We never get tired of stories. We read them, watch them, listen to them and tell them every day of our lives. We even tell them to ourselves.
I think science has established that we are not the only creatures with language, or the only creatures that use tools, or dance. But so far, I think it’s safe to say that we are the only creatures who tell stories.
Telling stories in conversation comes naturally. But writing and using stories in our business presentations is a little harder. And writing and telling stories that will work in a high-stakes business situation can be challenging.
The template for story telling—the structure and nature of stories—is pretty straight forward, but finding one that reaches your audience, engages their emotions and helps you make your point indelibly—that’s hard.
Story-telling is a craft in which the broad outline is given, but the devil is in the details. For instance, the basic structure of a story is three acts: the set-up, the development, and the resolution.
It’s relatively easy to write a first act. I’ve heard that the writers of Breaking Bad always start a new episode by concocting a situation for the main character that is impossible for him to untangle. That’s their set-up, the first act.
The next step is to write him out of the impossible situation (the second act) and then conclude it. That takes a whole lot of imagination and clear thinking, because it has to be believable and consistent with the character and the tone of the show.
In fact, stories can be boiled down to three basic elements.
Who is the character?
What do they want?
And why can’t they have it?
Suspense is the essential ingredient of story, even a short personal one. It drives the narrative, and it’s most basic form is, “How does the story turn out?”
You can set up an expectation for your listeners, an expectation that doesn’t happen. That’s surprising, and creates suspense.
Or you can do the exact opposite by describing something mundane and then reveal a ticking bomb within the situation. That also creates suspense.
Or how about asking a question and then not answering it. For instance:
“The question we need to answer is: how can we launch a product in one year, when it usually takes at least two? How can we launch a product against the headwinds of consumer indifference, retail hostility, and regulatory skepticism? And how can we launch a product when our competition will have had a year to spread negative messages about our product to the consumer, the retailer, and the regulatory bureaucrats who control the market? Let me know if you have any ideas. And now, let me walk you through the manufacturing schedule.”
In business, we tell stories to make a broad point more specific and concrete, or to reveal who we are so we can connect with an audience, or to emotionalize our content.
But we also borrow from the structure of story, which is basically the problem/solution structure. Just as every character in a movie wants something they can’t have, we can create business scenarios in which there are obstacles that we need to overcome. They must be vivid and real to our listeners, and the solutions must be presented in a dramatic manner.
You can’t learn to be a good storyteller from reading a book or a blog. You have to try your stories out on people. Comedians go to out-of-the-way comedy clubs to try out their new material, and we as business presenters who are eager to capture and hold the attention of our own audiences need to beta-test our stories just as we beta test our products.
Telling a story isn’t all that hard, but telling stories that light up a sales conference or stick to the minds of a group of senior executives, that’s a challenge. You can’t do it using a formula, although all stories are formulaic. You’ve got to do it through a tried and true, time-tested process: trial and error.
Good storytellers fail their way to success.