THE BLOG
10/21/2014 11:40 am ET Updated Dec 21, 2014

Telling Stories

Frank and Helena via Getty Images

Stories are powerful. They tell us so much more than facts.

For instance, here are facts: A woman died. Six months, later her husband died.

Here is a story: A woman died. Six months later, her husband died of a broken heart.

See the difference? Stories convey information in a very unique way. Plus, they're so much more interesting and engaging than facts, bar graphs or pie charts.

Last week, I had the privilege of attending the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, TN. There were seven storytelling tents set up in this quaint little town which is home to the International Storytelling Center. The smaller tents held several hundred people while the larger tents could accommodate nearly 2000 listeners who came out to see a variety of storytellers.

There were funny tellers who used humor as their delivery method. There were historical tellers who assumed a character such as Charles Dickens or Mark Twain. There were "native" tellers who shared stories from their unique cultural background. And while the style might be different, the point of every teller was simple -- to tell intricately created stories that captivated the audience and kept the art of storytelling alive.

Most of us grew up hearing stories. In fact, we often developed our value system based on parables or fables that we heard as children. We know that "slow and steady wins the race" because of a story. We understand the underdog principal of David and Goliath because of a story. We learned to read because of a simple story asking us to "See Spot run" and we were able to get a slight reprieve because "the dog ate my homework" -- a different kind of story.

But we also used stories in ways we don't always identify as stories. We used mnemonics to memorize many kinds of facts from the order of the planets to the parts of the body. "Every Good Boy Does Fine" helped us to identify the notes on a piece of music while "Some Lovers Try Positions That They Can't Handle" reminded medical students of the many bones in the wrist...among other things. The reason we remember these mnemonics is that they are nothing more than mini stories. They use words in a context rather than just random words. It's the context that gives the words staying power -- and that's why we use them.

It was easy to understand the power of storytelling while we sat there in a tent in Jonesborough and watched masterful tellers. However, in our day-to-day work lives, we tend to forget the power of the stories to move ideas forward. Instead, we rely on Power-Point slides, spreadsheets and bar charts to convey important information to others. And yet, when these ordinary methods are ineffective, we forget that the story works much better.

Stories give our content context so that we both understand and remember the ideas. For instance, if I'm a hospice fundraiser and I tell you what percentage of our patients can't afford to pay for care and then go on to tell you the amount of money it costs to care for them, you may be influenced enough to open up your checkbook and donate. However, if I tell you the story of a patient with three small children who had to sell her home to pay for care, you are much more likely to contribute.

So, are you using stories in your work to convey the most important information to your staff, your colleagues or your customers? If not, here are a few suggestions to enhance your story power.

The Magic is in The Detail. My friend David Glickman, who performs customized comedy, says, "The more specific, the more terrific." This comedy concept definitely applies to stories. The vividness of the story comes from the detail. Some of the storytellers in Jonesborough told 30-minute stories that went into great detail. A car was not just "a car" but a "bright red '57 Buick with white wall tires and pink dice hanging from the mirror." If the goal of a story is to engage the listener as well as make sure they remember the information, the more details we use, the more successful we will be.

A Story Has a Point. All great stories have a point. Or a value proposition. Or a lesson. A story without a point will be forgotten. But a story with a meaningful point will last a long time in the minds of the listeners. So, when you tell a story, make sure you know what point you're making. That will not only improve the story, it will support the message.

A Story is Not a Chronological Ledger. Sometimes, a story loses it's punch because it is nothing more than a chronological listing of events. When our kids were young, that's how they told us about their day -- "I woke up. I put on my clothes. I came downstairs." However, a good story carefully weaves the information in a meaningful way. Some information may be left out, some may be described in great detail, and some may be told out of sequence. The overall context, however, is based on the point of the story, not just the order of events. An example of this can be found in the movie Pulp Fiction. The story moves along but is told totally out of sequence. Yet, the experience is mesmerizing.

Once upon a time should be all the time. Stories can play so many roles in our personal and work lives. They can inform, educate, influence, and entertain. Whenever we need to make an impact on others, we should consider simply telling them a story.