Several people around a night time campfire

Can you tell a story ?

growth leadership storytelling Feb 01, 2022

In the second of our Tech Nation lunch and learn series, we asked founders if they could tell a story. Of course they can. We are all born natural storytellers. But do we still have this skill or was it coached out of us by schools or the corporate world? Do we actually use this vital skill on a daily basis? And can we tell a good story? Every month there are thousands of mentions of storytelling and how to tell stories. At best the advice is trite. At worse it betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of how stories work.

If you want to become a storyteller you need to understand why we tell stories. It is not to make money. Never start with the business application. Start with the anthropology. We tell stories because they are an extremely simple way to communicate. Even the youngest children can understand them. They have to, because stories play a key role in helping us make sense out of life’s chaos. They help explain cause and effect, imposing order on otherwise disconnected facts. They play an important biological function. They help us learn, adapt and survive. We learn most from seeing the mistakes and successes of others. To quote Robert McKee, stories are ‘a metaphor for life.’ They help us to remember our past. They entertain us. They help us to imagine a different future. We long to live in their worlds long after the story has ended. And stories bind us together. They provide the social glue necessary for everyday collaboration.

Companies can make a lot of money from telling stories. They have to, given that 74% people actively dodge ads. No one dodges a good story. Stories are emotional. Who hasn’t wiped away a tear while watching a John Lewis Christmas ad? And stories work. In a landmark study, 57% of the most effective ad campaigns used emotions. Now companies like System 1 measure the emotional response to brand stories to predict short and long-term sales growth. Stories are 22 times more memorable than facts alone. They are shareable. They create value in themselves. Academics have shown that adding a story to a business product increases its appeal and makes people willing to pay more for it. This was demonstrated brilliantly by Rob Walker, of the New York Times, in 2009. He bought 200 random objects (i.e. tat) for just over a dollar each. Then he invited 200 authors to create a story for each one before he sold them on eBay. He made $8,000.

We must understand how storytelling is subtly changing. We still tell each other stories, read, and go to the theatre or cinema (lockdowns permitting). But digital media means we can spend nearly every free moment engaged in a host of stories. That’s new. Many of these come in novel forms, where the barrier between fact and fiction is intentionally blurred. We actively control stories through the games we play. We use virtual reality to immerse ourselves and interact in story universes. Social media has made us all story creators. And now the machines are getting in on the act, with films and stories written entirely by algorithm.

If the world is now dominated by story, we need to be able to tell good ones. Stories that slip under the body’s natural defences and activate the emotional brain. Stories that create enough empathy, drama, suspense and emotional release to chemically change our brains. Neuroscientists have now proven what storytellers have always known: stories change not only our perceptions but also our behaviour. That’s because we are wired for story, or as Jonathan Gottschall calls it, we are storytelling animals.

Most stories fail at the first hurdle. They are not stories at all. You only have a story when you have three things: a hero, a goal and a struggle to achieve the goal. For example, Luke Skywalker is a hero. His ultimate goal is to save the rebellion by destroying the Death Star. The struggle is everything that stands between him and the end goal. The greater the struggle (or conflict as authors call it), the more we are gripped and invested in the outcome. Here lies the first problem with storytelling in business contexts: people aren’t comfortable talking about struggle. This is easily remedied by a dose of candour: everything in life is a struggle. It is only by sharing this and we overcame obstacles that we can hope to emotionally engage the audience (or even hold their attention). The rewards justify the risk. Try it.

We find people have too many stories to tell rather than too few. Founders should have at least six up their sleeves at all times: origin; purpose; solution; recruitment; investment and point of view (why the world needs you). They all need to be carefully crafted. You do this by coming up with an interesting hero and placing them in a dramatic situation. The trick here is to think of the worst possible situation for that particular hero. Jaws is a telling example: what if a man afraid of the sea has to catch a killer shark? This situation has a thousand times more dramatic energy contained within it than an alternate story about an expert shark hunter chasing a shark. We have no interest in that story. We know how it will end. Instead, we want stories that are filled with uncertainty. So once you have an idea, craft a plot summary describing your hero, struggle and goal, twisting it to make it sound as interesting and dramatic as possible.

The next step is to plan your story. What happens when? Here some knowledge of story structure and plotting is useful. You can work with any number of different tools, such as Aristotle’s three-act story arc; Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey or Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat. We are big fans of Kurt Vonnegut’s story shaping. The key thing to know is that stories have patterns. That is what makes them instantly recognisable as stories over narratives or anecdotes. These story frameworks forge your ideas into a story. Specific events happen at specific times. For example, you begin with the hero in their ordinary world before it is disrupted, and you end with the hero returning home, only to find that they no longer belong, because either they or the world has changed as a result of their struggle.

Great storytelling is highly technical – it has to be for it to be used for specific purposes - but it is not a dark art. It is one everyone is capable of. If you would like to fast track your skills, we can help. We can quickly train you and your teams to be adept storytellers.

We are also developing tools and play books to help you tell simple stories well. If you would like early access to these for free, get in touch.


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