4 simple storytelling rules

Jennifer Aaker, a marketing professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, asked each of her students to give a 1-minute pitch. Only one in 10 students used a story within his or her pitch while the others stuck to more traditional pitch elements, such as facts and figures. The professor then asked the class to write down everything they remembered about each pitch: 5 percent of students cited a statistic, but a whopping 63 percent remembered the story.

“Research shows our brains are not hard-wired to understand logic or retain facts for very long. Our brains are wired to understand and retain stories,” Aaker says. “A story is a journey that moves the listener, and when the listener goes on that journey they feel different and the result is persuasion and sometimes action.”

In an era when we are all assaulted by more information than we can possibly take in every day, story-telling is an effective tool to achieve the cut-through your message needs, and ensure your message remains memorable for a very long time, possibly forever.

Good stories are not necessarily those that involve unique or exceptional circumstances. Good stories are ones that follow a few simple rules to ensure they trigger the maximum response in the listener's brain. The maximum response is achieved when you switch on 4 mental faculties: curiosity, visual imagination, emotion, and self reflection.

Curiosity heightens attention.

A curious person actively directs their attention toward you and your message, meaning that the maximum possible information is getting through to their conscious awareness. They put distractions aside and want to find out more. Heightened attention is also a major contributor to retaining the story and its message in long term memory. 

Visual imagination creates ownership.

By providing just a few details, but not too many, people visualise the situation you have presented to them, by bringing to mind scenarios from their own experience. This knits your story and message into their existing neural networks, essentially 'making it their own' and investing them in the story. This is essential for activating authentic emotional responses.

Emotion is the glue.

Whenever you have an experience that is accompanied by emotion, the degree to which the idea, story or message are embedded in memory and impact on someone's subsequent decisions is ramped right up. Emotions make something real, and the stronger the emotion, the deeper the impact. Emotions also literally etch a story into long term memory via chemical pathways. 

"When the brain detects an emotionally charged event, the amygdala releases dopamine into the system. Because dopamine greatly aids memory and information processing, you could say it creates a Post It note that reads, ‘Remember this.’" - John Medina, author Brain Rules

Self reflection motivates action.

A story is delivered for the purpose of bringing a very specific message to life. What is your message and what do you hope that it motivates others to do? The crowning achievement of your story comes when it encourages others to contemplate a new perspective, a different pathway, or a fresh idea. If your story makes someone wonder to themself "What would I do?" or "I've been there too, and you are so right. Thanks for reminding me of that lesson." or "That's so true, I must do something about it..." then you have motivated them to action that comes from within, driven by their own values, beliefs or world views, and not because you told them or asked them to do it. This is the most powerful form of response.

When you read any tips about storytelling, consider which of these 4 mental faculties the tip is targeting. There are a number of different ideas out there for activating each of them, but generally they will fall into the categories of:

  1. Start with something that is irresistible to the curious brain. Often it is recommended to start the story half-way through at a critical point where you can use a compelling one liner like "It was only when I looked around and realised I was alone that I knew I had taken the wrong turn." While the logical brain tends towards chronology, curiosity cannot resist the urge to fill gaps, and people will want to know what lead to this, and what you did about it.

  2. Sketch details like a time marker or place marker, who was there, and what state of mind you were in, but not so much detail that people cannot relate to the situation. Often too much detail, or specifics that do not matter to the story, only serve to interrupt the listener's attempt to picture themselves there.

  3. Watch any great blockbuster and you will see a formula for taking the viewer on an emotional journey: a challenge or crisis, a character on the verge of failure, and the character's redemption. We want people to succeed, but we learn most from how they handle failure. This is the key for triggering self-reflection.

  4. Ensure the story clearly links to the message you wish them to receive, and that the key question for their self reflection is very clear. When you get this right, a story can be very simple, contain no facts and figures, but still deliver a clear and unforgettable message to the listeners.

Try this:

  1. Identify an interaction you have coming up in the next week (individual or group).

  2. Determine a message you really want to land with them - something you want them to reflect and act on (eg. plans don't always work out, but when you let go, you allow something else to emerge).

  3. Think of a time or situation when you experienced this message as a real lesson in life. While it is tempting to tell a "third party" story, it is always more powerful to tell your own stories, so mine your life for relevant experiences. It does not have to be a big event or a complex situation, and it does not even have to be a work story. Missing a flight could have been your great lesson about 'plans not working out, but something good emerged when I let go and went with it'.

  4. Prepare your story with just the right amount of detail, consider ways to pique curiosity and elicit emotions, and identify how you will lead the listener to the question or moment when they contemplate their own connection to your message.

  5. Practice with trusted colleagues, family and friends. And never give up after the first time. Keep refining this and other stories. No-one is born a master storyteller. You become one through practice.

Storytelling is one of the important leadership techniques we teach in our Conscious Leadership Program. When a leader is willing to share stories about their own experiences and lessons in life, they are seen as authentic and inspiring. Get in touch if you would like to hear more about building these and other leadership skills.

If you liked this blog, you might also like:

Why your brain loves good storytelling

The seven deadly sins of storytelling 


TED talks on storytelling

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