The evolution of storytelling
We live in a world of stories! From the stories that lulled us to sleep as a child to the heroic tale of the underdog that we read in our newspaper, we are reassured and inspired in equal measure.
Not only do stories help us make sense of the world, they can elevate our thoughts and make us believe (even if it is only for a moment) that anything is possible, so it is no surprise that we all love stories!
When I ask what makes a good story? The typical response is that the content has to be interesting, exciting or amusing. This couldn’t be further from the truth. A compelling story has little to do with the content and everything to do with the structure. I will tell you more about this later, but first I want to tell you WHY it works.
For about 50,000 years Man has been imparting information and forming memories by storytelling. Our brains have developed alongside this skill so it is no surprise that we are hard-wired to interpret the world around us in this way. Information given to us in the form of a story gets our synapses firing like the lights on a pinball machine!
Stories evoke a strong neurological response; our brains release stress hormones during moments of suspense, and Oxytocin and Dopamine are released during the resolution of the tale. This gives us a feeling of relaxation, wellbeing and cooperation.
The structure of successful stories
All stories, whatever the content, follow the same simple structure and this is it:
- You start by setting the scene (Once upon a time there was……)
- You then have a problem (… she couldn’t escape from the tower…)
- Then there is rising tension as the problem can’t be solved (…but try as he may, the prince couldn’t…)
- Then you have the climax or tipping point (…they realised that they would never be together…)
- Then there is the resolution (…the maiden lowered her hair out of the window so that the Prince could climb up)
- And finally you have a new status quo (… and they lived happily ever after)
Constructing your own business stories
Unfortunately however, unless your business is very niche, you are unlikely to get ahead by telling fairy stories!
The key is to use the above structure to present your business story in a compelling fashion that touches your audience and encourages your clients to take action. But before I tell you how to compose a compelling story for your business, a word of warning: your story must be authentic and based on truth and reality. Above all it must not just be a sales pitch.
A good starting point is to consider the ‘why’ of your business. In fact, while you are at it, go the whole hog and consider Rudyard Kipling’s piece of wisdom “I keep six honest serving-men (They taught me all I knew): Their names are What and Why and When and How and Where and Who.”
Nearly every business solves a problem and the above questions will help you realise clearly what problem or problems you are solving. This is not as obvious as you think, for instance in my firm’s role as Chartered Wealth Managers and Financial planners, the problems we solve are:
The resolutions are:
- peace of mind
Now, for your own business, think of a client who you are most proud of helping – it is their story you need to tell.
Always construct the end of the story FIRST – it’s easier to start a journey if you know the destination. Paint a picture of how the client felt after you had helped them (the ‘…and they all lived happily ever after’ line).
- Now go back to the beginning of the story and set the scene
- Explain how you helped them realise that they had a problem
- Describe how this problem was affecting them
- Outline what the long-term consequences of inaction would have been
- Explain the resolution – how you can help them with the solution
- Explain how wonderful the client felt at the end of the journey and how much better the new Status Quo
There are some important points to remember to make your story really effective
- Make the client (or someone like them) the hero of the story
- If the story is about another client, make sure the person you are telling will think “they are just like me”
- Never make yourself the hero – it is their story, you are just the guide
- You must include a pivot point, a moment of tension, without this you will not have a story
Case studies – another name for stories
Many of us in business realise that case studies are an excellent way to explain our services – they are stories! I urge you to take a look at your website and rewrite your case studies to reflect the above lessons.
Thinking in stories
Storytelling is a highly effective means of communicating with others. But it goes further than that because we, ourselves, also think in stories.
If you want to solve a problem, construct a narrative around it – turn it into a story. Most problems involve other people so I challenge you to make them the hero of the story and make yourself the guide. Use the same method of construction as above and think of a happy ending first.
By doing this you are automatically looking at the situation from the other person’s point of view and trying to think how you can solve their problem. This can be a really refreshing and enlightening process.
Once you start thinking in stories the uses can be quite surprising and fun. If you’ve had a bad day, structure it into a story and at least you will realise what made it so and where it all went wrong. If you have a good day, do the same. After a bit of practice, you will be able to do this in a couple of minutes – as you wait for the train or to cross the road. You will be amazed at the lessons you learn.
The power of stories
Storytelling may seem like an old-fashioned tool – and it is. That’s exactly what makes it so powerful. A story can go where logic, numbers and analysis cannot: our hearts.
Data can persuade people but it cannot call them to action. Nothing can fire the imagination or awaken the soul like a story. Not all stories have to follow the exact structure that I have outlined, but they all need tension and a resolution. No one knew this better than trial lawyer, Moe Levine.
Acting for a client who had lost both arms in an accident, Mr. Levine dispensed with a long closing argument or logic and numbers. Instead he told the shortest of stories that led to one of the largest awards in the history of the State of New York. This is what he said:
“As you know, about an hour ago we broke for lunch. I saw the bailiff come and take you all, as a group, to have lunch in the jury room. Then I saw the defence attorney, Mr. Horowitz. He and his client decided to go to lunch together. The judge and court clerk went to lunch.
“So, I turned to my client, Harold, and said “Why don’t you and I go to lunch together?” We went across the street to that little restaurant and had lunch.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I just had lunch with my client………. He has no arms……. He has to eat like a dog.
“Thank you very much.”
About the Author:
Christopher Hirsch is from Toastmasters International, a non-profit educational organisation that teaches public speaking and leadership skills through a worldwide network of meeting locations. Headquartered in Rancho Santa Margarita, California, the organisation’s membership exceeds 345,000 in more than 15,900 clubs in 142 countries. Since 1924, Toastmasters International has helped people of all backgrounds become more confident in front of an audience. There are more than 300 clubs in the UK and Ireland with over 7,500 members. To find your local club: www.toastmasters.org Follow @Toastmasters on Twitter @ToastmastersUKI.