This blog post comes from Matt Beresford, a successful Theatre Director & Business Coach. We really enjoyed Matt’s piece so we’re delighted to have the opportunity to share it with you. Let us, and Matt know what you think.

Once upon a time

….four little words that instantly grab our attention. They make us listen – promising adventure, humour and a message.

As a theatre director I tell stories, using every resource at my disposal – actors, set, costume, lighting and sound – to make those stories compelling enough to keep an audience entertained and engaged. I want to make them think of course, but my primary aim is to have an emotional impact – to move them – perhaps to laughter, perhaps to tears. This emotional impact is what makes plays, movies, novels (not to mention sports events) more ‘sticky’ than much business communication that we see and hear.

Hearing a story puts much more of our brain to work than simply listening to a presentation. Emotions that the storyteller, or characters, are experiencing can be shared with the listener – this is also exactly what makes theatre work. The audience empathises with the emotions of the actors and is moved by sharing those same emotions.

Since stories are central to how people make sense of the world, they play a big role in how we learn and remember. They keep our memories together like a glue and that makes them a powerful tool when your message has real value attached to it.

Storytelling for Business

Businesses are always looking for ways to improve the way they engage with their customers and their staff. More and more companies are looking to the arts for new ways to make their communication more compelling and engaging.

Stories can capture our imaginations, illustrate our ideas, arouse our passions, and inspire us in a way that cold, hard facts often can’t. As Piers Ibbotson says: “People want more than facts. They want meaning. Audiences at conferences do not want to be bombarded with data and figures. They want stories with emotional impact that hold their interest and convey meaning.”

If we’re going to spend a lot of money getting our staff or customers together we should make sure that whatever we communicate has considered both what we want them to think of course, but also what we want them to feel – to inspire them, to provoke them, to challenge them, for example. And, of course, we also need that emotion to generate in them the desire to take some action – so that the energy created by our communication isn’t lost, but translated into something we can ‘see’, perhaps new ideas and initiatives, improved motivation or retention (maybe a specific measurable improvement in Control, Confidence and Connectedness) and of course better sales from better engaged customers, who understand why you exist. As Simon Sinek says “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” Telling stories is a terrific way of articulating this ‘Why”.

Story Elements

There are no golden rules for how to create a story but there are elements that the best stories share – here are some to think about.

Purpose/Objective

  • If you want to engender new behaviour you have to carefully decide on the purpose of your story – that is, what you want the listener to feel, think and do (what might be described as ‘head, heart and feet’.
  • Of course we like to believe we are calmly rational beings perfectly evaluating the information we hear before deciding on how we should react. In reality we know that we are consciously and sub-consciously impacted by what we feel – our emotions about products, the people, the company – and so we need to be aware what emotions we want to elicit.
  • Acting is about acting on someone –other actors and the audience. There’s nothing more boring than listening to someone presenting for themselves. If you’re presenting for yourself or your company it will be dull…what do you want us to think, feel and do when you have finished speaking and for the next few weeks?

Language

‘Keep it simple, stupid!’ As a general rule the simpler the language the better.

The Opening

  • This is the moment to grab the audience to coil the spring that will propel the audience’s interest right through the story – “let me tell you a story”, “Once upon a time”, “A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away”
  • As the great playwright Arthur Miller said a play starts ‘after the sh*t hits the fan!’ What is it that starts the story? What provoked the ‘action’ that will be the meat of your story? This often involves some challenge that has to be overcome.
  • Make sure we know what the stakes are – what was it that the characters sought to gain – is it reputation, respect, pride, or gain? Not a simple financial result – or if it must be – what goal did that financial result fulfil for an individual perhaps?
  • Make sure you set the scene – physically where possible. Is there a way of bringing this image to mind for an audience – inspiration in the shower! A meeting at lunch at a well-known restaurant?

Characters

  • Introduce the characters. Stories involve people, so describe them. Are there heroes, villains, damsels in distress, dragons to be fought? Make sure we know whose side we’re on – that way we can know who to root for and be more interested in what happens next
  • The more specific the human stories the more we can connect with the feelings, ambitions and desires of the characters – the individual customer whose life was positively affected by your product, the member of staff who went the extra mile to ensure the customer’s experience was world class. Used in conjunction with data it can be far more compelling than simply using sales charts or customer satisfaction results.
  • Steal some tricks from novels and plays – let us get to know them by what they actually say, rather than by what you tell us about them. “Get out,” he shouted. That’s better than just telling us he was angry. This also gives great scope for comedy – a useful ingredient in any good story.

Plot

  • A story has a narrative structure which helps to drive the action forward and keep the audience engaged. Drama needs a protagonist and antagonist; it needs to deal in conflicts between individuals or ideas. “We used to think this… but now we think this.” “You believe that… but the truth is different… and here’s why.”
  • What actions do your characters take to achieve their goal? What threats do they face, what battles do they win and lose, what mistakes do they make and how do they learn? Who helps them along the way, who do they have to defeat?
  • The best stories have obstacles to be overcome, struggle, dilemmas, conflict that needs to be played out, fluctuating tension and suspense, and, of course, a goal to strive for.
  • JJ Abrams says: “Mystery is the catalyst for imagination. Mystery boxes are everywhere. In the creative process technology is an amazing enabler – the whole world becomes a magic box.” Create suspense in your story, we open one Russian doll and there’s another one there to be opened…

Images

  • We used to go to hear a play (hence audience) and now we go to see a play (spectate). Over the years people have become less good at listening and less good at telling stories – they are surrounded by screens and often find it hard to look away from them (even during presentations…)
  • So, telling compelling stories, allowing customers to use their imaginations to build images is a great way to differentiate your communication – perhaps to dispense with the slide deck altogether and speak directly to your customers.
  • Metaphors and similes are great to use – they maintain interest and hold an audience – grab them from whatever world you think will speak to your audience – sports, music, the arts. These images and metaphors can help to create a spine through your story – a theme – which pulls the whole together and helps to clarify the message.

Resolution and Lessons

  • Include a build up to a peak of tension, a peak that is a win or lose moment, and creates a climax where the tension and excitement reaches its height.
  • The leads to a denouement where we tie up the loose ends, leading to…
  • The resolution “My boss finally saw the light.” “They lived happily ever after…” “And this customer is still one of our greatest partners.” An ending that pleases the audience because they have been willing on the hero character to win – your story has created empathy with the audience, hopefully with the emotional response you sought.
  • Draw out any conclusions or lessons learnt. This pulls the story back to the purpose –here you can afford to be more specific what you want your audience to think, feel and do whether it’s pride in the company they work for, satisfaction in the project they have delivered, or an empathy with what your company stands for that makes them feel closer to the values you have and therefore more likely to have brand loyalty..

And they all lived happily ever after

  • Turn a recent work scenario into a fairy tale – can you make up the fairy tale of your presentation, a sales meeting, a customer project?
  • Does your company have a founding story – what was the passion that drove those individuals to set up your business?
  • Use your people to create stories –we all have more powerful imaginations than we believe. If we read a novel we have no sense of paying attention to a mental process, yet are using our imaginations to create pictures, characters and sounds effortlessly.
  • What is the ‘Why’ of your company – why does it exist, not to make a profit (that’s a result) but how does it set out to change the world? Can this create a compelling story for staff and customers to understand what drives what you do and how you do it?
  • Find your own stories – look back at your childhood, your working career, your personal stories – find and collect stories that explain what values are important to you, how you are where you are and how they reflect what you want to achieve in future.