I had an interesting message from a reader (an agency owner) who’s just landed a *dream* client, and he believes that his ability to ‘tell a story’ is what made him successful. As he writes: ‘On paper, we’re qualified, but I guess not exceptional. However, after a pitch where I was able to deliver our ‘story and vision’, I could tell that there was a lot of interest, the meeting overran and the client engaged us soon after. I feel a lot more confident about this coming winter now’.
If you want to stand out, be memorable and connect better, story-telling is an essential skill. Here are some ideas on how to be better at it.
First, understand the difference between a story and a series of events. A lot of people confuse one with the other.
A series of events goes like this:
A man wanted to buy a dog. He went to the shop, and bought a dog. He came home with the dog.
This is not a ‘story’. It’s just a linear retelling of events with no meaning or purpose to them.
The first thing to be clear on is – why tell the story? What’s your aim? Usually it will be a vehicle to educate people, to make a point memorable, or sometimes to make something funny.
So on a very simple level, let’s say you decided you wanted your audience to learn ‘The importance of paying attention’.
Then the story above could become: ‘A busy man wanted to buy a dog in a hurry, he went to at the nearest shop and bought a dog but when it ws only when he got home that he realised he’d bought a toy dog’.
Now, that’s not a *great* story, but is does at least have the beginnings of a story – it’s aiming to make a point.
The other problem with just laying out a list of events is that you miss the elements that make a story work.
A great way to remember these elements is to think of ‘The Four Cs’:
Let’s see how these 4 words can make even our dull story more interesting:
It was a rainy and cold evening, there were only minutes until the shop closed ….
Setting some context immediately elevates this ‘story’. It creates intrigue and some suspense.
John’s family life had been difficult since their death of their beloved labrador, Tommy …
Again, this sets a scene and keeps us reading. It gets us emotionally interested.
What’s the ‘context’ of your story? Is it the competitor landscape? The problems your clients are facing? The impossible obstacle you faced last year? For example, in one of my Keynotes, i begin ‘On the 1st March 2020, I had a diary full of speaking engagements …’ that sets the context quickly for an audience, because they know exactly what happened later in March, and they’ll get a sense of where this story is going.
The character has to be someone we can care about as quickly as possible.
Here’s how we could do this in the story above:
It had been a busy, stressful day, full of unexpected meetings and endless firefighting. John was relieved to be leaving the office and was nearly home when he remembered that he’d promised to buy his children a dog.
Here’s another, quicker version:
John was turning the key in his front door when he remembered that he’d forgotten to buy his children a dog.
You’ll notice that what makes a character interesting is that they need something.
If you’re presenting, make your audience the character. If you’re pitching or selling, make your customer the character – demonstrate that you understand them, and you know what they need.
For example, when I’m presenting about presenting itself, I’ll begin with something like: ‘I’m sure that many of you are here today because you’d love to be able to present with confidence. You’d like to be able to command a room, to get attention, and to get buy-in and enthusiasm for your ideas.’ I put the audience as the central character of my talk, and I mention their needs.
This is the real ‘magic’ in storytelling. Give your character some conflict. There’s already some in the examples above, but there are many others – maybe the man doesn’t have enough money to buy the dog, maybe the dog escapes, or is aggressive, maybe he’s mistaken for a dog thief on the way home.
Giving your character some conflict is the ‘meat’ of most stories.
When you’re putting your audience, or your clients, at the centre of your story, the conflict will often be around the problems they’re trying to solve, or their frustrations or fears.
To continue my ‘presenting’ example above, I might say ‘…but you never seem to have enough time to prepare, your slides are never quite right and somehow you never feel like you’ve got your message across as well as you could …’
This is the only ‘optional’ C. Change is not present in all stories, but it is in most educational ones. In your story, the character changes from one state to another (usually better) one.
So, our dog-buying man could, for example, learn about the importance of paying attention, or not rushing, or making good choices and so on.
In talking about presenting, I might give the example of someone who believed they were a poor communicator ‘But then they did A and B and C and they became much more confident and compelling’.
With your own audiences, clients and potential clients, change can involve them going from their ‘problem state’ to a ‘solution state’. If you’re presenting to a team, and want to make a point memorable, or engaging, try focusing on a ‘change’ in your story – you’ll see people react to it really well.