The power of story

Stories, stories, stories

It’s almost a becoming a cliché that people need to tell stories at work. In the last five or so years it seems that everyone is asking for storytelling training in the hope that, somehow, it will make everything more interesting and no one need experience death by PowerPoint ever again. But what do we mean by storytelling and are people even asking for the same thing when they use that term?

What is a story (for)?

For millennia we’ve shared our experience of being in the world through stories. Stories help us make sense of what happens to us, share knowledge and experience with others, strengthen relationships and build communities. Stories are how we understand the world around us, contextualise that experience, learn from it and pass that learning on to others.

When we look at stories like this, it’s no surprise we want to bring them into our professional lives. In fact, it seems obvious given that we grow up telling, and being told, stories.

The role of stories in business

If stories are so integral to the human experience, and if work is simply a modern manifestation of that, it should be easy to bring stories into our work lives. If we can make sense of the world outside work through story, then we should easily be able to make sense of the world inside work, right? Well, experience shows me that’s not really the case. In fact, we have a much harder time finding the right place for stories in our work lives.

The challenge lies in what the crucial components for stories are.

Putting stories together

A quick search online can offer you all sorts of story structures, some good, some bad. The simplest, and one we all know is, beginning, middle and end. And yet, well told stories don’t have to begin at the start, many begin at the end, or even somewhere in the middle. So structure is crucial. This seems obvious and most people I think wouldn’t struggle with being able to fit their information into a structure with some thought. But it gets harder as we look at what else stories need.

Stories need a protagonist. This will often be a central character but, in business particularly, it doesn’t necessarily need to be a person. It could be a product or even an idea. The protagonist can be the hero or an antihero.

Stories also need conflict. This doesn’t have to be a dispute, just opposing forces that raise the stakes. High stakes mean an audience will care.

Stories also need a choice to be made at some point. This dilemma feeds into the high stakes and draws us further into the plot (plot is another way of thinking about structure).

The choice must lead to an outcome, or consequence. And the consequence leads to change. This is the journey that the story takes us on. We end up in a different place (even if things ultimately stay the same) when the story finishes.

Bringing it to life

These are the ultimate components of a story but in and of themselves they may not bring a business message to life. For that to really happen you have to find a way to put either yourself or your audience into the story. If you can do this, the you can connect to your audience on a very human level. And as stories are about understanding the human experience, this brings you closer to your audience and your audience closer to your story.

To do this, and do it well, is, of course, hard work. It requires thought, time, practice and rehearsal. Things busy people are poor of.

But this is where the problem with storytelling really kicks in. The current vogue for stories, I believe is built on the idea that stories can be a quick fix, a shortcut to landing your message well. While stories definitely can do this, the sheer breadth of story types and functions means that unfortunately, there isn’t a single formula that solves this challenge.

Story and teller

There is another issue here as well. People often think that the first part of the word, “storyteller” is more important that the latter part. In fact, when people come and ask me or my organisation for training in storytelling, what we find they often mean is help become a better teller of stories. This is actually easier to train people in than the crafting of a story. But practise is hard and the primacy of content over delivery in most people’s minds makes them think that if they can crack the story, the rest will fall into place. In reality, even the best content can’t be an effective substitute for a true and authentic connection with an audience. A badly crafted story well-told will leave a stronger impression that a well-crafted one told poorly.

So, when you next think about telling a story in a professional context, ask yourself: have I got all the components I need? But more importantly, can you challenge yourself to tell that story in a way that connects to your audience?

How to do this and become an excellent teller of stories, I’ll cover in my next post, next month.

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