The power of storytelling

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The telling of stories is something we as humans have been doing forever.  Stories are used to share knowledge and experience, to keep legends and history alive, to entertain and to inspire. 

In today’s society storytelling takes on many forms through many different media.  This include books, songs, poems, films, and talks (such as TED Talks).  It has also grown in prominence as a key leadership attribute.  Ever more emphasis is placed on authentic leadership and the importance of being not only an effective communicator but also narrator, as a motivator of people and systems.

The Accelerated Solutions Environment (ASE) often use storytelling as a powerful tool to create a metaphor through which our clients can explore their challenges, and to stimulate new thinking.  To bring its power to life, here are a couple examples I’ve taken from music that are often held up as great pieces of storytelling.

Hotel California by the Eagles

Heralded as an epic narrative on the band’s first encounter with LA and their experience of the underbelly of the American Dream.  It uses several tools to tell the story.  Clearly the music itself is simple and highly recognisable.  Through the lyrics it also:

  • Personalises their experience and takes you on a journey.
  • Uses multiple sensory references to contextualise the experience and draw you in (sights, sounds, smells).  It’s evocative.
  • As a result, the audience can create the place and experience in their minds.  It stays with them.

Springsteen’s Born in the USA

  • A few minutes of powerful story telling from birth, to heading off to war, to life as a disillusioned American War Veteran.
  • He uses simple imagery to portray a massive topic, focusing on specific events or moments to paint a much bigger picture.
  • In doing so, it becomes a personal narrative that tells a much broader story.

I am sure we all have our own favourite songs that we would hold up in the same way, as we would films and other media.  What’s interesting is what we can learn from them in relation to how we tell stories.

So, what does great storytelling consist of, what are the components?

  1. Holding interest – how do I grab my audience interest, and how do I sustain it?
  • Hook – What is going to draw me in?  It can be a bold statement, or a challenge.  Point is, you have my attention.
  • Purpose – What’s this story about?  Interestingly I don’t think this has to be immediately obvious, but it needs to become clear sooner rather than late.  Relevance is key.
  • Show, don’t tell – A story is more powerful when it’s NOT positioned as ‘I am going to tell you something’.  You are sharing something with them that has meaning for them.  Share insight, ask questions, involve them in the story if you can
  • Vivid, not lots of detail – In simple terms lots of words on a page isn’t the answer.  Use images and multiple formats to support your words, but don’t rely on them.  A ‘presentation’ can distract, put itself between you and the audience.   Like the Eagles, mix it up.  Like Springsteen a few well-chosen moments or images can tell a far more powerful story.
  • A great turning point – It’s the moment in the film where you go ‘I never saw that coming’, or ‘from this point it all changed’.  It’s the point where you are truly gripped.  You won’t always have this, but if you can find twists and turns, moments of surprise or a change in pace then you have a better chance of sustaining your audience’s attention.
  • Structure – A ramble doesn’t work.  People get lost, as will you.
  1. Building connections
  • Personal, with caution – Your experience makes it authentic, but it can also make it hard for others to engage with.  And there is nothing people hate more than hearing about someone else’s fabulous party!  There is no harm in using your experience, and you, in the story.  Just make sure you use it wisely and sparingly and offer enough context that your audience can join you in that experience.
  • Shared thoughts and feelings – for me this again comes back to building in enough that means the story feels real.  It can create empathy if your story is in some way a mirror of how they might be feeling themselves.  But again, use wisely.
  1. Provide a satisfying conclusion
  • Stop at the end – Believe it or not I see many people not do this!  They feel the need to carry on.  Maybe they feel they didn’t quite land the message, that the story wasn’t quite right, or they didn’t get the response they were after.  Rambling on after ‘the end’ won’t help even if what you think, or feel is true, which often it’s not.  The way to counter this is to create room for participant input through the story which helps you test where you are at.

Next week, in the second part of this blog, I will talk about how the ASE can enhance employee engagement by embedding a theme with great storytelling.

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