Here’s a short video that shows a little bit of why we love stories:
Even in thirty seconds we get a story. Stuff happens. It’s full of emotion. And there’s a moral (don’t be blinded by anger). We get a sense of justice served. Better still, we see the fall coming before the angry man does, which makes us feel smart.
The presentation deck for this class is here. (PDF files, minus the video clips)
I’ll summarise the main points.
Stories work so well in business because we use them all the time in real life. What’s amazing is how often business people DON’T use stories, and think they can impress us with mission statements, strategy documents and endless facts. Remember, we think in stories, we feel with stories and we learn from stories. So why not use stories when you need to get people to listen to you?
If you don’t have these three ingredients, you’re not really telling a story.
- Stuff happens: the who, what, where and when of a story. They keep your story real, rooted in concrete things rather than abstract concepts. We are not very good at dealing with abstracts.
- People care: how do you feel, how do others feel? This is SO important because emotion fixes our attention on the important elements of any situation and fixes the story in our memory. Leave the emotion out and you are crippling your story. If you’re not sure whether you’ve got a story, check your own emotional radar: did this make me feel anything strongly?
- The moral of the story: quite simply, why does this matter? What do you want us to do or think as a result of listening to this story?
Story arcs – the storyteller’s best tool
Anyone can experience a story arc, even an iguana. A story arc means a rollercoaster of highs and lows. Straight-lines of positive-positive-positive, or gloom-gloom-gloom are a turn off for an audience. A recent study found that only six basic story arcs account for the majority of stories we tell. I think you can use these arcs to tell stories about yourself, your work and your customers.
First up, the stories which end on a high (these are the nicest ones to tell about yourself):
- Rags to Riches: this story is NOT about getting rich, but about being recognised. Typically, the hero of the story has a hidden virtue which nobody else sees. This story ends happily with that virtue getting its deserved recognition. For example, the virtue could be hard work or resilience.
- Man in a Hole: this is a story of recovery. The hero starts out in a comfortable (or complacent) place, stumbles into a bad place but then climbs back out again due to his/her own virtue. Often the end is a better place than the comfort zone at the start. This is a typical story of recovering from a mistake or learning something new: confusion at first, leading to growth and confidence.
- Star Wars: the hero’s journey, with lots of ups and downs. This story is useful because it also introduces the idea of a mentor figure – a Yoda to the Luke. You can use this arc to make your customer the hero of the story, while you take on the role of mentor.
These are the stories which end on a low (very useful cautionary tales):
4. Fall from Grace: a bad person/action gets rightly punished. Typically with this kind of story, there’s a hidden flaw that eventually brings the hero down (think Harvey Weinstein!). We like these stories because they restore our faith in natural justice.
5. Icarus: a story of overreaching ambition or the consequences of ignoring warnings. If you’re not familiar with the Icarus story, think Faustus, Jurassic Park, Frankenstein or any other mad scientist movie, where the genius is devoured by his creation.
6. Oedipus: a tough story to use in business, because it suggests we cannot escape our fate. Updated versions of the Oedipus story might include The Godfather (you can’t escape your family), I, Tonya (you can’t escape your class) or Thelma and Louise (you can’t escape the patriarchy).
For notes on how to use stories for pitches and presentations and T.R.U.E stories – see this earlier post.