Something magic happens in our brain when we hear good stories. If we relate, we internalize what we are hearing and bring our own experiences and make the story our own.
So what makes up a good story? Sugar, spice, and some things very nice – even better though if some not-so-nice things happen along the way. Here are the six core principles of telling a good story.
Here’s an example of how stories hook you….
It’s a smallish crowd for a Friday night. The sound of 70’s classic rock and the clack of billiard balls in the background. The bartender nods and pours a Sam Adams without even asking, because she knows what you like. The yeasty, cold taste of the first sip. The feel of the oak bar, a little bit sticky and a little bit smooth. The stale, cigarette-ghost smell of a room that has not seen daylight since Disco.You look around and suddenly, there she is. The ex you’ve been avoiding since your nasty breakup a month ago. She tosses her pool cue down and grabs her drink, smiling as she walks through the bar toward you. You feel confused. Then she tosses her nearly-full rum and Coke into your face.The whole room falls silent – Hotel California plays in the background…”You can checkout, but you can never leave.”
And you really want to know what happens next.
Principle 1: It’s all about the audience.
Tell me a story about the intricacies of a football game and I will tune you out. Immediately. I don’t understand the game and have no interest in learning. I am about as far from a sports fan as you can be.
Tell me the same story framed around the heroics of a player and the difficulties he overcame to play in the big leagues, and my interest shifts. It’s no longer about plays that I don’t get, it’s about a hero who happens to wear pads and a helmet.
This same paradigm is true of all storytelling. The story is only as good as what the reader wants to hear. In our bar story, most of us can relate on some level – we have been that guy or the drink-dumping ex (or secretly fantasized about it).
Principle 2: The story must be accessible to the audience.
Your audience processes stories in different ways.
Some stories should be very visual. Nothing shows off a wedding venue like dreamy photos or videos of happy couples and perfect sunsets. Add in stories about how the bride and groom chose the location and how perfect their wedding was, and you’ve done everything except hand the audience a slice of the wedding cake (lemon…with toasted coconut frosting…yum).
Other stories come alive when you can hear them. Imagine a bio of a great jazz musician with a soundtrack of her greatest hits and an audio interview. If writing for a vineyard, handing out samples of the wine illustrated with videos stories of how this vineyard was founded), or touch them (sending samples of the super-lux fabrics to underscore the quality of a custom suit maker while telling the story of how great the buyer will feel – the confidence, the envy of his friends – once he has ordered).
In our bar story, the location feels right. There is a visual of a bar that adds to the experience.
Principle 3: The story must have a hero that the audience relates to.
Tell me the story about the woman who goes back to school while juggling two jobs and three small kids, and I am with you. I want that underdog to succeed.
Tell me a story about a rich woman who is bored and goes back to school, dabbling in this class or that…frankly I couldn’t care less.
There has to be something relate-able about them. I went back to school when my kids were very young, so I can immediately identify with the struggles of having to schedule classes around kindergarten bus pickup times and trying to get work done during nap times.
I have never been a bored, rich woman, so I can’t relate to struggles with having to keep up appearances, having the kids in the right school (nothing says failure like Junior not getting in Harvard because he went to “Jack and Jill Nursery School” instead of “The Pre-School Learning Academy”). Re-frame her struggles around aging, alienation, and searching for meaning and then suddenly I want to know what happens next.
Your audience has to want their hero to succeed.
Principle 4: There is no story without tension.
If a guy walks into a bar, orders a drink, finishes it and leaves…so what? There is no point to that, so there is no story.
If that same guy walks into a bar, orders a drink, and sees the ex that he has been trying to avoid…NOW we have a story. Will he manage to get away? What happens if she sees him and tosses her drink on him? What if they reconcile with a tearful kiss?
We can all relate on some level to wanting to avoid someone. We all bring our own background story in as we hear about the guy in the bar. When he gets a drink tossed at him, we can feel the cold liquid dripping down our shirts because at some point, something similar has happened to us – or to someone we know.
Principle 5: It’s all in the details.
You can’t tell a good story without the details. Regardless of how you are telling the story – written word, audio, video, multimedia Power Point – you need to engage the senses with details.
Principle 6: Don’t forget that it IS all about the sale – either right now or in the future.
Storytelling is a wonderful way to connect with your audience, but if you want to convert and sell, that message must be crafted into the story from the beginning.
Well-crafted StorySelling leads the audience directly to the outcome you plan. If you are selling on-boarding services, that HR manager (who is your primary audience)needs to hear the story about how others just like her faced the same problems – unevenness of deployment, incomplete information, employees taking far too long to get up to speed – and their journey to get on-boarding right.
After the story, your call to action must be logical and nearly automatic for the reader. However you are using the story, it IS about the sale.
Putting it all together.
Going back to our HR manager with the on-boarding problems…
The story works because you are bringing all the key elements together:
Principle 1 Audience: Most Western adults can relate to going to a bar – either because they have been or have seen enough TV shows or movies taking place in bars. If you were telling this story to an audience from a different culture, you would probably choose a different relate-able place – perhaps a neighborhood restaurant or shop.
Principle 2 Accessible: I can tell this story in a variety of ways. I could make a funny – or serious – YouTube video. I could record this story and use it on a Podcast. I could make a PowerPoint that used photos of the guy, the bar, and a 70’s soundtrack. Or I can just tell the story as we did here, and paint a picture with words.
Principle 3 Hero: We can all relate to wanting to avoid some person or situation. Not only can we relate to the hero, we bring our own experiences to the story. We know the discomfort. We feel the embarrassment and the wet shirt.
Principle 4 Tension: The guy not only walks into a bar and gets a drink, he ends up wearing a drink. Don’t you want to know how the story resolves?
Principle 5 Details: Successful stories are ones that you can taste, see, feel, hear, and see. The details really do matter. MRI scans of people hearing stories light up the same way as if they were really experiencing the event directly.
What do you think is the secret to great storytelling?