Heard any good stories lately?
Come to think of it, what makes a story good? The art of telling any tale is to make it comprehensible and memorable. As a business owner or regular communicator, your messages must be both easy to understand (the comprehensible part) and easy for a listener to repeat — in his or her own mind and to others (that’s the memorable part). Think of viral stories, like the Nordstrom snow tires return — they’re relatable to the audience, employ several senses, maybe have a surprise in them — they’re “sticky” in the brain.
In parts one and two of this three-part series, we explored what makes stories stick and reviewed the first three steps of becoming a better storyteller. In this third and final post, I’ve got terrific tips for you on the part most people find toughest — developing a story and telling it well.
First, a quick recap of the three steps that get you ready to find and tell the right story. Your entire narrative — the themes you explore, the facts you share and the stories you tell — must be audience-focused and benefit-led. Step one, therefore, is to know your audience, step two is to develop themes that will connect with the audience’s emotions and needs and step three is to know what you want the audience to do with the information and stories you will share, developing your call to action.
Every Story Paints a Picture, Don’t It?
Effective stories let listeners paint pictures in their mind. They organize and crystallize facts, bring order to chaos, and make facts and figures relatable at a human level. One of my favorite stories about stories is of Princeton researcher Uri Hasson, who in 2010 recorded a graduate student telling a detailed and highly entertaining story filled with drama, twists and turns. She told the story while in an MRI, as the research team recorded her brainwaves. Playing the story back to other graduate students as they took their turns in the MRI showed that listeners’ brainwaves aligned with the storyteller’s, putting teller and listener literally on the same page as elements of sight, sound, smell and taste brought a story to life.
Even more compelling, listeners’ brainwaves sometimes not only aligned with the speaker’s — they got to the same point first, anticipating where the speaker would go and further cementing the bond. Well-told stories give you the power to drive your audience’s thinking.
Step Four — Find Your Story
Finding the right story to get your point across requires building in some sensory context. This is where you must put the audience’s perspective into action before you ask them to act.
Well-told stories give you the power to drive your audience’s thinking.
Can a story about athletic shoes and college athletes illuminate a speech about the need for fuel in deep space? It can for a space-industry exec who frequently gets asked to speak with non-scientific audiences. Can the personal story of one U.S. child with a cleft palate inspire hundreds to save lives through a charity with international scope? Yes, when told with humor and a brilliantly executed prop. Can the story of a college intern bringing peace to a potentially contentious battle of the bands illuminate a story about leadership coming from unexpected places? You bet it can, for the author on a book tour promoting her book on CEO perspectives.
Use a common narrative archetype like the Hero’s Journey or an Origin Story that you can lean on to make your point, but don’t be afraid to get creative. Take your audience on a new and unexpected adventure. Inspire them. Surprise them. Delight and move them.
Step Five — Develop Your Story
Layer what you know about storytelling on the context you’ve developed based on what you know about your audience. As you craft your story, ask how you want them to feel. Consider this from two angles: What are they likely feeling when they walk in to hear you deliver your presentation? And how do you want (or need) them to feel when they walk out after your final remarks? That is where having begun with the end in mind delivers its value to you.
Employ emotion and the senses to make your message unforgettable.
Should your audience be scared? Hopeful? Joyful? Fearful? Angry? Disgusted? The right story will put flesh and blood on the skeleton of your point of view. Adding sensory details enhances the flesh and blood with color and vigor — make your audience smell grandma’s soup wafting in their nostrils, hear the clang of machinery ringing in their ears, see the steam rising from the volcano, feel the cold of the shark-infested waters. These details are more than grace notes — they are the essence of the story, the cement that holds the bricks of your case together in the audience’s mind.
Step Six — Tell Your Story
Wrap it all up and tie it with a red thread. Use every resource available to you — your hands, body, face and voice to capture the feelings you want to elicit from your audience. This, in part, takes the heavy lifting (or cognitive load) off the audience’s shoulders for as long as you’re speaking and is the fuel behind the fire that drives them to answer your call to action. Build in creative elements that are appropriate for the context of your presentation and will also leave a lasting impression on your audience. Props, visual aids, graphics, videos — anything that might resonate with them on a human level — use these to drive home your key points and ultimately make the big ask.