Tag Archives: storytelling

3 Reasons Why 3 is the Magic Number for Your Story

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.

  1. Three is short. You can get three things into a tweet or onto a slide.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

More storytelling and presentation tools here. Or to arrange training in storytelling and presentation, click here.

Photo credit: Pixabay.com

RTE storytelling session June & Sept 2017

Storytelling presentation from June 2017 is here:


and from September 2017 (slightly different) is here:


An audio commentary on the June presentation is here


The worksheets from the June class are here:


The slightly different worksheets from September are here:


Meanwhile, there are some great books on storytelling here:



Story hunting – your business secret weapon

Last year I was covering a tech conference for a business magazine. I met a young woman who’d just done a disastrous public pitch for her fledgling tech company. She’d walked on stage, frozen, fluffed her lines, sat down – then got back up and struggled through to the end. But it wasn’t really clear what she was trying to sell.

Afterwards I got chatting to her. She wanted to make  low cost devices to improve the safety of women on public transport in India. A sort of rape-alarm-meets-internet-of-things. She’d grown up in Delhi and experienced the sexual harassment women put up with if they travel alone on buses and trains. This mattered so much to her that she’d given up a well paid job to try and solve this problem.

Brilliant, I thought. What a great story. Could I interview her for my article? I got out my microphone and asked – “so why have you given up a well paid job to start your own company?” – expecting to get this incredible story. “Well,” she said, “it was such a good value proposition.” On she went, jargon on top of jargon, like a struggling Apprentice candidate in Lord Sugar’s boardroom. After a minute, I stopped recording and begged her to tell me the real story – but she really struggled. If it had been a live radio interview, I’d have pulled the plug on her.

It made me wonder – why do so many smart people talk such rubbish when they talk about their work? It’s not just business people. Teachers and social workers, artists, all have their own weird jargon. But business language is pretty consistently bad. Perhaps it’s a form of status anxiety. Other business leaders talk like this, so I should too. Or you think “This is strategy, it’s important stuff. It doesn’t need embellishing with emotional guff or once-upon-a-time storytelling.”


But in a crazy, noisy world, stories can help you find your voice – your personal voice and the voice of your business. Better still, stories come loaded with emotion, acting like glue, fixing information into our memories. Like Maya Angelou said, people forget what you say and do but they never forget how you made them feel.

Here’s what stories need. Without these elements, you are just reading out facts and opinions (yawn).





1. Stuff happens: We don’t tell stories about projects or companies or strategies or multi agency approaches. People tell stories about people doing stuff. This is the Who, What, Where and When of the action, with a beginning, middle and end.

So when you’re hunting stories, listen out for: “Last week…” “When I was in the Manchester branch…” “I met this woman called…” “And then…” “After all that…”

2. People care: if stuff happens AND it provokes an emotional reaction, then it’s probably a story. If it made people happy, sad, angry, proud, frustrated then they are much more likely to remember it than if it simply engaged their rational brain. This is the How of the story – how did it make you feel.

So listen out for: “I felt…” “I was so…”

3. The moral: for business stories, there has to be a moral to your story, otherwise it’s just chat. You’re not telling stories to entertain people, you want them to DO something different: buy your product, join your company, embrace new ways of working. A useful business story goes like this: stuff happened, it provoked this reaction and now we’re going to do this. So listen out for: “I realised…” “I learned…” “That’s why…”

Let’s try this out on a real story, and let’s add some bonus elements: Irony and Twist.


Back in the 70s, US journalist Ross Gelbspan was covering a conference on climate change and over-population. Looking for an angle on a dense academic subject, he realised that one of the speakers on the stage – Donella Meadows – was herself pregnant. What a wonderful irony, he thought, “she had found hope in the midst of all this doom and gloom.” This was the angle Gelbspan built his story on. Except that when the story came out, Meadows got in touch, saying “I’m not pregnant…” Decades later, Ross Gelbspan still cringes when he thinks of his mistake.

  • Stuff happens: journalist makes a mistake.
  • People care: he is mortifyingly embarrassed (so are we, just listening to it).
  • Moral of the story: never ever assume a woman is pregnant unless her waters are breaking right in front of you. Check your facts.
  • And the bonus ingredients:
  • Irony – the idea of someone campaigning against over-population adding to the world population by having a baby.
  • Twist – the sudden gasp when our understanding is turned upside down. She’s not pregnant! Oh no…!

If you want people to understand why fact-checking matters, tell them that story. Better still, go out and listen for the stories all round you, from your colleagues and customers. Become a story hunter and it will be your business secret weapon. 

Credit: Ross Gelbspan’s story is in Being Wrong, by Katheryn Schulz

More on using Irony as a creative tool here. More storytelling and presentation tools here.


Storytelling & Pitching – Hyper Island training day

These two videos show how Nike changed their approach to storytelling. Their first TV ad from 1982 is about the company. The people who MAKE the shoe are the hero of the story. The second video from Nike’s 2012 ad campaign makes the people who WEAR the shoe the hero of the story.

Version 1 is your “foundation” story, the story of how you/your company got to where you are today. Version two is your “mentor” story – how you are helping your customers get where they want to go.

Remember, you can only really tell your foundation story once. You can tell as many mentor stories as you have customers.

Here’s the presentation deck from Hyper Island’s training day on storytelling & pitching. And here, with commentary, the first half of the training:

PDF worksheets available here.

See also this range of presentation tools to help you sell your best ideas.

Why don’t people listen when I talk about my work?

Probably because already they’re drowning in a sea of words.

There are so many words coming at us all the time that we’re desperate for a reason to dismiss yours and move on. But there will be things which are “front of mind” for your audience, and you can use these to hijack their attention long enough to get your message across. This short film will show you how to make your message Timely, Relatable, Unexpected and Emotionally Engaging.

Effective communication means more that just giving people a list of facts and hoping they remember them. Wrap those facts up in a story and you are far more likely to get people to pay attention. Better still, they will retell your story to others if you get it right.

These two videos show how Nike changed their approach to storytelling. Their first TV ad from 1982 is about the company. The people who MAKE the shoe are the hero of the story. The second video from Nike’s 2012 ad campaign makes the people who WEAR the shoe the hero of the story.

Version 1 is your “foundation” story, the story of how you/your company got to where you are today. Version two is your “mentor” story. This tells how you are helping your customers get where they want to go.

Remember, you can only really tell your foundation story once. You can tell as many mentor stories as you have customers. And let’s be honest, nobody likes listening to someone go on about how great they are. We find them boring.

Finally, a word on how to make a presentation work so that what you show doesn’t clash with what you tell. If you don’t get the visual and verbal parts of any presentation working in harmony, you’ll leave your audience bored or confused.

More storytelling advice here and presentation tips here

Click here to download the worksheets for this presentation

Image from Pixabay.com

Hey, I’ve got a great story…

Now, I’ve bought fifteen seconds of your attention. You’re hooked by the promise of a great story, with action and heroes. But why do stories work on us like this?

I’ve just finished two days storytelling training with a large media company and I’ve never known sessions to go so well. These were all professional storytellers but it was like everyone instinctively got it and still wanted to learn more.

Now I think I know why. So let me tell you a story…

Think of a time when you were new in a job. You settled in to an established order and tried to follow what people around you were doing. But then you found problems you couldn’t resolve, things that didn’t make sense. Surely there had to be a different way to do this? You tried, but nothing worked at first. You kept trying. Gradually a shape emerged from the chaos. After a lot more trying, you established a new and better way.

I’m describing the classic hero’s journey, from Homer’s Iliad to Homer Simpson. I’m also describing the way our brains make sense of a confusing world: assemble evidence, spot things that don’t fit, resolve problems by finding a new theory. It’s thesis, antithesis and synthesis. Or…

Act One: the world has an established order but something doesn’t fit

Act Two: the problem can’t be ignored, you have to act

Act Three: through trial and error you realise what needs to change

Act Four: you struggle to put this new knowledge into action

Act Five: a new order emerges where everything makes sense

And we all live happily ever after. At least, until the next problem emerges.

This is the story of Hamlet, Jane Eyre and Breaking Bad, and it’s the story of your day at work too. It’s the story of anyone trying to make sense of their world. This is why storytelling works – for professional writers or anyone who needs to communicate with passion about their work. We tell stories in the same way as we make sense of the world and our own place in it. This is why, a few seconds in to any conversation about work, I find myself telling stories to make my point.

“All of our storytelling theories have one thing in common,” writes John Yorke*, who has studied dozens of them. “All revolve around one central idea: the incomplete is made complete, sense is made.”

“Storytelling is the dramatisation of the process of knowledge assimilation.”

So long as you remain curious about the world or determined to change it for the better, you will be hooked by stories.

I think, therefore I am… a storyteller.

*Into the Woods, How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them, by John Yorke

Click here if you’d like to watch the storytelling training I delivered last week.

Beginning, middle & end – with a twist

Remember playing the game “Consequences” at school? Here’s a twist on the Brainwriting tool, inspired by that playground game. I designed it for TV drama producers but it works really well for any kind of imaginative storytellers.

Everyone starts with their own grid of nine boxes on a big piece of paper, but the first row is labelled “Beginning”, the middle row is called “Middle” and the last row is “End”.

Everyone starts silently writing three different beginnings for a character’s story.  These could be an accident, a lottery win, a death in the family – what writers call an “inciting incident” or trigger. When you’ve got three, you put your paper in the middle of the table and swap with someone else.

Pick up the new sheet and read someone else’s “Beginnings”. Now write down your ideas for how the character reacts. Finish all three “Middles” and pass the paper back, then pick up another.

Now you’re on the “Ends”. Read someone else’s Beginning and Middle – then work out how this mini story-arc could resolve? When everyone’s finished, get people to share their favourite story arcs with the group.

Horst Geschka invented Brainwriting to help engineers innovate their products. I gave it a twist for a colleague who makes TV soap opera – and guess what, it works well for both.

Happy endings all round!

(Over a hundred more techniques like this one in my new book Be Creative Now!)

3 steps to avoid the bull

Why do so many smart people in business and public service write and speak so badly? A UK judge recently accused a social worker of writing in such dense bureaucratic terms she might as well have been speaking a foreign language. What did “imbued with ambivalence” and “having many commonalities emanating from their histories” actually mean? And how did this help anyone decide if a child should be taken away from its mother?

If you’re writing bull, here’s three steps to help you sound more human.

Step 1: Work out why you write so badly.

It’s probably down to fear. Many of us are afraid we don’t belong, afraid someone will tap us on the shoulder and say “I’m sorry, there’s been a terrible mistake. We’ve just realised you don’t know what you’re doing, please leave.” So we copy the language and manners of those around us, the better to fit in.

Then there’s the fear that what we need to say is unpleasant and will upset the listener. So we reach for euphemisms like “downsizing”. The pain is still there, but with added confusion and mistrust.

Keep an eye out for these fears when you sit down to write, they are red flags predicting bull.

Step 2: Be sure of what you want to say and why.

What do you believe in? What are your values? How do they inform what you’re trying to do? In the case of the social worker, I bet she believes in giving vulnerable children the best chance of happiness. Does that mean sometimes making tough, painful decisions? Yes? Then say so. Explain why your values make you act the way you do.

Think about your listener. What are their values? Do they trust you to be honest? What language do they feel comfortable with? You owe it to them to be as clear as you can – on their terms, not yours.

Step 3: Re-write, with help from the masters of 20th century prose.

Write down everything you want to say. Read it back and underline all the moments you felt fear. Underline any section where you’re not sure about the values behind it. Chances are this is where you’re writing bull.

Now re-write, with advice from three masters of 20th century prose: Winston Churchill, George Orwell and David Ogilvy.

Churchill: “Short words are best and the old words, when short, best of all.” So engage in a process of extinguishing, eliminating, de-prioritising… No, try to strike out any long, modern word and use old, short words instead.

Orwell: “Never use the passive when you can use the active.” Passive is a fudge, allowing responsibility to be evaded. “Concerns were raised…” No, tell me who raised concerns about what and who responded.

Ogilvy: “Write the way you talk. Naturally. Never use jargon words like reconceptualize, attitudinally, judgementally. They are hallmarks of a pretentious ass.” Enough said.

For more tips on great prose writing:

Five writing tips from Winston Churchill’s “finest hour” speech.

George Orwell’s five rules for effective writing.

And David Ogilvy’s 10 tips on writing clearly.