is so powerful and learn how to tell stories to maximum effect.
Why storytelling matters
Good communication is about creating shared meaning. To achieve that, we need to create a connection with the person we’re communicating with, to engage them; we can’t just transmit and hope for the best.
This sits at the heart of storytelling. It’s about creating that emotional connection. Stories help us to experience information, rather than just consuming it. Once we share a story with our audience, we create a bond on which we can build. It humanises us too.
Stories are also memorable. They help us remember what we’ve been told. Think about how much easier it is to re-tell a story rather than summarise even the simplest data. They can also pique interest, engage people’s imaginations and illustrate and illuminate. The parable effect can help us to turn an abstract idea into something more meaningful by showing how it might play out in real life.
For Nick Morgan, author of Power Cues, stories have assumed an even greater importance in our information age. There’s a danger that leaders won’t be heard unless they’re able to tell them: “facts and figures and all the rational things that we think are important in the business world actually don’t stick in our minds at all.” Stories create “sticky” memories by attaching emotions to things that happen.
How to tell a story: first things first
There is, of course, an art to telling stories in business. And there are some important preliminaries to bear in mind.
Message and audience
First and foremost, we need to make sure we’re clear about our message, clarifying the recommendation, any takeaways or call to action: focus on that key message and then work out the best way to illustrate it.
We also need to understand our audience so that we can tailor our story to make sure that it resonates. The word ‘audience’ need not imply an auditorium full of strangers; it’s simply a shorthand for the people we’re communicating with and looking to persuade.
Here are ten simple questions we can ask ourselves to make sure we’re hitting the right tone:
1. WIIFM (what's in it for me (them))?
Think about the audience's needs and expectations. If, for example, we’re about to make a big company announcement or submit a written recommendation, we can bet that most people will be wondering how it will affect them.
2. How big will the audience be?
Size matters. In general, the larger the audience, the more formal we'll need to be.
3. What are they like?
Are they a homogeneous group? Do they have competing needs?
4. What motivates them?
5. How well do they know me?
If they already know us, we might be able to take some short cuts. Otherwise, we might need to take some time to establish our credentials.
6. How knowledgeable are they?
Will we be able to assume a baseline of knowledge to build on?
7. What keeps them awake at night?
Can what we’re about to communicate help them solve a problem?
8. How might they resist our message?
Anticipate any biases or derailers and plan to deal with them.
9. How can we best reach them?
How can we create the right tone? Use the right format, style, structure? Don’t forget the importance of matching medium and message.
10. What do we want them to do as a result?
Back to that message again. Be clear about how they can get on board with what we’re saying or asking.
Drawing on our own experiences can be powerful. We might not want to share personal details about ourselves at work all of the time but, sometimes, stories that show how we’ve overcome barriers or made the most of a less than perfect situation can make help us to appear authentic and accessible.
It isn’t always necessary, or desirable, though, to make ourselves the hero; much better to focus on our audience – whether that’s our colleagues or our customers. If our audience can see themselves as part of the story, the more relevant and memorable it will be. If we focus on ourselves, the less likely our audience will connect with us and our message.
Less is more
Telling a story doesn’t mean that we need to think War and Peace or a whole series-worth of Netflix content. Many of the most compelling stories are simple and straightforward. Unnecessary detail can detract from that core message. Some colour will help to paint a picture, but don’t overdo it – and make sure any details are relevant and interesting. Overcomplicating stories, or padding them with excessive detail, could well lose us listeners.
We also need to hone that message as much as possible. If we’re communicating in writing, be sure to edit and refine. If we’re speaking, practicing what we want to say, even testing it out with a trusted friend or colleague, can help to keep us on track.
How to tell a story: the craft
Fortunately, there is a craft to storytelling that we can all learn.
Carmine Gallo highlights a three-act formula that Steve Jobs borrowed from Aristotle to inject a little drama into product launches and speeches:
- set up
In ‘Act 1’, an incident occurs to upset the status quo. This leads to the confrontation in Act 2 and the obstacles for our ‘hero’ to overcome. The resolution comes in Act 3, with the hero beating the villains and ensuring all is right in the world.
In effect, this is a version of what’s known as The Hero’s Journey, or the monomyth, a story structure at least as old as Homer’s epic poems and one that’s shared by cultures worldwide. According to the three stages coined by anthropologist, Joseph Campbell, in 1949 - and which are mirrored by Steve Jobs - it involves a journey into the unknown (The Departure Act); overcoming struggles or obstacles (The Initiation Act), and a triumphant return (The Return Act). Screenwriter Christopher Vogler refined Campbell’s original structure in his book, The Writer’s Journey, in 2007, defining 12 stages that we’ll recognise from many a Hollywood screenplay:
The idea of a “journey” in a business context is powerful because it’s about moving from the old to the new, those often tricky transitions we can all recognise as central to our lives at work. They might be about our own personal development or how our organisations change and grow. The journey can also reinforce values and purpose, and help build trust (that connection again).
As part of this, Act 2 - the challenge phase - is crucial. The Hero’s Journey shows us that the best stories need a conflict or struggle that can be overcome. In business terms, that might mean an upcoming departmental reshuffle, a new competitor or the need to re-think a supply chain. If we can get people on board with understanding why the struggle is important and how we might prevail, then it’s more likely our message will hit home.
Structure in action
There are many versions of The Hero’s Journey that have been refined and honed, and provide frameworks to help us tell our own stories.
The Pixar Pitch
The now famous Pixar Pitch (as detailed by Pixar story artist Emma Coats) involves six sequential sentences, providing a simple, clear and concise framework for stories:
1. Once upon a time _____ (scene setting; gives the context or background)
2. Every day ______ (issues causing problems, for example, the habits and rituals of staff or customers)
3. One day _______ (the catalyst for change)
4. Because of that _______ (how the status quo shifts, for better or worse)
5. Because of that _______ (the effect this has – moving towards an outcome)
6. Until finally _______ (the resolution/happy ending or – if we are pitching to a client, or speaking to colleagues – our solution).
RADA has distilled its theatrical experience into a simply mnemonic: S.T.O.R.Y.
It starts by asking us to answer three key questions:
- What’s our message?
- Why are we telling the story?
- What do we want our audience to think and feel as a result?
Then we move through the five STORY phases:
Situation: scene-setting; establishing the situation, our hero/heroine and characters (in our case, that could be our team or customer base, for example).
Trigger: the inciting incident that sets our story in motion.
Obstacles: what problems and obstacles must we overcome to reach our goal? What are the critical decisions we have to make?
Resolution: what happens as a result? How are we changed by these events? How is the ‘world’ different at the end from how it was at the beginning?
You: what did we learn? What are the lessons for the audience? How will this story guide our future decisions and behaviour?
This last, reflection, phase is critical if we are to learn from what happens and help others to learn too.
Steve Jobs’ launch of the iPhone in 2007 is often held up as a masterclass of how to tell a story in business. It sets the scene (how we got here); introduces the hero (the new iPhone); pitches the hero against the villain (other smart phones); gives enough technical detail and humour to add colour; introduces us to a new world. The message was crystal clear: "Today Apple is going to reinvent the phone”. The audience went wild. With hindsight, it would be hard to disagree.
Jobs was, of course, CEO of Pixar before returning to the Apple fold. At Pixar, he was quoted as saying that storytellers are the most powerful people in the world: “The storyteller sets the vision, values, and agenda of an entire generation that is to come.” If we can harness this power in our own communications, we’re well on the way to taking our audiences with us.
Test your understanding
- Outline three reasons why storytelling matters in business communications.
- Identify the three stages of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey.
What does it mean for me?
- The next time you’re planning a communication, think about using a storytelling framework – whether Steve Jobs’ three acts, the Pixar Pitch or RADA’s STORY - to guide your approach and structure. Reflect on how easy – or not – it is to use it. How might it help that communication hit home?
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