How to Tell Better Stories

Photo credit:  Nabeel Syed

Photo credit: Nabeel Syed

One of my relatives was tied to a tree and left for dead in the desert. He was a member of the Sheriff’s Posse in Arizona at the time. He was pursuing an outlaw in the Arizona desert when he was ambushed. The outlaw bound his hands to a tree, leaving him to face certain death. Fortunately for my family, my relative used the binding around his wrists to saw off the tree branches and escape.

This story is not only amazing. It's true.

My grandfather, who passed away a few decades ago, told me this story when I was young. I still remember specific details about the story just as if I heard it yesterday. Sadly I can’t recall the exact year of my grandfather’s death, despite attending the funeral. For me, stories are more memorable than facts.

I’m not alone. In fact, storytelling is the primary way humans have passed down knowledge for thousands of years. Our minds are conditioned to pay attention to and remember stories. Story is the lingua franca of humankind.

So why is it that we forget the art of the storytelling the minute we walk into work? As knowledge workers, our job is to communicate ideas and inspire action. All too often we resort to charts and statistics instead of stories.

Why? Because storytelling is hard.

It's easy to string together some industry buzzwords, layer on some mind-blowing statistics, and drop the “d” word (“disruption" for those not in the biz). Like this:

“We're using big data, machine learning and natural language processing to disrupt the $36B global CRM industry."

Yawn. Sadly, this change-the-world rhetoric isn’t memorable.

If you want your idea to stick, tell a story.

Companies That Lead With Storytelling

Here are a few examples of companies that use storytelling to differentiate their products.

WeWork. WeWork rents workspace to small teams and freelancers. WeWork is effectively a landlord. But it’s story, “do your life’s work with a community of creators,” is memorable and inspiring. Its tells the story of its members (see video) and even hosts a crazy summer camp (WeWork Summer Camp).

Airbnb. Airbnb doesn’t list vacation rentals - it helps you “belong anywhere.” Airbnb does a great job telling its guests’ stories on its blog and via word-of-mouth.

Ritz-Carlton. The luxury hotel chain built its reputation by providing outstanding customer service. Their employees built a culture of service by sharing “Wow” stories  of exceptional customer service during their Daily Line-Ups.

Your company has its own stories whether you like it or not. The question is: are they compelling?

How to Tell a Great Story

Most of us weren't born with the innate storytelling abilities of Walt Disney, Colin Powell or Sheryl Sandberg. Fortunately for us, storytelling is a skill that we can develop with practice. Here’s a basic framework I have borrowed from Stanford researcher Jennifer Aaker and other storytelling greats:

1) Know your audience. After all, the story needs to be relevant and resonate with that audience.

2) Know your goal. Ask yourself why are you telling the story? What action should it inspire?

3) Create a story arc. Each event should build on the other leading to a transformation or resolution. Avoid chronologies wherever possible.

4) Show don’t tell. Humans are visual creatures. Even if you don’t use visual aids you can still use visual language to describe the scene.

5) Make it human. Talk about people instead of abstract concepts.

6) Keep it real. Make sure the story is truthful and relatable. Expose the flaws - audiences rarely resonate with flawless characters.

7) Avoid the seven deadly sins. Aaker created this list of things that will kill your story. 

Additional Resources

Here are some of the resources I have found helpful as I have worked on my own storytelling skills.

Resonate by Nancy Duarte 

Made to Stick by Chip Heath 

The Power of Storytelling (webinar) by Jennifer Aaker (Stanford GSB) and David Hornick (August Capital)

What techniques have you developed for crafting and telling stories? Any suggestions?