Learn how to tell a story

“It has been said that next to hunger and thirst, our most basic human need is for storytelling.”– Khalil Gibran

For thousands of years humans have communicated through stories. You are a storyteller whether you think of yourself that way or not. The only question is, how good a storyteller are you?

There are two main reasons to tell a story: to entertain or to influence. While having entertaining stories is important for a rich life, this section will focus on influence, as that is generally more applicable to getting what you want out of life.

STEP 1: Why are you telling a story?

To influence is to get someone to behave differently as a result of what you just did. Bill Jensen in his book Simplicity Survival Handbook recommends four main dimensions to consider:

  • Know: What will they know (and more specifically, retain) after your story?
  • Feel: How will their feelings change?
  • Do: What will they do as a result of hearing your story?
  • What’s in it for them? (WIIFT): What will they get out of your story? How you can make it worthwhile to listen?

Covering all four makes for a powerful story, but the third (Do) is by far the most important in achieving your objectives.

The process for figuring out your “why” is iterative. You won’t get the best answer the first time:

  1. Write out (or think out) a short summary of why you are spending the time and effort to tell a story.
  2. Edit it to make it simpler, shorter and more precise (you can use the standard “SMART” goal technique).
  3. Repeat. NOTE: This is by far the most powerful steps. The more important the story, the more times you should repeat the editing exercise.

Here is a sales example (this is an “easy” domain): When I finish telling my story, the client will understand our product’s capability (Know), will be excited that it will solve their problem (Feel) and will sign the purchase order (most important – Do).

STEP 2: Gather and prioritize your core content by how well it supports your “why”

Following the sales example, here are a few pieces of content in priority order:

  1. Our product will replace product X for ½ the cost (clear value, clear WIIFM, high influence ability)
  2. Our product has successfully saved Y companies Z% of their costs annually (clear value, but for someone else, moderate influence ability)
  3. Our product has won “best design” awards (marginal value,limited influence ability)

STEP 3:  Make it relatable to your target audience

We all tend to create stories for people “like us”. Be conscious and try to avoid a personal bias (just because you like it, doesn’t mean your audience will). For each piece of content that makes the cut, determine the best “frame” for presenting the information. Who is your audience? What form do they respond to best?

Here is an example borrowed from Made to Stick, trying to convince people to donate to a charity. Which is the more powerful influencer:

  • There is a 35-year-old weaver in India – a master craftsman with 20 years of experience. He earns a good living and uses his income to send his kids to school. As he ages, his eyesight begins to degenerate, and he is increasingly unable to accomplish the “up-close” work that’s the heart of weaving. He begins to rely on his children to help, which means they miss days at school, and it just gets worse from there. Here’s a man who is at the height of his skills, but can no longer provide for his family – and the solution is as simple as a pair of reading glasses that you could buy at a drug-store for $5.
  • There are 900,000 poor adults with declining eyesight in Mumbai, and we need your help to start solving the problem.

Most people would say the first one (it is specific, personal, emotional, and has lots of detail), and in general they would be right. However, if you were talking to finance people, or a highly analytical group, then a numbers-driven presentation might be more effective (although you would need to rewrite that bullet to focus on insights, not just the raw data).

Bonus Point: When looking at communication styles, most people are visual (versus auditory or kinesthetic). One key reason most people respond well to the first story is that it creates an image in your head. The best stories cover all three.

The better you understand who you are trying to influence, the better job you will do. Be as specific as possible – named individuals are best (e.g. I want Jane Smith to do X.)

A good way to verify if you are communicating with your audience is to think about “what questions do I want my audience to ask?” If they start to ask them, it’s a good sign you are on the right track.

STEP 4: Create your story

There are many ways to tell a story, but you can generally use the same structure they teach in grade school:

  • “The Hook”: What is the opening and how will it grab people’s attention enough to listen to the rest of what you have to say. If people don’t already know why they are there (ie. it’s not a charity dinner), the opening hook should make the “why you are here” clear.
  • “Proof points”: Weave your content from steps 2 & 3 into the story based on a “U” shape of influence power (or “W” shape if it’s a long presentation so you don’t lose people in the middle).If you had 5 points, point 1 would be used for “the hook”. The rest would be arranged as follows: point 3, point 5 (weakest point in the middle), point 4, then save point 2 (another high powered point) for “the ask”.
  • “The Ask”: Finish with a strong recap of what you want them to do, weaving in another high-powered persuasive point. If your “hook” is by far the most powerful point, you can also recap your “hook” point as part of the ask.

STEP 5: Practice the story and then make it better

By practice, I mean “deliberate practice”. You will also get more out of practice if you can do it in front of someone who can give you honest feedback and role play. For example, if it’s a teammate and you will be presenting to your manager, ask them to try to play your manager on a bad day. If you practice in a challenging setting, the real thing can often seem easy.  

Good storytelling is a lifelong skill and one that you can continually get better at. You can do it formally or informally, with coworkers, family, or friends. In the end, it is a journey in trying to figure out what influences people and how you can use that to make a lasting contribution to your company, your community, or your life.

The most important habit to create for storytelling is observation. When you tried an influence tactic in your story, what was the reaction? Did it work? If not, why not? If it did, could you have made it stronger? Continue to ask those questions and you will continue to improve.

16th Piece of Advice: When you want someone else to do something, start with a story. All communication is ultimately storytelling.

Want to learn more?

Here are a few resources you can check out if you want to explore this idea further:

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