Follow the Four Commandments of Storytelling

We promised more tips from the brilliant speakers at this year’s TED conference (see earlier post on Bryan Stevenson). I just watched Andrew Stanton’s TED talk again, and it’s even better the second time.

You don’t have to be an Oscar winner to tell a great story. Chances are you do it all the time – at work, home, in your community. What are your favorite storytelling techniques? Share a storytelling success with us in the comments, and read on for tips from Andrew's talk.

The creator and master storyteller of Finding Nemo, Toy Story, and Wall-E gives us a playbook that’s chock-full of what we should (and can!) do to tell great stories – at work and at home. Here are the top four rules to live by:

1. Begin with the end in mind. "Storytelling is joke telling. It’s knowing your punch line, your ending. Knowing that everything you’re saying from the first sentence to the last is leading to a singular goal."

(Note: Stanton dropped an f-bomb in his opener, but I’m pretty sure that’s optional for the rest of us.)

So here’s the question: when’s the last time that you built your presentation, meeting agenda or sales pitch on a punch line? Did you begin with the end in mind? Did you pre-plan the one thing you wanted everyone in the room to leave with?

It’s absurd not to plan a punch line. Why should that happen in our work messages? Even the worst joke tellers have a punch line in mind. Their problem is in the execution. Plenty of those examples in politics, business, and there’s always that slightly off uncle who manages to do it every Thanksgiving.

Do not pass Go, do not collect $200 until you create the punch line, or as we call it, the Point Of View. It’s the big idea, the lead of your story, and most importantly, the phrase that signifies the biggest change in how you want your listener to think or act about your topic.

Your punch line should not be “Buy my product.” That’s a “you” focused message. Instead, frame it with them (your listener) in mind. How and why should your listener think or act differently about technology, an issue, their priorities. What problem are you trying to solve?

This is probably the single most difficult part of creating a message. Not only do we have to be ruthless in prioritizing the most important “So what?” thing, but we also have to frame it in a way that matters to them. But when you do create that crystal clear POV, it will lead the way, and all of the supporting content, claims and evidence that you need to gain buy-in will come easy.

2. Heed the Greatest Story Commandment: "Make me care."

“Logic makes you think, emotion makes you act.” It’s not just about facts, figures, stats and studies. How can you get someone to care so much about your message that they’ll take that action? Hint: it ain’t in the logical argument.

That new composting program in the office might be really important to you, but how do you get someone to prioritize the gazillion things that are important to them and put your initiative above it. And even more difficult is to actually change their behavior.

The best story I've ever heard was from an IT Director who wanted his organization to adopt a new set of technical standards. We blogged about it a while back. His story about the Baltimore fire engenders the right emotions – in this case, fear and uncertainty coupled with urgency – can be incredibly powerful in driving change. It’s important for logic to be present as well, but emotion is the primary motivator.

3. Make the audience work for their meal. "Don’t give them four. Give them two plus two."

Stanton noted that we’re wired for this. As humans we desperately try to bridge the gap between what we know and what we don’t. It’s so automatic for many of us that we try to complete each other’s sentences. Chip and Dan Heath wrote about creating a Curiosity Gap (check out this great video about sparking curiosity).

Instead of laying all your information out there, good storytelling is the well organized absence of information - that absence draws us in and makes us want to know more. Give your audience some credit – they’re natural problem solvers who like to deduce and figure things out. Lead them down a path, revealing kernels as you go.

Here’s a recent example. A VP of Sales Enablement gave a presentation at an industry conference. He was invited to talk about how he overhauled the organization. Rather than just laying out each of the steps of the transformation, he began by drawing out the problems of the inefficient organization that he started with, and then stated, “but this all changed in less than 18 months.” That audience wanted more.

Stanton cited a great quote from playwright William Archer, “Drama is anticipation mingled with uncertainty.” Add some drama to your message by playing on what the audience does not know, and create a curiosity gap that they can’t wait to fill.

4. Make it personal. "Use what you know. Draw from it. [Capture] a truth from your experience. [Express] values that you personally feel deep down to your core."

Using your personal experiences will allow your passion and authenticity to shine. We as listeners trust, believe, and follow those who are authentic. Authenticity is established with consistent messages. That is, the content of your message must match how you come across in your delivery. For example, if you’re delivering good news, smile! If you were to watch a video of yourself, you should be able to mute it and know whether or not you were speaking about good news or bad news, just by watching your behavior.

It’s also about connection. Pay attention to how you engage with your listener. Do you make extended eye communication (versus darting eyes)? Is your tone conversational? Stanton’s delivery is fantastic example of this, and he was near spot-on. (Have to knock him a bit for reading too much from the teleprompter/confidence monitors – it was just enough to break some engagement with the audience.)

Again - you, too, are a storyteller! What are your favorite techniques? Share a storytelling success with us below.

4 thoughts on “Follow the Four Commandments of Storytelling
  1. You know it’s good when a talk brings you to tears! Great share. I have found that audiences feel most connected to me when I’m being vulnerable within my authenticity. That is my favorite way to draw them in immediately. To say what many fear to say themselves, but breathe a sigh of relief when you say it for them. Gives them permission to open up, creates audience engagement, respect, trust, and connection. It’s my “secret sauce”.

  2. Thanks Karen! Always love to hear the ingredients to any secret sauce!
    Adil, engaging emotions at the highest level requires that we think about our audience/listeners. Too often when we present benefits to an audience, we focus on broad corporate benefits, like increased ROI, revenue to the bottom line, etc. But when you can drill those benefits down to the individual level, it’s a more powerful way to reach them. Take a moment to describe your listener (even if it’s just 3 adjectives). If they are risk-averse, present a benefit that offers peace of mind. If they are budget conscious, present benefits that show how they can leverage their existing investment.

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