Stories create impact

Storytelling is a powerful mode of human interaction.  Consider what a storyteller looks like when presenting versus how someone looks when reporting the news or reading a report.  There’s emotion, action, passion.  Reports are dry and neutral.  Stories are alive and engaging. Steve Jobs is a master storyteller, and the photos of him presenting the new Apple iPad today demonstrate this well.

Kimberly White / Reuters

I’ve heard very few facts about the iPad.  Instead, I’ve heard this “magical device is a more intimate personal media experience.” Not a computer without a keyboard or an over-sized mobile phone.  These phrases might sound like “spin” if we didn’t believe the story teller to be authentic.  Perhaps many people are skeptical of Steve Jobs, and for them his story will not be compelling.  This is the challenge of incorporating stories into your everyday life.

How do you become more engaging and compelling without overdoing it and winding up as a spin-doctor?

Know your audience: Adjust what you emphasize depending on the needs of the people around you.  Consider the story of the Three Pigs.  When talking to a five year-old, you might point out the concrete details of how each house is constructed and inject humor into the interactions with the wolf.  But for a 10 year-old, you might focus on the symbolism of the big bad wolf and play up how big problems arise from misplaced priorities.  The characters, facts and sequence are the same, but the tone, tenor, and supporting elements are very different.  In either case, a neutral outline of the facts or PowerPoint bullets about what happened will leave an audience underwhelmed.

Understand your venue: Is it live? Email?  A blog?  Are you in a business or family setting?  Friends or colleagues?  Short or long-term relationships?  All of these factors should affect how you tell your story and what you say.  Do you have one chance to make an impression or will there be many days/weeks/months for someone to learn it?  I did not find a press release or message of any sort about the iPad on the Apple website today.  I learned about it weeks ago in a “leak” about what might come (foreshadowing) which created some buzz and speculation.  Then I saw the building on the news this morning and an interview from a national news show where it was mentioned.  Finally, it appeared on the Yahoo! home page as reported by someone who was there to hear the announcement.  This is great storytelling, it gets you curious and pulls you along, and leaves you wanting more.

Get to the point: All of the drama and craft in the world will be for nothing if there’s not a relevant “point” to your story.  In sales it’s called the “WIFM” (what’s in it for me?) statement you provide to answer your listener’s question.  Do you have a question to ask, something to teach, a request?  Your story should engage and inspire someone to act, so you need to be clear about how/what/when you want the action to occur.  Even stories used for entertainment (think movies, books, and songs) have a point.

Unless the point is to not have one, but that’s another story.

What’s your story?

Stories are a natural way to explain who you are and what you need; and your story helps others connect with you and provide support.  In exchange, other people’s stories help you understand what they need and decide if you can help them out.  So stories are a great source of connections between people.

As such, you should take great care in sharing your stories and spend time reflecting about them. If you go around saying everything is fine, you are not likely to get a lot of support from others because they’ll assume you don’t need anything.  On the other hand, if you are always saying everything is all messed up and you are overwhelmed, it’s like “the boy who cried wolf,” and you will not get much help because people assume their efforts won’t really make a difference for you.

Your story should have gradually more specific versions

Your story should have gradually more specific versions

Before you lump this post into the “it’s all about me” category of pop culture, consider this:  it’s pretty selfish to assume that others will know your story without you offering it.  We all know hundreds of people, and keeping track of all of their stories is a complex task.  You can make it easier on others by having your own story worked out and sharing it appropriately. And you have to listen and respond to others or you will be seen as a taker, not a partner.

Knowing and sharing your story is not the same as bragging about yourself, this is more about being interesting.  I love this blog post by russell davies, where he suggests, to be interesting, be interested.

To get your story together, start by answering a few simple questions:

  • What are you doing now and how is it going for you?
  • What have you done in the past, and how did it help form you?
  • What lessons have you learned along the way?
  • What do you want to be doing next?  And next after that?
  • What are your hopes for your life and the world around you?

Think of your story as a nautilus shell with the whole shell being a high level version of you and each compartment being a gradually more specific situational version of you.

Even if you are not sure how to answer one or more of these questions, that tells a lot about who you are and what kind of support you need from others.

Share the answers to these questions in small bits and weave them through your conversations with others… few people really want to hear a long monologue.

Pay attention to how your story comes across to others.  Are you always overwhelmed, or frustrated, or stressed out?  Over time, people will perceive your self-talk as your personal brand.  Be careful that it represents the real you.

An authentic story makes it easier for others to work with and around you, and produces a lot of serendipitous goodness that helps you along your way.