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The Sacred, Strategic Art of Storytelling

Every generation is influenced by stories. They entertain, enchant and educate us. They help us make sense of our lives, our relationships and our histories. When used effectively, stories also inspire and compel us (and others) to change. More leaders today are exploring the ancient art of storytelling as a way to influence people and get the results they desire.

Companies like Nike, for example, train their senior executives to serve as “corporate storytellers.” The goal of organizational storytelling is straightforward: To try to change behavior, ostensibly for a greater purpose, and help accomplish some larger business goal or mission, including building morale as well as the bottom-line.

Business leader, Steve Denning, author of The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling, was on the mark several decades ago when he forecasted storytelling would become a major trend by the early part of this century. He said story would lead the way to influencing people and changing the future. Not just advertisers and media types, but all professionals including teachers, entrepreneurs, teachers, athletes, politicians and religious leaders would be valued for their ability to captivate audiences with stories.

So much so, the highest paid people in organizations will be the storytellers, according to Denning. So, just what’s driving the latest storytelling wave? The answer is complex, yet simple. Nothing quite like a well-constructed story has ever provoked such a rich myriad of emotions in us humans. And we are certainly creatures of emotion. Our decisions are guided by them rather than logic. That’s right. And if you’re in any doubt, look no further than the goings on and outcomes of local or national political campaign seasons.

Naturally, facts and statistics should matter — a lot. But their relevance and meaning can, and often do, get buried in jargon-infused rhetoric and data-laced mumbo jumbo. On the other hand, when woven into a good story, information can have a powerful impact on our hearts and minds. Stories are easy to remember, and we pass them on, along with their message and other relevant information, rather easily.

For leaders and other professionals looking to get their storytelling mojos on, and messages heard, there's a ton of resources available online, in blogs like this, and through workshops, seminars and other trainings. But as someone who has primarily made a living for the past 30+ years as a storyteller and writer, including 20 in journalism, I can attest to the importance of a single element essential to building your storytelling muscle: Practice. As you hone your storytelling chops, here are five other must-have elements of an effective story.

1. Tell the truth. Grab attention. Facts are important. But beyond that a question to ask yourself is — Is your story essentially true? Is it authentic and grounded in real human experience and real life events? Lead with information that will pique your audience’s attention. Be sure to use specific people and events. Avoid vague generalizations, ideas and abstractions. Make sure all the crucial details are there. Omission of such information can defeat the credibility, and thus the purpose, of an otherwise good story.

2. Make it clear, short and sweet. Make sure your story is free of technical jargon and big words. Only use numbers or facts that are relevant. Consider your audience and what information will be useful or instructive. Keep your sentences short and use an active voice, whether you’re writing or orally telling your story. Remember, the average person stops listening after the first 30 seconds or so. Denning rightly observes that when your listeners or readers identify with the story, its ideas and characters, they become “the champions.”

3.Set the right tone. Make sure your yarn is relevant to your audience and eliciting the emotion in alignment with the purpose of telling the story in the first place. Most people want to know what’s in it for them, such as helping them to do their jobs better or improving their lives. If your story has an alarming problem or some negative element, it’s important that it also offer a solution or hope. People want to feel inspired and motivated.

4.Create a Before and After. This is a companion to the preceding element. And effective story shows a before and after. What did the situation look like before an intervention was taken or certain steps were taken?

Often overlooked, the way you end your story is as important as the way you begin. It’s important to leave your audience satisfied. Remember, there’s a reason people like happy endings (see #3). They make us feel good. But this doesn’t mean we must become Pollyanna’s in our storytelling. Effective stories should have authenticity throughout with an ending that’s in line with the story. Your audience deserves an ending that is as well thought out and crafted as your story’s lead.

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