Storytelling Secrets — From REAL Storytellers
You’re at a conference. A “thought leader” at the front of the room is telling you how important stories are and how you need to tell stories in your own presentations. Narrative, the speaker says, is more persuasive than dry statistics. (The speaker’s slides, of course, use dry statistics to prove the point.)
The presentation ends, everyone applauds politely and the Q&A begins. But nobody asks the question you want answered.
“Why,” you’re too polite to ask, “didn’t you tell any stories yourself?”
Maybe it’s because telling stories isn’t as easy as it seems — at least in a business setting.
Almost anybody can tell their friends a story over lunch, in part because we’re not self-conscious about it. No one worries about crafting a “narrative” when they are telling what crazy thing happened on the way to work.
It’s sort of like the character in the Moliere play who discovered to his amazement that he had been “speaking prose his whole life” and never knew it. It’s easy to forget, when you are trying to “tell a story,” that you’ve been doing it your whole life.
The Power of Narrative
We all know narrative is powerful, and can be made even more compelling when blended with visuals. Examples can be found in the Public Affairs Trend Lab, an online portal that highlights the power of storytelling in public affairs — through video, photography, infographics and the like.
Making stories memorable – through narrative, visuals or a blend – is a communication strategy that can take time to master. “People now intellectually understand the power of narrative,” says Sue Zoldak, founder of the Zoldak Agency and a speaker at the Council’s 2016 National Grassroots Conference. But public affairs practitioners sometimes have trouble telling stories — in part because they don’t know how to make them memorable.
“Too often they sacrifice the story in the interest of making their organization look good,” Zoldak says. “This can be counterproductive. It is usually better to find a story about someone whose personal experience demonstrates the good work the organization does.”
Like many communications consultants, Zoldak recommends using “story arcs,” and other structural devices that can be observed in almost any popular movie or novel. Master these devices, we’re told, and you can tell a story in three minutes. They’re not just applicable to 90-minute movies or 600-page novels.
Zoldak makes the point that every good story has a hero with a problem to solve or a challenge to meet. Professional storytellers — working novelists and screenwriters, for example — understand this eternal truth and base their stories on it.
“These plotting devices are important,” says Patrick Prentice, an Oscar-nominated screenwriter, former producer, director and writer in National Geographic’s film division, and former adjunct professor of screenwriting at American University. “But there are more important questions to settle before you tackle a complicated story structure.”
Prentice says all storytellers can benefit from remembering how stories began when they were children. “To figure out how to tell a story, they should begin by saying, ‘Once upon a time, there was a – – –,’ and fill in the blank. Once they can fill in the blank, they can figure out the rest. It shouldn’t be that difficult.”
Personalize the Story
And then there really has to be a hero. That way you can personalize a story — even if it isn’t a person who becomes the hero. “At National Geographic, if we were making a documentary about a lion, the first thing we had to do was give that lion a name,” Prentice says.
“As a journalist, I learned one of the most effective means of engaging your audience is personalization,” says Tyler Suiters, a former TV reporter, now vice president of communications for the Consumer Technology Association and a speaker at the Council’s “Storytelling for Advocacy” workshop this past September.
“A story about immigration starts and ends with one person or family looking for a better life in the United States,” Suiters says. “An education story may involve policies concerning tens of millions of students, but build it around a single student’s challenges and successes.”
Patricia McCormick, whose young adult novel Sold has been made into a feature film in theaters now, agrees that the importance of personalizing a larger issue. Sold, for example, is about a young Nepalese girl forced to work in a brothel. McCormick’s novel My Brother’s Keeper is about a teenage boy whose brother becomes addicted to drugs.
Almost anybody can tell their friends a story over lunch, because we’re not self-conscious about it. No one worries about crafting a “narrative” when they are telling what crazy thing happened on the way to work.
An experienced speaker as well as an author, McCormick understands the challenges of good beginnings both in writing and speaking. “Engagement is important in telling any story,” she says. “Everyone knows that the speaker might be nervous. But the audience can be nervous, too. They wonder if the speaker is going to succeed or not, so I like to help them relax. I don’t recommend telling jokes, but if the introduction is really flowery and flattering, I’ll say something like, ‘And thank you for that kind introduction which was obviously written by my mother.’ They respond, and that helps establish a bond.”
The Challenge of Endings
Endings also present challenges. “The ending of a talk should be like the ending of a short story, a novel or a movie,” McCormick says. “There’s a sense the end is near, and there should be a kind of suspense or excitement as the payoff approaches. But you can end a talk by telling the audience that you’re about to wrap it up. One way to do that is just say, ‘In a couple of minutes, I’m going to ask what you make of all this,’ and then move toward the conclusion. That approach gets them thinking of questions, so there’s less likelihood of that awkward moment of silence that can follow when you end more abruptly.”
Again, the trick is establishing that relationship of the story and the storyteller to its audience.
David L. Robbins is the author of popular World War II novels, including War of the Rats and Broken Jewel. “The only bridge between a story and its intended audience, whether in a book or a movie or a talk, is their shared humanity,” Robbins says. “I have no empathy for a car chase or a gunfight or a jet plane stalling in midair or a vampire biting a neck. I do, however, have an immediate attachment to the human awareness of these circumstances, such as fear, betrayal, love, sadness or any other human emotion.”
“Put a face on your story — personalize a character — to get your audience invested,” Suiter says. “Identify the tension or conflict involved to keep your audience interested.” In an advocacy effort, conclude with “a call for your audience to act.”
Always root every story — even the most mundane moments — in the awareness of a character, Robbins says. “That’s the only really effective way to anchor your audience in the story.”
There’s one story structure Prentice believes is essential. “A story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end,” he says. “People make storytelling more difficult than it is or needs to be.”
Here’s one final bit of advice, from the 1987 classic movie, Planes, Trains & Automobiles.
“You know everything is not an anecdote,” Steve Martin tells his boring traveling companion, played by John Candy. “You have to discriminate. You choose things that are funny or mildly amusing or interesting …. And by the way, you know, when you’re telling these little stories? Here’s a good idea — have a POINT. It makes it SO much more interesting for the listener!”