Storytelling for dummies - P1 - Purpose and History

Storytelling skills have set successful people apart for centuries. Aristotle, Homer, Shakespeare, Dickens, Walt Disney.


Before the written word it was how history was passed on. Yes the subject matter has changed as the story was told each time but the human truths of beauty and virtue remain similar, the emphasis is molded over time.


Think about it? What was the last thing you purchased? Why did you purchase it? Free will or was it you were told a story? Advertising and marketing are all about selling you the story. The story of the product or the brand. Do you drive a certain car because you were subconsciously told a story of lifestyle or image?


We educate children by storytelling. We tell stories to our social groups. We listen to stories all the time. Entertaining was just a means of teaching that lesson, not the ultimate goal of the story. So if you really want your followers to listen to your story, you’d better teach something important for them.


As Yuval Noah Harari states in his best seller Sapiens, sharing certain beliefs — stories — with other people unlocked levels of cooperation on a scale never seen in other species. This allowed us to go from being animals to gods.


Just look at some of the oldest and most successful institutions of humanity, such as religions, to realize that they are based on stories and that they use the narrative as the main method of transmission.


We’re fortunate to work in a time when meaningful work is getting done, and people badly want their work to be meaningful. Stories connect the two. It’s the skill every leader needs to learn.


In most cases, a story succeeds when you connect a smaller idea or action to something bigger — a purpose, a movement, an emotion. This is how you get people to follow you on a journey, whether they're a customer following you through your product, or an employee agreeing to grueling startup hours to be a part of your vision


People attach emotion to individuals. They love rooting for people. They love experiencing the world through others’ eyes. The more you can tell stories about actual people that connect to the broader purpose, the more your audience will feel and not simply hear what you are trying to tell them. When you talk about the genuine feelings one person has, you’re leveraging social proof to help others reach the same emotional place.


"A story describes what happened. A good story helps you see what happened. And a great story helps you feel what happened."

To get people's attention, involve them emotionally and help them remember the content you're trying to convey. When people talk informally, 65 % of the time they are telling stories, according to research by evolutionary biologist Robin Dunbar.


These experiences show that we all have an innate sense of what makes a good story, but we tend to forget it at work. With each story, the goal is to strike a balance between the need to grab the audience’s attention and support the given objective. We look for nods and ‘uh huhs’ — we look for what surprises and delights. That’s how we figure out what’s sticky and resonating.”


THE LEVERS OF GOOD STORYTELLING


In life, a person's success is largely limited by his ability to convince others to do things for them.


Connecting to Mission

Stories are vital for clarifying ties between people’s every day and the long-term objective. People’s intrinsic motivation comes from feeling that they're doing something important. Their work moves people. This is why there are no more call center clerks but only customer success agents.


Amplifying Emotion

In addition to underscoring purpose, good stories evoke emotion — real, raw human emotion. In these moments, really think about what is happening to trigger these feelings. When people look at their work through the lens of human emotion, everything changes, and they better understand the gravity and importance of their work. For example, we can see Twitter as a tool for broadcasting short messages to the public, or as a social media platform that helped amplify the Arab Spring revolution.


Emma Coats, formerly of Pixar compiled nuggets of narrative wisdom she’s received working for the animation studio over the years. Here are the extracts I found most relevant in a general business context:


#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

#7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.

#12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.

#16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.


(images credit)

Having explored the reason for and history of storytelling. My interest in this topic is a simple one. We have so much social proof that storytelling is an essential element of humanity’s story, yet we are rarely directly taught this skill. It is passed down through family, friends, school, workplace and other social interactions, yet it is not codified into a functional tool - like driving or swimming. In many ways similar to entrepreneurship, it is a soft skill, an attitude if you will, that our education system flirts with, yet never dares to approach head on.


At school, we’ve learned how to write. We learned about grammar and punctuation. But did we learn how to communicate well? Did we learn how to engage our audience? And how to be persuasive?


If we want our messages to stick, we have to educate and entertain our audience. If we want to share our big ideas without boring our readers to tears, we have to mix abstract advice with concrete imagery.

But only when readers can picture a specific scene, through sensory language, can your writing become engaging and colorful. To get readers to listen to our advice, we need to explain the abstract rules, and share concrete stories to add meaning. We sketch the big picture, and use examples to add color.


The problem with the human mind is that we struggle to think in abstract concepts.


So to make your message sticky, you need to make it concrete.Together, the stories and data engage and educate. The data are cold facts outlining the big picture. The specific stories about specific people add emotion—they provide color to the hard data. They make the facts meaningful. You can describe what it’s like to go behind the curtains, but nothing beats letting your customers actually see it.


Metaphors compare something familiar with something new. They can make abstract concepts concrete, easy to understand, and memorable.



This post is part of a 3-series about storytelling:

Part 1 - its purpose and history

Part 2 - crafting your story (with bias towards startups)

Part 3 - tips and techniques to equip storytelling into your utility belt


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