Human beings have shared knowledge and learning for centuries simply by telling stories. In fact we are hardwired to learn through story. It is one of our most crucial communication and influencing tools. Scientists have proven numerous times that a good story well told:
- Provides superior memory and recall
- Provides improved understanding
- Creates context and relevance
- Creates feelings of empathy (and people are inspired to take action, e.g. support your idea, project or cause when they feel something)
This means that your ability to tell a good story could be the difference between your idea staying on the drawing board and making it to the marketplace, or your manager choosing to champion your new project or not, or a funder making the decision to back your idea or project rather than play it safe with their current investments.
So why, when storytelling is in our DNA, do so many of us revert to spreadsheets filled with number data, bulleted lists in PowerPoint and other rational tools, that whilst are important (for example, you must have a project or idea with a clear purpose, a budget that stacks up and a workable timeframe), do not inspire people to get on board with our ideas.
Has anybody ever backed a project or made a donation because someone showed them a good pie chart?
Whatever you do, at some point in your career you will need to inspire and influence people. So skillful storytelling is an important part of any role.
Stories can be very complex, and here are eight basic elements to help you structure and fine-tune your storytelling skills;
- Why: what is the goal for the main character? What are they seeking? (not what they do) A clear goal is really important. The end of the story is when the goal is reached. (or not – in a tragic story)
- A motive: which explains why the goal is important. A motive also creates suspense that helps the listeners identify with the character.
- Who: stories need characters, people that we can understand and identify with.
- A conflict: something that blocks the character from reaching their goal.
- Risk and danger: involved in resolving the conflict in order to achieve the goal.
- Struggle: when we know what people are up against our emotions are engaged.
- Some detail: (but not too much) just enough so we can relate to and create a picture in our minds of the characters and the situation.
- The listeners role in reaching the goal: e.g. if they support your cause they can help the person in the story, if they back your project what difference will it make to them, and the characters in the story.
In summary; Interesting characters have a goal that is important to them and relevant to you (the listener) blocked by some combination of problems and conflicts that the character has to struggle around or past or through facing risk and danger, and with the listeners help, achieve their goal.
If you don’t include the points above then your listener does one of two things.
- Make up their own version to fill in any gaps, which may involve assumptions, distortion of the information and misunderstandings.
- Cannot make enough sense of the information so just disengages. They just ignore you.
With 100,000s of years of practice we are already masters at telling stories. And in a massively competitive environment, where to be successful we must inspire and influence our colleagues, managers, customers and partners, the better our storytelling skills are, the more chance we have of making our important messages stick.