Using stories to get your message across


Two contrasting events happened in Communicate this week that put the power of stories firmly in mind:  I was working with a group of auditors and discussing options for presenting technical auditing issues in an engaging way.  Back in the office I picked up an email asking for presentation help for a guy described as a bright guy, very theatrical in his style who enjoys theory and concepts but is too abstract and jumps around ideas too much for people to follow. Obviously he needs to build some stronger audience engagement.

In both cases story telling is the answer.  All humans enjoy stories and a good story can turn knowledge into something that really connects with us and can stimulate us to understand and to act. Even something as technical as auditing has human story behind it – stories as to why that rule was developed, what happened when the rule was broken and so on. 

Often when I ask people about the best presenter at a recent  conference, the answer relates to story telling – the presenter told a story that the listener could relate to and use as the basis for future action.

An example?  A new team leader hearing a presenter talk about the issue of sometimes having to make an unpopular decision as a leader. The presenter told about her son falling over that very morning and getting a bad gravel graze.  The mother had to inflict pain on the boy to clean out the graze so it could heal well.  Who knows how true that small story was, but it lingered with the listener and gave her the confidence to act on some difficult issues she was facing. 

Don’t get stuck on the idea that your life is too mundane for stories.  You don’t have to have chopped off your arm with a multi-tool to escape from being trapped under a rock!  Often the most powerful and long-lasting stories are built from very simple accessible material – as in the grazed knee example.   With this type of story, an audience can think: ‘Ah ha! Yes, I get that.  This is familiar’,  then they have the basis for understanding or action.   

 A while ago I worked with a group young army recruitment personnel.  Some of them had coped with some very dramatic situations during their overseas service, but the most compelling story came from a woman who talked about how joining the army had enabled her to find a route out of a  very negative and limited background. The audience could relate to the story and use it as a message for action.  So, just look at your ordinary daily life for compelling content.  If you want an example, take a look at Carmen Agra Deedy telling the story of taking her mother to the shopping mall. Okay, she’s a brilliant story teller and has really worked on this one, but the source of the content is very simple:

So look around your life for some real stories, then when you have some ideas or concepts that are difficult to get across, ask yourself: ‘What else  in my life is similar to this concept or has the same kinds of elements? Who knows how your life might be compelling for someone else.

Some other useful resources:

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