From primitive cave-paintings, etched long before words were first recorded, to modern-day classics such as Harry Potter, the power of stories has been used to move people.
Stories we heard as a child – whether it is Aesop’s Fable of the Hare and the Tortoise, or fairy tales such as Cinderella – can create created ever-lasting memories, so the power of a good story should not be under-estimated.
And when it comes to business, there are lots of ways we can use stories to really get our message across. Whether it’s to our colleagues in a team meeting, an audience at a speech, prospective customers at a trade show, or potential investors at a pitch, you can use the skills of a great story-teller to win people over.
But how exactly can we do this? We asked Christopher Hirsch of Toastmasters International, to tell us his story.
The quest for memorable communication
During a career spanning over 30 years I must have attended hundreds of seminars presentations and talks, most of which had no lasting impact whatsoever. However there were a few, a very few that have stuck in my mind. The quantity of facts, figures and statistics that have been wasted on me is truly terrifying.
I had an awful thought, perhaps my talks were no different! Perhaps all that I was saying to colleagues, clients and peers was also going in one ear, out the other and straight into the bin!
I resolved there and then to go on a quest, a quest to discover the secret to effective and memorable communication. I analysed the talks that worked and those that left me cold. I considered what made great speeches, great and I wondered what made the majority of talks tedious.
Very quickly I discovered the answer. An answer that is so simple, so obvious and so practical that it is a wonder that we even need to be told.
Stories can bridge the information gap
That answer is storytelling. Storytelling is quite simply the key to bridging the communications gap between you and your audience – whoever you or they may be.
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 are drawn to them.
If 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.
We are hard-wired to engage with stories
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 evokes a strong neurological response. Truly successful narrative lures us into thinking that we are not just listening but living the story. If we are living the story we are actively engaged and if we are engaged, the message will stick in our minds for years to come.
Memorable stories follow the same simple structure
Earlier in this piece I stated that all memorable stories, whatever the content, follow the same simple structure. It is the structure that we all know from fables and fairy tales:
- You start by setting the scene (Once upon a time there was…)
- You then have a problem (…she couldn’t escape from the tower…)
- Tension increase when as the problem can’t be dealt with (…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)
Unfortunately, unless your business is very niche, you are not likely to get ahead by telling fairy tales.
It doesn’t matter if you need to deliver a lecture, write a case study or prepare a proposal for a prospective client, the key is to use the above structure to present a compelling story that touches your audience and encourages your clients to take action.
Composing a compelling story for your business
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. Ignore these rules and you will just end up with another sales pitch.
A good starting point is to consider the ‘why’ of your business. Nearly every successful business solves a problem or fulfils an emotional need.
Satisfying stories have heroes and characters with unfulfilled emotional dreams. As a storyteller it is your role to explain how your product or service can turn your clients’ dreams into reality.
Talk in terms of what your client wants and describe the benefits your product provides. But, as you describe the benefits, make sure you’re talking benefits the prospect actually wants.
For example, if you wanted a young man to buy his first suit, don’t mention the cut or the fabric, describe the confidence that wearing it will instil – how it will land that dream job and how he will feel when it happens!
So, think of a client who you are most proud of helping – it is their story you need to tell.
Start with the end of the story
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 the long-term consequences of inaction would have been, explain the resolution – how you can help them with the solution and finally describe the warm glow the client felt at the end of the journey.
To make your story even more effective, make the client (or someone or someone to whom thy can relate) the hero of the story. It is really important that the client thinks “this character is just like me”.
This brings me on to another point, there is usually only room for one hero in any story which means that it has to be the client, not you. You are the guide, the wise sage, the helper, the facilitator but never the hero.
I have stressed throughout that the structure of a story is key and I want to remind you that there must be a point of tension. Without this pivot point you will not have a story.
Stories can reach our hearts
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 throughout this piece I have detailed how effective storytelling is as a means of communicating with others. But it goes further that 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 an eye-opener and help you be more creative!
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 ever have good days, 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 of to cross the road. You will be amazed at the lessons you learn.
In conclusion, the act of listening seems simple enough: the ears register the sounds produced and the brain interprets them.
In the real world, however, the situation is usually far more complicated. The world is full of distractions, both external and internal. Moreover, everybody’s brain is different—in how it works and in the information and experiences it has collected.
Thus, what you think you are saying may mean something quite different to someone else. It follows that any technique that improves understanding between the people will make your endeavours more successful.
Structuring your message in the form of a story will remove some of these ambiguities and will maximise the chance that your message will not only be heard, but remembered. I urge you to try it, just like in a fairy tale, you have no idea how far or where the journey will take you.
About the author
This guide has been written exclusively for ByteStart by Christopher Hirsch of Toastmasters International, a non-profit educational organisation that teaches public speaking and leadership skills. There are more than 300 clubs in the UK and Ireland with over 7,500 members. Find your local club at Toastmasters.org
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