An effective story has a clear purpose and it is linked to the broader purpose of the communication. It taps into people’s sentiments, emotions, feelings, empathy and thoughts. Facts and data do not, in and of themselves, compel the imagination—unless they are presented in a compelling way and backed up with anecdotes, examples and stories. People can see themselves in a truly effective story. This does not necessarily mean that they see themselves as the protagonist in the story, but that they can imagine themselves relating to critical aspects of the story. An effective story also helps people create a new level of understanding about the topic; they think and feel things about it that they have not thought or felt before. Often, you will find that if you insert a “surprise” or novel idea into the story, it will generate a new level of understanding.
There are the four story types – each of them works in different situations and the challenge is to select the appropriate type of story for your audience and the outcome you want to achieve:
Bridging the Gap
This story type is used to paint a picture in the stakeholder’s mind about the difference between what is (current state) and what could be (future state). In your story, you should move back and forth between the two states to create energy and encourage the stakeholder to engage and ultimately take action. The obvious solution to the future state is applying your company’s solutions to solve a client’s issue.
An analogy is a similarity between two different things, like the similarities between a bird and a plane. This is how human beings learn – we make generalisations from one thing and apply them to other things. This happens naturally and automatically. We not only see similarities – sometimes we actually transfer traits from one thing to another. A great example of analogy is how Microsoft describes the importance of cloud computing. To explain its importance, Microsoft begins with an analogy of how the first automobile was introduced in the early 1900s, when no one could see its potential to change the world.
Evidence/results stories are used to prove that you can do what you are promising. They should be used with clients and stakeholders who are sceptical; who have had less than optimal experiences working with other providers or who need proof before taking action. Evidence/results stories are a “just the facts” type of story, for those clients who don’t like or need embellishment. They follow a simple structure: 1. What was the problem? – 2. What was the solution? – 3. What results were achieved?
The Hero’s Journey
A pattern of narrative identified by the American scholar Joseph Campbell, this story type appears in drama, storytelling, myth, religious ritual and psychological development. It describes the typical journey or adventure of the archetype known as The Hero, the person who undertakes a journey, builds alliances and addresses challenges and ulimatately defeats their biggest challenge and then receives their reward having completed the journey. Most of the famous adventure stories written throughout history, such as The Odyssey, most Disney films, Star Wars, the Harry Potter series, and so on, follow the hero’s journey. To make this type of story in you context, set up the story by providing any background details to which you will refer later and describing characteristics of key people. Then describe how the experience unfolded over time, from your perspective or the perspective of the protagonist. As you tell the story, focus as much as possible on the specific elements (criteria) that led you to choose it. Focus on the high stakes; the challenges, setbacks, barriers, conflicts, the surprises, unexpected events and the intensity of emotions the protagonist felt. Include unique, out-of-the-ordinary details on how the protagonist achieved something great, went above and beyond, made a difference and lessons that were learned. Reveal the meaning of the story by reemphasising lessons you learned, clarifying the transformation the protagonist went through and articulate insights and lessons for the listeners
There is no one right way or story type, use what works for your audience and context, remember storytelling is an iterative process therefore your stories will grow and change over time as you tell and re-tell them, each time making the changes that make your story even more effective. Like coaching and communication, story developing and telling is a life skill. We all use stories every day, the key is to use them intentionally and effectively to drive the business and personal outcomes you wish to achieve.