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The storytelling superpower

‘Storytelling’ used to be a term reserved for the narrative arts—novels, movies, oral stories. Now, in 2016, the rules have changed. There’s a new storyteller in town—in fact, you might be working with one right now. From TechCrunch to TED talks, we hear about the modern ‘storyteller,’ a fabled person who can woo investors, write ad copy that sells, and give killer PowerPoint presentations all through the power of story.

Because of all the hype, it’s tempting to dismiss the storyteller movement as a trend (or this year’s ‘unicorn’). But beneath the buzz, there’s a tale worth hearing. Experience shows that it’s easier for people to remember information when it’s presented in a narrative. Great character-driven stories create emotional connections. And emotions are a catalyst for action—influencing personal change, political activism, and yes, consumer behavior.

The best communicators of our time have been expert storytellers.

The best communicators of our time have been expert storytellers. Think Steve Jobs with the famous 2007 iPhone keynote. Or Martin Luther King Jr., Oprah Winfrey, and Ira Glass. All of these people have been able to change deep-rooted attitudes and behaviors through storytelling. While spinning a yarn doesn't always lead to wide=spread societal change, it can improve your communications with everyone from your boss to your therapist.

But as all the great storytellers know,

How to tell a great story

Kevin Allison, creator of the podcast Risk and founder of The Story Studio is someone who’s practiced storytelling for many years. He consults with Fortune 500 businesses and is called upon to train top communicators across the globe. He recently held a workshop in San Francisco on storytelling and shed some light on his process. Allison’s straightforward approach involves two key tactics: create a story-worthy tale and tell the story in a compelling way.

Allison suggests telling a personal story as you would when speaking to a therapist. For business purposes, compose the story in reverse.

Before you get started, focus on building the framework of the story. This can be done by telling it out loud, recording it on your phone, or simply by writing it down on paper. Don’t edit yet, just produce. If you don’t have a complete story idea, simply record what you do have. Once you get to the end, listen, rewrite, and record again.

Make it story-worthy

meaning people will want to listen to it, remember it, and possibly retell it later. Allison says every story-worthy tale has, at least, three components:

  1. It involves a human being: It might seem obvious, but it’s incredibly important and particularly relevant for business speakers. Businesses routinely forget about humans when they tell stories. Take the common scenario of a product pitch. Usually, it covers a problem, a solution, a list of features, and a price. Where can the audience make a powerful emotional connection to that narrative? Also, how is that pitch different from that of your competitors? Including a human in your story/pitch/example helps audiences relate to and remember your narrative.

  2. It has emotional hooks: Think of your favorite story. It probably involves conflict. We tend to invest more in stories that raise the stakes emotionally. As you start shaping your story, look for moments where emotional stakes were raised or lowered. Moments when something could be lost or gained in the narrative. These are moments where you can appeal to the audience’s hearts and make strong connections. Don’t be afraid of making your audience laugh out loud or want to cry.

  3. It follows a controlling idea: This is the overarching idea, the hook, that drives your entire narrative. Allison says to think of the controlling idea as a golf flag in the distance—everything in the story points to that idea. For some stories, it helps to define the controlling idea first and then write out the story. That way, having the controlling idea in mind while forming the story can help you highlight the right points, memories, and characters to support the big idea.

Give a story-worthy performance

The story is only half of the product. You also need to deliver it in a way that keeps your audience engaged. Allison suggests following three simple guidelines when telling a story:

  1. Use a mental map story to keep you on track: A story map is an outline of all of the main points of your story. It helps you hit the important parts while at the same time avoid rambling. Allison recommends exploring a five beat story structure for your map: 1) the setup (who and where), 2) the inciting incident (the shift in the protagonist’s tale), 3) the rising action (the trials and tribulations the protagonist faces), 4) the main event (the climax of success or failure), and 5) the resolution (this can sometimes include a ‘lessons learned’). If that’s too complex, a beginning, middle, and end always work.

  2. Keep an eye on your audience: A great storyteller goes on a journey with their audience. Be sure that your audience is with you by watching their faces as you tell your tale. If they aren’t responding emotionally or with interest, try changing something in your storytelling style. Speed, voice volume, physical posture, and emotional affectations are all tools at your disposal.

  3. Re-experience the story as you tell it: Don’t be afraid to show emotion as you tell your story narrative. Reacting genuinely to the ups and downs in the narrative helps audiences feel comfortable reacting too. When you and the audience share an emotion, it creates a more memorable experience.

Now that the magic of stories has been revealed, you might be wondering when and where you would use this newfound superpower. Basically, anytime you want to be heard. We tell stories everyday in conversations with our friends, partners, therapists, employees, bosses and customers. In the end, telling a great story is just a better way of communicating. No microphone or stage required.

Chelsea Larsson is a content marketer for Zendesk and a frequent contributor to Relate. She believes any problem can be solved with a pen, paper, and Pimm's cup. Find her on Twitter: @ChelseaLarsson.