Storytelling

Storytelling 3: Tips for a compelling narrative

Storytelling at work

In the first two parts of our series we looked at the science behind storytelling, and how to jump in and create your own. And in this post we share a few tips to help you hone and maintain your storytelling habit.

Perhaps the world's (and our own) infatuation with storytelling will fade over time, but stories themselves are no flash in the pan. They speak to our quintessentially human desire to communicate. And at their best, elevate the simple stuff of life to the utterly captivating. So here they are, a few of our top tips.

1. Start with emotion

What emotions are at the heart of the story, how do you want your audience to feel when they hear it? What do you want them to do after they've heard it? Pin them down and keep them at the story's heart.

2. Identify the narrative arc

It sounds obvious. It is obvious. And yet... structure so often goes out the window. So clarify the beginning, middle and end, and make sure your story is going somewhere.

Writing down the three or five key elements on post-it notes and switching them around may help you find the most powerful structure for your story.

3. Keep it personal

The personal is powerful. If you can show why something matters to you, you'll help your audience understand why it matters to them.

If you're like me, you'll hate doing this. You could decide to suck it up, if that works for you, or you could find a personal angle on a story that can bring it to life without leaving you feeling entirely exposed.

4. Keep it short, with options to extend

Develop and practice 60-second, 2- and 3-minute versions of your story. You can fit a surprising amount into a minute, whether or not you adhere to the rules of Just a Minute.

5. Start small, and varied

Create a few stories and try them out as soon as possible, starting with low risk situations. Review, extend, condense and adapt as you find out what works best for you and has the greatest impact on a particular audience.

Do drop us a line if you have any questions, or would like to know more about how you can use storytelling more effectively at work. Or sign up to download our free Chirp Workbook.

 

 

Storytelling 2: How to tell your transformation story (and all the other ones)

Edgar Oliver, a brilliant storyteller and The Moth regular, whose astonishing story  'The Apron Strings of Savannah'  literally stopped me in my tracks.  "Edgar Oliver, poet"  by Stacie Joy licenced by CC BY  -ND 2.0.

Edgar Oliver, a brilliant storyteller and The Moth regular, whose astonishing story 'The Apron Strings of Savannah' literally stopped me in my tracks. "Edgar Oliver, poet" by Stacie Joy licenced by CC BY-ND 2.0.

'So, what's your story?' I was asked at an event recently. An odd opening gambit (I prefer 'hello') and, I thought, an irritating one. But then, storytelling is everywhere, no longer the preserve of savvy brands and eager politicians.

Sometimes it can seem you as if you don't exist without an explanatory back story. Who you are, what you do, why you do it, your "transformational moment". And I'd be tempted to complain about this ubiquitous obsession* were it not that storytelling is such a powerful tool.

We know from the science that stories have a compelling impact on the human brain. And you probably know from experience that, done well, storytelling can reach hearts and minds much faster than facts alone.** But having established that a) stories are powerful, and b) you need some up your sleeve, how do you go about crafting them?

Generating material for your story

It can be difficult to know what to say or where to start your story. And when you’re under the cosh it can be difficult to remember why you even cared in the first place. So below, we share one of the processes we use to help our clients generate material, practice storytelling, and clarify the impact they want to make.

My top tip is not to be too prescriptive. Don't discard strong material that doesn't fit in a particular story – use it elsewhere. After all, several stories are better than one, and it's useful to have a few ready for different audiences and purposes. Apart from the final step, the process will probably take about 20-30 minutes.

1. What do you care about?

In unpacking this, you might think about: 

  • Your personal values  
  • Why they’re your personal values – what it is that fundamentally connects you to these values and makes them part of you 
  • A time or times you’ve demonstrated your values at work, why you did so, what happened, and the emotions you both felt at the time and feel now looking back  
  • A time or times when other people have shared your values at work, why you think they did so, what happened, and the emotions you felt at the time and feel now looking back 

2. How do your personal values map onto your working life?

They might be expressed in the type of work you do, or in the organisation or clients you work with. And they might not. You might live your values at work in how you engage with the people around you, and in how they engage with you. Or even in what your work enables you to do outside of work. Either way, work out what matters to you. Avoid the stock answer; your own story is usually the most compelling.

3. Think of an experience at work that encapsulates and illustrates one or some of those values.

It might be something that happened on a project. It might be a client's off the cuff remark. It might be something outside work that made you look at it afresh. It could be good, bad, ugly or none of the above. Whatever it is, note how it makes you feel, and hold that emotion at the forefront.

4. Identify your audience

Who are you (perhaps theoretically) telling this particular story to? What do you want them to feel upon hearing it? Unsurprisingly, that clarity of purpose is Very Useful in defining and refining the content...!

5. Begin

Yep, this is the bit where you actually have to create something. So abandon self-criticism. The point is to generate first, and refine second.

Start with the emotion. Describe that experience in terms of how it made you feel at the time, what happened, and how you feel about it now. Keep it short – two minutes should suffice to begin with. Have a few goes, keeping the bits you like and switching or ditching the bits you don't.

6. Phone a friend

Or, better still, talk to them face to face. Tell them your story and ask them for feedback, e.g.

  • What the most important aspect of your story was
  • What they were moved or struck by in the story
  • How it made them feel
  • What that feeling made them want to do
  • What you could stop/start/continue/shift to make your story stronger

7. Launch

Cut to the chase and test your story in the real world. Networking events are great for this, as you get several chances in an environment designed for short attention spans. Either way, make sure you find out what other people are hearing in your story, and then refine, adapt and adjust as required to help it land.

Do drop us a line if have any questions, would like to know more, or would like help with your own or your organisation's storytelling. Or sign up to download our free Chirp Workbook.

 

*I wondered if this obsession might be correctly termed 'mythophilia'. But that turns out to be something else entirely. And possibly NSFW.

** This emphasis is important: underpinning your story with compelling facts can help it fly. And actual, as opposed to alternative, facts are not only valuable but may never have been so vital.

Storytelling 1: The Science of Storytelling

By Nevit Dilmen (talk) and Tekks (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via  Wikimedia Commons

By Nevit Dilmen (talk) and Tekks (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Our world is awash with stories.

Not only ones we seek out, but others we're confronted with whether we like it or not. True stories, fictional stories, fictional stories purporting to be true stories… They feature in every aspect of our daily lives, from business to politics to leisure.

And for good reason. Storytelling is an extremely powerful tool. It alters the activity in your brain, influencing not only what you think and feel, but how you act. Which is quite useful if you’ve ever needed to convince someone of something – whether it’s that they should donate to charity or hire you for your dream job.

There’s a fascinating – and growing – body of research into the science behind storytelling. Labs across the world are exploring how stories impact on the human brain – from how we understand them to their role in communication.

Curious? Read on for three examples (referenced below) you might find useful when telling your own stories. And for insightful analysis of what to do with this all storytelling, do check out Sisonke Msimang's excellent Ted talk.

1. Simulation of reality

Hearing or reading a story creates a simulation of reality in your brain. In other words, your brain processes the story as if you were actually experiencing its events first-hand.[i] That ‘real’ experience can provide a useful short-cut to improving understanding and emotional connection between storyteller and audience.

2. Emotion and empathy

Emotionally arousing stories raise the pain thresholds of the audience, and increase their sense of group bonding.[ii] Stories with a strong emotional and dramatic arc are also more likely to inspire empathy in the audience and influence their subsequent actions (such as charitable giving) than stories that are emotionally neutral.[iii] [iv] 

3. Alignment and communication

Storytelling “couples” or aligns your brain with that of your listener. When you tell people a story, their brain activity begins to mirror yours and you interpret the story in the same way. The stronger the similarity in your brain activity, the better the communication between you and your listener(s).[v] [vi] Uri Hasson’s Ted talk, though a few years old now, is useful for a quick overview of some of this research – and why it matters.

This is the first of our three-part series on storytelling. Do drop us a line if you have any questions, or would like to know more about how you can use storytelling more effectively at work. Or sign up to download our free Chirp Workbook.


[i] Oatley, K (2012), The Cognitive Science of Fiction. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science. 3(4), 425-430.

[ii] Dunbar RIM, Teasdale B, Thompson J, Budelmann F, Duncan S, van Emde Boas E, Maguire L. (2016) Emotional arousal when watching drama increases pain threshold and social bonding. Royal Society open science, 3: 160288.

[iii] Barraza, J., Alexander, V., Beavin, L. Terris, E., & Zak, P. (2015). The heart of the story: Peripheral physiology during narrative exposure predicts charitable giving. Biological Psychology. 105, 138-143.

[iv]  Zak, P. J. (2015). Why Inspiring Stories Make Us React: The Neuroscience of Narrative. Cerebrum: The Dana Forum on Brain Science, 2.

[v] Stephens, G. J., Silbert, L. J., & Hasson, U. (2010). Speaker–listener neural coupling underlies successful communication. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 107(32), 14425–14430

[vi] Liu, Y., Piazza E., Simony, E., Shewokis, P., Onaral, B., Hasson, U., Ayaz, H. Measuring speaker–listener neural coupling with functional near infrared spectroscopy. PRE-PRINT. bioRxiv preprint first posted online Oct. 16, 2016; doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1101/081166.

Why my stories now start with me

Find stray piano. Break into song. Another ordinary day.

Find stray piano. Break into song. Another ordinary day.

Singing is storytelling in its purest form. It’s emotion, stripped back and revealed.

I learnt this early on. People said that I when I sang, I seemed more real than ever. This made me sound like a song-sucking spectre. But I knew what they meant.

In those moments, they saw me. Differently. Fully. That’s partly because I'm a trained singer who's unfazed by the spotlight, and adores applause. But it’s something else, too. There’s a gap between competent and captivating. It's filled by emotional honesty.

When I sing – really sing, I cast out a line and hook my audience at their core. I know that if I keep that line taught, channel their emotions through mine, they'll follow me. Anywhere. I can forget the notes, fluff a line. It doesn't matter: they're compelled to be mine. That's storytelling. You don't find it somewhere other than where you are. You don't find it in someone else's style, or in a checklist, or in handy hints. You find it in yourself.

I made my career from storytelling. When I worked in television finding, selling and telling stories was my day job. And I was good at it. So, what with all the telly and the singing, you’d think I'd mainline storytelling when I launched Chirp. After all, I'm hardly a shrinking violet.

But my storytelling sucked. I flouted the most important rule I’d learned: that storytelling must start with you, with why you care. And I didn’t want to own that. Or anything that might be about me. So I gathered up my facts, and exorcised myself.

While I cut myself out, I brought others in. I asked for advice. And got lots. The result was a muddled offering to which I felt no connection. (My fault, not theirs.) Chirp no longer reflected who I was, what I cared about and what motivated me. Instead, it reflected what other people thought I ought to care about and be motivated by. Chirp became their ambition, not mine. And that left me with no story to tell.

All very embarrassing and shambolic, and not the sort of mess I’m accustomed to making. But the thing is, it's awfully hard to tell your own story. To own what really matters to you, and why, and share that in an unpredictable world. It’s not about confidence, or polish or passion. It’s about breaching that gap between competent and captivating. It's about being real and present. And that's hard.

Telling stories founded in who I am has helped me make more of the right sort of impact, and less of the wrong sort. Emotional honesty isn't easy, particularly when it triggers discomfort in someone else. But it is more compelling than a pristine yet clinical spiel. So, blunders aside, that's what I do now. I think it's vital if you want to bring your unique self to work, and not leave your identity at the door.

That's why I use singing to help people tell stories – about themselves, their brands, their companies, their ideas for change. Singing asks you to be seen and heard just as you are. To witness your own emotions and channel them in others. Singing puts you on the line, makes you vulnerable, makes you human. It is challenging and personal and exposing. And I get that not everyone loves that, and certainly not all the time (exhausting prospect). But it does swiftly connect you to what really matters.

Storytelling, whether spoken or sung, isn’t about pretending, or trying to be someone you're not. (X Factor take note.) It's about using what's already there. It's about being present and real and yourself – just as you are in that moment. From that place of stripped back emotion, you can only tell your own story. When you do, it's powerful stuff.

Get to the point – tell me a story

Image by Ali Shaker/VOA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Image by Ali Shaker/VOA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It's not a contradiction. We know from experience (and now science) that stories are more effective than facts if you want someone to connect with your message. Storytelling helps engage people in your vision, from one customer to an entire nation. Or at least enough of a nation to swing an election.*

The term 'storytelling' has been bandied about so much it's in danger of not living up to its own myth. (Ah, the irony.) But to me, it's simply a way of harnessing the emotional capital that lies at the heart of what you do, and why it matters.

A compelling story communicates the emotional core of your message. When you hear it, it creates a simulation of reality in your brain. That helps clients and colleagues to act on what they've heard, because they're engaged both intellectually and emotionally. They understand why they should care. And that's a powerful tool.

If you're interested in the neuroscience of storytelling, you might like to read this. And if you're interested in the practice, you might like to come to our Effective Storytelling session on Saturday 22nd October in Central London. No votes, just stories.

*Okay, so Michelle Obama isn't President. But she is a masterful, and vote-winning, storyteller.

Find out how to tell your own compelling stories. Sign up to download our free Chirp Workbook.