Use stories to deliver meaning and insight

The frustrated trainer was tearing his hair out. He told me why the course participant had got under his skin: “He said he was a serious person, an academic, and he didn’t propose to tell stories in his presentations.” It’s not the first time I’ve heard the argument that stories are for the playroom, not the boardroom. And it’s a terrible mistake.

Storytelling is not about ignoring or diminishing information. It’s about managing information and giving added value. Information – raw data – on its own is just that… raw data. It needs to be mixed with context and relevance to be useful. And it needs storytelling to make it memorable.

Delivering information is easy. Delivering meaning is much harder. Albert Einstein once said: “Any fool can know. The point is to understand.” And it was Patrick Watson, a former chairman of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, who said: “Story is the instrument you need if you wish to be in the meaning business.”

“Story is the instrument you need if you wish to be in the meaning business.”

The ‘meaning business’ is exactly where we – as speakers, presenters and writers – should aspire to be. Let’s face it, running through a deck of slides and delivering 20 minutes’ worth of data is relatively easy. (In saying that, I’m perfectly aware that some people are uncomfortable speaking in public. But the discomfort can be overcome, and speaking skills can be learned. From that point on, it’s relatively easy).

Managing the information to make it memorable, to make it resonate, to incite action and encourage change, is harder.

And that’s where story comes to the rescue. 

Story, according to Pulitzer prize-winning science writer Jon Franklin, is ‘a person colliding with a problem’. He explained: “A character runs into a complication, struggles to resolve it, has a point of insight, and wraps it up.”

Another way of looking at story was articulated by Hollywood screenplay writer Robert McKee: ”Story shows us a world we do not know, though it may be on our doorstep; the ordinary becomes extraordinary, we discover something about ourselves and our daily reality.”

STORIES ARE STICKY

Stories have a wonderfully sticky quality about them. Think about them as duct tape for information. If you want your information to stick in the minds of your audience, tape it there with the adhesive qualities of stories.

Don’t just tell your audience that your product or new way of working will make life better. Tell the stories that illustrate how life will be better. 

Don’t just tell your audience that hours and hours of research led to the success that you are celebrating. Tell the story about the dedication of the researchers, the set-backs they overcame, to get to where you are today.

We ran a workshop once where a participant stood up and said: “We’re accountants. We don’t have stories.”

They did have stories. Of course they did. They were just not used to thinking about the stories they lived, or encountered, every day. As we talked it through with them we discovered they loved stories. But they thought of them as big things, like books, and plays, and movies, that were wonderful – but somehow distant from their day-to-day existence.

THE HERO QUEST

Let’s go back to Jon Franklin’s definition of story as a person colliding with a problem. It’s simply another way of looking at the hero’s quest… the fundamental building block of all stories down the ages. The elements are simple:

Character. You need your hero. It could be an accountant. It could be a production line worker. It doesn’t have to be a superhero or a prince on a white steed. 

Quest. The character has to be in pursuit of something worthwhile. The astronaut saving the earth from obliteration by an asteroid is no different from the accountant finding ways to keep a company solvent.

Obstacle. The collision with the problem. We’re not talking here about Armageddon and the final battle between good and evil. We’re talking about everyday obstacles that are confronted and overcome. The real story of success is often the stories of all the little defeats along the way. The story of the prototypes that failed will help to validate the integrity of the finished product. 

With these concepts in mind, set out to become a story detective. Alert for these three elements – character, quest and obstacle – go hunting for the stories that turn your abstract data into images; stories that sear themselves into memories.

When you stumble across potential stories, make a note of them. Save them for the right occasion. 

Before you know it, you’ll have a repertoire of stories and anecdotes that will bring your speeches and presentations to life – and make them linger longer in the minds of audiences.