Storytelling -- Beyond the Buzz

07/29/2015 01:22 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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Storytelling - it seems to be one of the hottest buzz words today. Everyone is saying that you must know how to be a good storyteller - but does anyone really know what that means?

For 12 years I've roamed the globe (over 30 countries) as a Corporate Storyteller helping people from large organizations all the way down to tiny startups turn blah data into compelling stories that are clear, exciting and most important - drive to action - Sales, Marketing, Fundraising, Partnering, and more.

People often are perplexed by the term "Story" - they think I'm asking them to just stand around telling anecdotes, insert a meaningless joke or to infantilize their serious materials making them look stupid or silly. On the contrary -

  • Stories are thousands of years old, they're the reason information has survived from generation.
  • Our brains can deal with a structured story - while they can't deal with mounds of data
  • Stories inspire, captivate and resonate - aren't those the things you want for your business life? (Personal life too!)
  • And the best thing - Stories are universal - we find storytelling in every culture, religion and geography
To illustrate the powerful use of stories - think back to school - I'm sure each of you had a teacher at some point of your education that could take any topic - even the most interesting, and make it drier than 2 day old toast. I had a professor like that in college - I was so excited to be taking a very interesting class on the History of Mental Illness - including Witch Hunts and Freud - and I was appalled that in each class he basically just read of a bunch of boring material that I could have read on my own and slept an extra hour instead.

Then, think about a teacher you had that brought even the dullest topic to life - Historical facts suddenly became stories that you could almost touch, literary characters danced before you, you felt ready to debate philosophers.

Get the picture? Now what's the difference between the 2? You got it - storytelling. Hand on your heart - when you're giving presentations - are you Type 1 or Type 2? Are you killing your audience with an OD of information, making them wish they were anywhere else but in that room? We never intend to be boring - we want to give our audience all the knowledge we can - but sometimes we end up giving more than they can possibly take in, driving them insane in the process.

Storytelling is the difference between rambling off data and giving it meaning. When we read a good book, we basically devour it - we feel swept into the story, time and space falls away - and it's sad to end it because it's like we're saying goodbye to a good friend. We don't look for 100% historical accuracy, technical data or facts and figures - we just give ourselves over to the experience
So how do we take this into our writing, speeches and presentations? Whether you're selling a product, service, startup or even yourself, here are some storytelling tips that anyone can use:

  1. Write From Your Audience's Perspective - As the author or speaker, we already know the material well. We live and breathe it. Our audience might be hearing it our reading it for the first time. Take a 180 degree turn and sit in the seat of your audience. If you didn't know anything about it, what questions would you have? Make a list of those questions and make sure to answer them as you go.
  2. Ideas that Grandma Would Understand - Often we think that big words and professional jargon give us more credibility. The opposite is true - if someone in the audience doesn't understand us, they will feel dumb and disconnect. Imagine giving your presentation to your Grandma - she's a very smart woman but probably isn't very familiar with what you do - so you have to explain it in a way that she understands. Finding a metaphor or a story that illustrates what you're doing is a great way to get through to the audience. It's not dumbing it down, it's being smarter about audience engagement. Unless you have a room full of experts - stick to this! Even if you do have a room of experts, elevate it - they get bored too!
  3. Build the Suspense - Every suspenseful story has a great villain. What is the villain/pain/challenge/struggle in their life that you're solving? Open with this, tell a story about how the Villain has affected you, people you care about, the world at large. Let them feel the pain, see that you "get it" and really want to know how your product/service/idea will solve it.
  4. Visualize the Idea - We are visual creatures, we need to see things to understand them. Imagine Steve Jobs just telling us about the Iphone instead of showing it when it first launched. Would it have had the same affect? Images on your slides that illustrate the big idea help us understand, grasp the concept and make us smile or even laugh. Showing a simple demo or video of your product can also achieve this.
  5. Close with a Punch - There's nothing more disappointing than reading a great book and having the ending feel like the author ran out of ideas and just threw together a bunch of random text to end it. If you open with a bang, end with a punch - cap off the Villain story you started with, add an inspiring quote, or maybe a vision of what's to come - something that leaves them going "Wow, I can't wait to read the sequel!" Meaning you've won an avid follower and believer.

In coming weeks I will deep dive into these to give more guidance on specific techniques sharing some real life examples. Please email me with any questions you have or comment below and I'm happy to incorporate the answers.

Rudyard Kipling said -

"If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten."

- So 86 the Type 1 teacher and become an unforgettable storyteller that gets the results you want.