We all have ideas to share and stories to tell. We enjoy hearing a good story too. There’s a reason for that. A well-told story can make our heart race, make us laugh or cry, magically transport us to an inspired place using life experiences we can effortlessly relate to.
We can use simple stories to introduce ourselves, our ideas, and our business. Stories can sell a complex proposal to a skeptical audience. Stories can inspire us to help ourselves. Once you understand what makes a story work, you’re on our way to becoming a powerful storyteller.
Great stories clearly fulfill promises made as the story begins.
Compelling stories follow an engaging theme.
A good story has a structure that will help draw us in.
Powerful stories make us care about the outcome.
Engaging stories balance anticipation with uncertainty.
A Time-Tested Model
Aristotle built a story framework that took the shape of a three-act play. Act one establishes the status-quo and introduces characters with traits reflecting people we’ve connected within our own lives. Act two introduces a threat that must be overcome. Act three introduces a resolution where the unlikely protagonist dismisses the threat and wins the hearts of the community (audience).
Compelling stories have a shape, or arc, that purposely moves the audience from the known to the unknown with at least one major roadblock along the way. Compelling stories artfully create this striking contrast between the “how it is” and “how it could be”. The status quo is presented as a clearly unappealing condition while hopeful possibilities are presented as attractively as possible.
Story lines will often cycle back and forth in dramatic contrast between the awful and the awesome to get the audience emotionally engaged. By the time the story nears an end, the audience is totally on board.
In theater, there is a profound visual advantage. In the written story, the author must paint a vivid picture with colorful descriptions alone.
Create Suspense and Contrast
For the sake of this example, we will assume this is a story about a group of people facing an unexpected crisis. The structure works just as well as a device introducing a product or service.
Let’s explore a story’s structural elements by asking some questions.
DEFINE THE STORY PURPOSE. What do you want your story to accomplish? Is your purpose to educate, inspire? This definition will, no doubt, shape the arc of your story and illuminate what the beginning and end points look like.
SET THE STAGE. When and where does the story begin? What does the setting look and feel like? Make it feel real. Describe it clearly. Make it dramatic and relatable. The more vivid the description of conditions and characters, the more likely the audience will connect with the story.
INTRODUCE CHARACTERS TO THE STORY. Who, or what features in the story? Create clear personalities. If your story is about people, cast the story characters around people you can easily view in your mind’s eye. Have them behave as you would expect them to, given their personalities.
CREATE A CHALLENGE. What pain or conflict do your characters face? Impose an unexpected and dramatic change that quickly disrupts the status quo. What challenges will the protagonist (or the product) battle? How does it affect outcomes? Paint a narrative picture of how your cast of characters reacts to what’s happening around them. Do they respond as you would expect them to, or will the outcome surprise you?
FIND A SOLUTION. What was the tipping point? How was it discovered? This is the bang! It’s the moment when the challenge is met, and inspiration (or the product) is delivered. It's important that this reveal clearly showcases the promise of the future in contrast to the status quo and the journey that brought about change.
TEACH A LESSON. What was learned from the experience; the moral of the story? What is the takeaway that the audience can apply to their own life challenges?
Stories Can Sell
Storytelling can be a powerful device for businesses just as effectively as in our personal experience. In fact, there are special opportunities for storytelling every day in business.
An all-too-common mistake some organizations make in their presentations is building most of the content around a series of statistics rather than a compelling story. They fail to connect on a personal level with the audience. They forget to stimulate imagination. Strong businesses can lose an opportunity, not because they are under-qualified, or their bid is too high, but because they did not speak effectively to both sides of the brain in their presentation.
Don’t let the story conclude without making it a teaching moment and don’t forget to ask for the sale!