Seeing is believing, right? But there’s one sense that’s even more credible – and that’s touch. If you make your story visible, your audience can see what you mean. If you can make your story physical, something your audience can hold in their hands, imagine how much more powerful it becomes.
But often, you’re telling a story about something that happened elsewhere or something that doesn’t exist yet. How can you make that physically real? Well, here are three possibilities:
Artefact: Any object can give a story focus. The story isn’t just the thing itself but the people who made it, treasured it, bought it or threw it away. The BBC and British Museum managed to tell the history of the world in 100 objects. Stuck for an idea? Take in an something you made for/with your last client.
Prototype: Dating shows are hard to get right and TV commissioners are very picky. The makers of ITV’s dating show Take Me Out built a studio model with working lights for their pitch. The idea was that the women would switch off their podium lights if they didn’t fancy the male contestant. In front of sceptical commissioners, the producers lit up their model and knocked lights off one by one. “No Likey, No Lighty” became instantly real. (Seriously, if you haven’t watched this show, you need to stay in more.) So the moral of this story: if you can make a prototype to illustrate your story, do it. It doesn’t have to be sophisticated – LEGO or cardboard will feel more real than just words.
Metaphor: I pitched a piece of work to a company recently who wanted to improve the way their teams gave each other feedback. I pulled one of these out of my bag.
“Try and take a group selfie,” I said to one of the management team. He got up, took the disposable camera, tried to take the shot then handed the camera back. “Now,” I said, “imagine it takes me a couple of weeks to get the photos developed. Imagine we sit down in a couple of months and look at them in our appraisal meeting and I start telling you why your photography skills aren’t very good. You’ll barely remember how you took the photo, so what chance have you got of learning from the experience?” I made the contrast between 35mm film and digital. “If you’d taken that group selfie on your phone, we’d all be looking at the results right now. We’d see what worked and what didn’t and you’d be able to try again to do it better.”
The camera was a metaphor and moral of the story was this: expertise grows with rapid feedback. More importantly, the physicality of holding a camera, winding it on, pressing the shutter all helps cement this message into your memory.
(I didn’t win the pitch, but that’s another story)
Stories really can be simple, so it’s amazing how often people in business fail to tell a good one. The most basic ingredients of a story you can tell about work are:
I’ve highlighted “People care” because this is the bit people usually leave out of business stories. But you shouldn’t, because emotion fixes our attention on something and helps us remember it later. If the emotion is strong enough, we’ll go a step further and share your story with others.
Here’s a great example of emotional storytelling with a very clear business aim:
#ShareTheLoad started out from a simple business insight: that 90% of laundry in India is done by women. What are the insights in your business and how could you turn these into stories?
You can use a classic story arc to give your story that roller coaster of emotion that will make it irresistible. Even a humble iguana can experience a story arc:
Your story should NOT be a straight line from “once upon a time” to “happy ever after” with no bumps in the road. You may be tempted to gloss over difficulties along the way but don’t. These are what make your story seem more real.
You’ll need to tell stories about yourself (Foundation Stories) but you’ll find it easier to keep telling fresh stories about your customers (Brand Stories). Here are two examples of one company telling both kinds of story. First, the Foundation Story, where the company is the hero:
And now the Brand Story, where the customer is the hero and the product barely gets a mention:
Journalists and advertisers use all kinds of tricks to hook your attention when they have a story to tell. Think of this as using what’s in the front of people’s minds, not forcing them to dig into the back of their minds. You can get “front-of-mind” attention if you can make your story Timely, Relatable, Unexpected or Evocative.
Here are the techniques I used to help people structure their business stories:
T.R.U.E stories – journalists’ and advertisers’ tricks for grabbing attention.
Aesop is the father of animal archetypes in fiction and his Fables are still entertaining us 2,630 years on. At the other end of the spectrum, try Stephen Lloyd and Arch Woodside’s fascinating academic review of how animals are used in advertising.
The slide deck from this training course is available here as a Keynote file (321Mb). The worksheets are available here as PDF files.
Stupid Mistakes Smart People Make (and what you can do about them) was my attempt to introduce the fascinating topic of cognitive bias in a light hearted way. I’ll post a link to the video when it’s ready, meanwhile here’s the slide deck and your own printable version of the Sunk Cost Fallacy worksheet.
10 Creative Tools gives you a selection of deliberate creative thinking techniques to use by yourself or with your team. Just like picking up any other kind of tool, some of them take a bit of getting used to. Here’s the slide deck and the worksheets.
Storytelling will help you turn your ideas into stories. Storytelling is the best way we’ve developed to remember and spread information, so why not use it for your business? Slide deck and worksheets here.
Here’s the video reminding you why a good presentation is like a washing line:
I’m aware that lots of the archetypal fictional story characters are male, so as a counterbalance, try the Rejected Princesses website, which is full of female mythical and historical characters who are way too badass to be Disney-fied.
FIRST RULE of video storytelling: edit in your head before you hit record. If you shoot too much footage a) you’ll struggle to edit it; b) you’ll lose track of the story; and c) the result will be hard to watch. Chances are you’ll lose heart and never finish your first story.
So here’s how to edit in your head. Don’t even touch your camera/smartphone until you’ve asked your potential interviewee these questions:
“Hello, what’s going on here?” Start by asking about action and practical stuff, not opinions, theories, motivations or anything else. Keep it simple. This will settle your interviewee down: you’re talking to them about something they understand. Follow up with “Can you show me?” Again, this reassures your interviewee and puts them in control of the conversation. Plus it tells you what’ll make good pictures. As far as your audience is concerned, seeing is believing.
“What’s surprising about this job? Tell what’s particularly good (or bad) about it?” These questions will start to uncover what’s exceptional or unusual: this is the stuff which grabs your audience’s attention. Listen very carefully for emotion (frustration, satisfaction, pride etc). Play these emotions back to your interviewee in the form of questions:
“So, is it very rewarding? … frustrating? etc” If you’ve been listening carefully, you’ll call this right and your interviewee will really open up. You can follow up by asking “Why do you feel… ?” Don’t be tempted to dodge emotion because if feels a bit uncomfortable or nosey. Every story needs an emotional element.
Bonus questions: “Why does this matter?” or “What should other people think or do about this?” might throw something really interesting up. Always worth asking “Have I missed anything important?”
Ok, so that’s your basic research. Now you’re ready to edit in your head.
First Edit: Just Three Questions. Ask yourself “what are the three questions I can answer in this story?” There’s no point trying to answer more, it just gets confusing. Here’s an example of three basic questions any story can answer:
What’s going on? Can you show me?
How do you feel about this?
Why does this matter?
Second Edit: Show and Tell. Figure out what you can film or photograph that shows what the interviewee is telling you. Remember: seeing is believing.
Third Edit: Practical and Safe. You’ve got to film with decent light and audio, otherwise you’re wasting your time. Don’t interview anyone where there’s lots of background noise. Your ears filter it out, but your camera won’t. And don’t put yourself into any kind of dangerous situation to try and get a good shot.
Here’s a tip for filming with strong light:
FINALLY you’re ready to pick up the camera. Remember to shoot in short bursts. This will make the final edit on a computer much easier.
We love threes in stories. Other numbers are also available: 12 Apostles, 10 Commandments, Seven Deadly Sins, the Famous Five and Fantastic Four. But we find threes again and again (and again): Perseus and Macbeth meet three witches; Goldilocks deals with three bears; Wise Monkeys, Wishes and Little Pigs all come in threes. We even structure stories themselves in threes: past, present and future; before, during and after; beginning, middle and end.
Winston Churchill loved a tricolon (the rhetorical use of threes). He famously promised the British people “blood, sweat and tears” in the dark hours of World War Two. Actually, he promised “blood, sweat, toil, and tears”, but we only remember three out of the four.
So, here are three reasons why we love threes, followed by some ways (guess how many) that you can use threes in your next story or presentation.
Three is short. You can get three things into a tweet or onto a slide.
Three is enough. We can hold between five and seven things in our minds at once. When you allow for distractions (“Ooh, I wonder if I’ve had any likes yet”, “That guy’s looking at me funny”, “How long’s this going to take?”) there’s only room in your listeners’ heads for three things you want to say, max.
Three is a pattern. Once is just a random event. Twice might be coincidence. Three times is proof (in a folksy, rule-of-thumb sort of way). Four is just more of the same. Five, a boring list.
So how can you use threes when you’re telling a story or making a presentation?
Emphatic Three. Tony Blair’s “Education, education, education” or Margaret Thatcher’s “No, no, no!” Simple repetition or on a rising scale: OK, we get it.
Set Up and Contrast Three. “Never before in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.” Churchill’s Battle of Britain tribute sets up the huge scale of what was at stake (“so much” and “so many”) before contrasting with tiny scale (“so few”) of the victors. Lead your listeners left once, then twice and they will be half expecting you to go left a third time. When you switch to the right, the contrast is unexpected and delightful. This also works for Little Pigs (straw = failure; sticks = failure; bricks = success) and Boys Who Cry Wolf.
Dialectical Three (aka The Goldilocks Three). For Hegel, it was thesis, antithesis and synthesis. For the rest of us, it’s the bowl of porridge that’s too hot, the bowl that’s too cold and the one that’s just right. Use this three when you want to appear moderate, taking the sensible centre ground between extremes.