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In the opening scene of the movie God Father, we instatnly recognize that Don Vito Corleone is a man to be reckoned with. Dressed in a tuxedo, he sits stoically in a darkened room behind a big desk, patiently listening to a nervous man pleading for his help. What if the movie opened with the Don saying, “Welcome to my office. I’m the most powerful leader of the five families. How can I use my vast criminal empire to crush your enemies today?”. That wouldn’t be particularly effective (or entertaining). Show, don’t tell.
A story is a character in pursuit of a goal in the face of some challenge or obstacle. How the character tries to resolve that challenge drives the narrative. Character, goal, and challenge are the 3 legs of the stool. Without these 3, you don’t have a story. Even with these elements, your story may come up short, failing to grip the audience in the way you intend because of these issues.
- Is the character real and relatable? Bring your stories down to the human level. If a problem exists it must surely affect actual people.
- Is there sufficient conflict and are the stakes high enough? Conflict arises from the tension between the character’s goal and the challenge facing her. Character wants something but something else gets in the way. We need to hear more about the client’s struggles — how they tried different approaches but were thwarted. If your story doesn’t have strong conflict, it’s not a story. Keep digging.
- Is there clear cause and effect? Causality is more meaningful to us than mere coincidence. A sure sign of a weak story is when you find yourself saying “and then” over and over again. “this happened, so that happened,” or “this happened, but that happened.”
- Is there an emotional core? Your story must provoke an emotional response that your audience can relate to — the joy of victory, the frustration over long waiting times.
In the beginning, you set the scene and introduce the character. It’s the “normal” state. Next, something happens that upsets the balance. That’s the inciting incident (or challenge) that sets the story in motion. The middle is where the character works to overcome the challenge, trying to restore balance to the world. The end is where things come to a resolution.
It was another Saturday night for Sheila, a budding entrepreneur with her own growing fashion line. She was enjoying catching up with friends over dinner. (Beginning). Suddenly an alert popped up on her phone. It was a message from her biggest customer: THE SHIPMENT NEVER ARRIVED! (Challenge).
She rushed back to the office, searching through tracking numbers and desperately trying to get in touch with someone at the shipping company. Then she discovered the problem: beneath a pile of inventory was the box containing the customer’s order — packed, labeled and ready to go. She forgot to send it! (The middle and goal).
She checked the clock: 11pm — too late to ship the package. Her customer needed it for his 10am store opening. She grabbed the box, ran downstairs, and hailed a cab to the airport. She got a ticket on the redeye to New York and was able to personally deliver the order to her relieved customer just before his store opened. (The end and resolution). Not all stories have happy endings. Sometime the resolution is not about getting what you want, but what you need.
Creating a story involves these steps:
- Determine your audience and find out as much as you can about them. Customers, employees, suppliers, members, volunteers, donors, the public, shareholders, competitors, an adversary, your leadership … Who are they? Do your research. Think hard about who they really are. What are their needs, interests, and emotional hot buttons? What do they know? A story we tell a customer may require more background or setup than one we tell a close friend. This can be a serious challenge for people who are steeped in deep technical knowledge. It’s easy to forget that outsiders don’t speak the language you take for granted. What is their mood, mindset, and culture? You don’t want to tell a funny story about getting fired to a group that’s just gone through a round of layoffs. What’s the mood? Are people agitated? Impatient? Frustrated? Adjust the tone and content of your story or ditch it entirely if you sense a “bad vibe”.
- Figure out what you want them to do — say buy your product,… That’s the goal. What do they want? It’s not enough for you to understand what your own goal; you have to understand what your audience wants. If your story doesn’t address their needs and interests, it’s not going to resonate with them. What do you have in common? Find a bridge between your goal and their needs and desires. What is it that brings you together? You and your audience may share a love of children or wine or football. A story on one of those subjects can break the ice and create affinity. Starting with the goal is the best and most strategic way to begin creating a story.
- Think through the challenges that may get in the way of that goal. What are their doubts, fears, and misperceptions? May be your audience thinks you are inexperienced. A story is an effective tool for acknowledging the elephant in the room. It shows humility and self-awareness, disarms skeptics, and can be a starting point for a relationship. Discover the challenges. The challenges are discovered along the way as you do your research with your story’s characters. We interviewed lots of employees about how they go about ensuring quality (our goal). Through that process, we uncovered challenges — boredom, technolgy, supply issues, shift changes, etc. We also discovered a number of resolutions — how they solved those problems – which shows that this is not a linear process.
- Find a character who has overcome that challenge — by appealnig to value over price, working around technology… Your character is the heart of the story. The most important element. It’s what we really care about: people, not processes. Estela’s story is not about candy manufacturing; it’s about a mom looking out for the well-being of her children and customers. Your number one job as a storyteller is to find a character your audience can relate to. Employees will relate to fellow employees, customers to other customers, etc.
- Make sure there’s a resolution to your story. Think of your story as a holloween blockbuster. In the end, the enemy is vanquished, the boy gets the girl, justice is served. they give audiences what they want — a satisfactory conclusion. Make sure story resolves. Character achieves the goal. Alternatively, the character may discover that the initial goal wasn’t that important after all, leading to a new direction. Sometimes the character is thwarted in pursuit of the goal but learns a valuable lesson. If your story doesn’t resolve, look for a different story.
Emotion Fuels Stories. It was a food bank worker who said she could relate to the struggles of the people she serves because she herself started out as a client of that food bank. She relied on its services to help feed her own family and get back on her feet. I was so moved that i cam home and immediately made a donation. That is the power of emotion. Facts don’t influence action the way an emotional appeal does. We are creatures of emotion. We are driven by feelings of fear or vanity or security. People buy on emotion and justify with logic — facts and data are used to shore up and defend what we’ve already decided in our hearts. If you want your audience to do something, make them feel someting. Best way to do that is to exhibit some emotion yourself, to play to people’s natural sense of empathy. Whey you’re formulating stories, make sure there’s an emotional component that will help you break down walls and create common ground with your audience. Here are few wasy to do that.
- Focus on the “WHY“
- Tap into loyalty. A factory worker talked about how his co-workers depend on him to keep things running smoothly. This is the why — he didn’t want to let them down. Bonds that connect employees to each other, or employees to customers and the community, run deep and can be a rich source of emotional connection.
- Appeal to pride. A shared history or heritage, a sense of community, a commitment to quality, an affinity to brand ..
- Celebrate your heroes. Who do you admire and why? Draw lessons from their struggles and achievements.
- Get personal. What are your passions outside of work? Tennis? Meditation? What is it about these pursuits that brings you joy or satisfaction? Are there lessons to draw that relate to the topic at hand? Share stories about your childhood or the people you’re closest to. What did you want to be when you were growing up? When in doubt, you can’t go wrong talking about the things and people you love.
- Don’t let modesty stop you. The thing is, they do want to hear that stuff. People crave a genuine connection with their leaders. Open up.
- Don’t let Fear stop you. It’s about the open expression of genuine feelings. No body wants to witness a breakdown. Remember, it’s not about you; it’s about them. From employees who need to be inspired, to customers who demand empathy, to community members who want to know you share their values, audiences expect these moments of emotional honesty. Opening up and revealing your humanilty is a duty of leadership.
Goal: Humanize yourself. The new CEO of a faltering truck maker was trying to drive a business turnaround. The first meeting with workers was a disaster. It wasn’t much of a match, since the employee was doing all the yelling, calling the CEO a liar and a fool. When the next group filed in and settled down, the CEO paused for a moment, then opened up. He shared a personal story about his early days with the company as a young engineer just out of school. He discussed some of the technical hurdles he faced helping design truck engines. He spoke of his love for the company’s products, his pride in its heritage, and his hope and dreams for its future. Then he proceeded to deliver the presentation as planned. This was the first step in thawing the relationship between management and workers, and it ultimately led to that turnaround he promised — improved financial performance, increased competitiveness, and higher levels of employee confidence and satisfaction. It all started with a CEO who put aside the playbook for a moment, spoke from the heart, and shared his story. Stories provide the rational for policy — the why behind the what. Establish trust and credibility with a customer. B2B storytelling is no different from B2C. You need a character, conflict, resolution, and emotion.
HOW TO FOCUS YOUR STORY: Character, conflict, stakes — these are all essential elements of any story. But just as important as what goes in to a story, is what you leave out. A perfectly good story can be absolutely ruined when it’s weighed down with a lot of excess baggage. It requires us to stand outside of ourselves and look at things from audience’s perspective. Which details will elevate the story and which will distract from it? Which elements should be amplified and which muted? What’s the best way to order the events? This is key to discovering and communicating the larger truth of our stories and giving them real impact. Here are seven ways to declutter your stories.
- Start with a Goal. Stories should support and reinforce the message that you’re communicating. They should have a point. From there, every single word and action must support that premise. It has to drive the narrative forward. “Funny for the sake of funny” is not good enough. Joke has to address the premise. Every story we tell must have a goal. Every single detail must support the goal. “interesting for the sake of interesting” is not good enough. Your purpose is not simply to amuse, but to change beliefs and behavior. Make the goal your filter and question every detail of your story and cut it out if is not mission-critical and keep the narrative forward.
- Elimiate the Bit Players. Focus on one main character. She is the star. Definitely eliminate all the background players and extras. That will make it much easier for your audience to follow.
- Avoid Tangents: Storytelling is like a tree. You want to move in a straightline, from the base of the trunk to the top. When we’re unprepared, we wander. When we’re tired, we lose focus. A speaker gets a laugh or two and it’s like a drug. The next thing you know, a tight 20-minute talk has become a meandering 40-minute odyssey.
- Stick to Clear Turning Points. We don’t need all details. your story does not need to document every turning point. Pick one, and make that your focus.
- Details, Details: Separating the Good from the Bad.
- Use (Brief) Details to Set the Scene. “It was Southern California in the late 70s” is important. Day of the week, the weather and the exact street corner is less helpful.
- Offer Sensory Details to Bring a Story to Life. The familiar smell drifted from the break-room microwave all the way down the hall to Frank’s cubicle. Beth’s making popcorn. Again. The presentation was not going well. I felt a cold bead of sweat trickle down my back. Think about a particular sight, sound, smell, taste, or feel that might click with the listener or reader.
- Simplify Dates. Just call it “the 2005 deal.” And the farther back in time you go, the less precise you need to be. Yes, approximations are okay in storytellinig!
- Make Numbers More Meaningful. “several hundred” works better than “278”. “half” beats “53%”. “one out of five Americans” is easier to grasp than “63 million people”.
- Omit Proper Nouns. Start with names. Minor characters in your story don’t need to be named. Call them “the bank manager” or “the CEO”. When it’s your third cousin from your mother’s side, calling him your “cousin” will do. “Name the known and omit the obscure.” “a small venture capital firm” Say he is in sales. Long titles don’t matter.
- Cut the Exposition, Jump right into action. “I stood there, petrified, as the CEO chewed me out in front of the whole group.” Once you’ve got their attention, you can jump back in time to get them up to speed. Think of it as a James Bond film, which starts with a chase or a punch in the face. Whatever you do, don’t begin with, “This is a story about ..” Just start telling the story.
- It’s OK to Lie (Sort of). “Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story.” This doesn’t mean you should lie. It means simplifying things for the sake of the audience experience. Essential “lies” are necessary for effective storytelling. If you say you haven’t skied in 10 years instead of 9 years. It’s fine. Ask yourself whether someone who was there to witness the events would recognize your version as fair and truthful.
- Be Ruthless in Refining Your Stories. I would much rather err toward skimping on the details than risk boring my audience.
Preserve the integrity of your stories. Put the story first … And Self-interest last.
Deloitte Crisis management Ad: a day like any other: “A man wakes to his alarm clock and thinks through his priorities for the day — meetings, phone calls, the usual. Over breakfast with his family, all the phones start ringing at once. He turns on the TV to find that he and his company are the subjects of an overseas bribery investigation. He soon realizes that today is not just another day — his wife ushers their concerned children from the room, he’s mobbed on the street by reporters, the company stock plunges. His world spins out of control.” Narrower is better. Do you have to understand the intricacies of the military justice system to comprehend A Few Good Men? All those details are simply the backdrop to timeless stories featuring relatable characters dealing with universal struggles — like the quest for adventure, the desire for recognition, or the search for truth. Details are transcended by the universal truths conveyed.
Trust your audience by “playing to the top of your intelligence.” What that means is, you don’t go for the dumb joke or the obvious choice. You play smart and trust that your audience will understand. In Deloitte’s case, they trust that any client — or client worth having — will get it.
Your Mission: Defend the Integrity of Your Story. Before you can share it you’ll probably need to run the story by other people to get it approved. And that is where great stories go to die. Your job is to defend your story from these outside forces and preserve its basic integrity.
- Prioritize what’s important. Take a stand on the big issues like character, conflict, stakes and emotion.
- Let go of the little things.
- Have a conversation. Seek explanation for the changes people want to make. Be open to the idea that their reasoning may actually have some validity.
- Cite evidence on the power of story and emotion and their effect on the brain.
- Keep it positive. Steer the conversation into positive territory.
How and Where to find great stories? you have to be a lifelong collector of stories, so when you really need one, it’s right there for you, ready to be shared.
- Use Your Goals and Priorities as a Filter. What’s your filter? It’s the handful of things that constitute your focus. Goals, strategies, priorities, value proposition, brand, selling points, key messages, core strengths.
- Keep Your Antennae Up.
- Read and Explore
- Interview Others. Your employees, customers, members, .. are a rich source of stories.
- Draw on Your Personal Experience.
- Find a system for storing your stories.
The lesson for storytellers is to fact-check your stories. Run your account by others who were there. Write them down someplace so you’ll have a record. I typically err toward minimizing my role, talking in terms of “we” or “the team”.
How to tell your company’s origin story. The origin story requires all the basic elements, character, goal, challenge, resolution, conflict, stakes, and emotional investment. The solution lies in first about what the audience wants — they’re less interested in you than in what you can do for them. Then you want to establish a theme for the story that’s tied to the organization’s goals or brand promise. It can serve as the filter for eliminating clutter.
How To Use Stories in a Presentation? Begin with story, end with story, and include stories throughout. Give them a reason to care by opening with a story that appeals directly to their interests. You can craft a story about a problem that affects them. Make sure there’s an emotional component, clear conflict, high stakes, and all other things we’ve talked about. Your story should be relevant to the content. It should reinforce your message. Intersperse stories throughout (but not too many). Story overload presents several problems: Stories need room to breathe. They should act as a palate cleanser for the audience — a way to bring your points to life in an engaging fashion. In a 40-minute presentation, five 2-3 minute stories are just right. You should start with story, you should end with story. It should be “on message.” Make your closing story an extension of your opening story. Add a postscript, reveal a surprising twist, or tell it from another character’s point of view.
Tips on Delivering Your Story: Practice, practice and practice. Stay connected. It’s what great stage actors do. Night after night they perform the same show but they manage to keep it fresh and exciting for the audience, by stayihng in the moment. Instead of simply reciting lines, they live the words and feel the ideas like it’s their very first time expressing them. Be sure to stay present. Bring the energy.
Use your body to create a stage picture. For maximum effect, get your whole body involved in telling your story: face, arms, legs – everything.
- Use your face. You should be feeling things in the moment, and that should be reflected in your face.
- Use your hands. If you’re talking about your first coffee of the day, “hold” the cup in your hand. Make us see it. If you’ve got 3 points, count them off with your fingers.
- Mark the passage of time. If you’re taking us from past to present to future, stand at different parts of the stage to represent those phases. As you go forward in time, move from your right to your left.
Bringing it All Together. Content and delivery go hand-in-hand. Neither should be neglected. Just be you, do your best, and make sure you believe what you’re saying.
Discover the Implicit Narrative of Your Career. Start by Examining your career hightlights. As a starting point, make a list of the major successes and challenges of your career and life (“war stories”).
Years ago, Ricky Gervais had a crazy idea for a new workplace comedy. It would be a mash-up of the traditional sitcom and reality TV, complete with shaky hand-held camerawork and characters breaking the “fourth wall” to talk directly to viewers.
At its center was the squirm-inducing David Brent, an insufferable jerk hardly cut from the cloth of likable workplace characters such as Mary Tyler Moore or Liz Lemon.
But Gervais pitched his idea to the BBC, it got the green light, and “The Office” went on to become one of the most successful shows in television history.
How did it happen?
According to a BBC executive who was there that day, it wasn’t so much what Gervais said in the meeting, but how he said it. He was so committed, so enthusiastic — he believed so much in the idea — that the executives couldn’t help believe in it, too.
Structure It Tightly. First, the story follows a simple structure. Our character is Ricky Gervais, his goal is to get his show produced, and the challenge or obstacle he faces is that it’s a radical concept for an industry that usually goes with the safe bet. He resolves this challenge by bowling the executives over with his passion and belief in the project. Do make sure there’s a clear conflict, stakes and a character that people can relate to.
Focus on the Essentials. There’s a lot more detail I could have added to this story. For instance, Gervais was accompanied on that pitch by his creative partner Stephen Merchant. I also omitted minor details like the date and year of the pitch meeting and the name and title of the BBC executive. Finally I paraphrased the producer’s words. Storytelling is about condensing and interpreting events in order to better ensure audience understanding.
Tailor your story for audience and goal. Stories should always be fine-tuned to the audience and consistent with our goals. Alwasy be looking for stories.
Be original. Bring the passion. Finally, the Gervais story is about passion, and passion sells.
Stand Up, Stand Out. That is the true power of storytelling. Our stories help define who we are and what we stand for. They set us apart in a noisy, competitive world. And they help ensure we’re remembered. Three simple elements — character, goal, challenge — are all you need to get started.
Most of all, don’t hold back. Don’t let fear override your desire to share. Be open and generous and allow your individuality to shine through.