Stories are the language we turn to whenever we want to motivate, persuade, entertain or explain our realities. They are universal vehicles for communication because they invoke the emotional apparatus of real life to help us identify with an idea or understand a given situation. Stories use emotions to put our unique experiences of the world into context, helping others to remember, share and expand upon them.
People are the most effective centres of emotion and all stories have them at their core. We recognise and engage with the different roles that they play, and their place in the story reflects our own potential to influence the real world. It grounds our understanding within the familiarity of human limitations, and allows us to re-enact their moral dilemmas without the risk of real life repercussions.
Literary academics have written at length about the importance of stories in developmental learning for children. Characters in stories are central in helping children to learn about real life social situations and the possible range of behaviours available to them. Stories can enforce roles and modes of thinking but also question them. They ask us to identify with their characters and develop imaginative ways of thinking where we may disagree with the choices made and develop different solutions to their events.
Show Not Tell
It might be tempting to pack your story full of facts and data but simply telling your audience what, where, when and how can look impassive and self-promotional.
Be generous – share the things that motivate you, the way things make you feel and give your audience the opportunity to buy into what you’re doing. If you want your story to be authentic and compelling include the detours, footnotes, voices and viewpoints you’ve experienced along the way. Show them why you do it, not what you do.
Many industries have gradually shifted their marketing campaigns from ‘what’ to ‘why’. In the motor industry for a long time advertising was purely about features – what the product is and what it does – but more recently the focus has been shifted to why you should choose it. Advertisers have realised that suggesting what a product could add to your life and how it could make you feel are important emotional buy-ins that lead, not just to sales, but to a longer term investment in the brand itself.
In 1913 writer Marcel Proust was one of the first to explore the idea of a link between emotion and memory. In the first of his series of novels In Search of Lost Time, he recounted the effect of tasting a Madeleine cake for the first time in many years, and how the sensation transported him back to his childhood and the story of his life at that time. What Proust had discovered was that the emotional cues of everyday life can evoke past experiences.
Like memory, storytelling employs the same cues to establish a relationship with the audience and authenticate its message. A good story challenges its audience to feel real emotions, and in so doing makes itself more credible and more memorable. History, it has been said, is a story written by the winners. Subjective as the history books may be, they are very persuasive accounts because they are presented to us in the same way as our recalled experience, in the form of a coherent story.
Stories are coping mechanisms for change. If you want your audience to buy into something new, a story presents them with the cost and the reward and helps them make that transition.
The business storytelling expert Nancy Duarte identified a common structure in speeches by some of the world’s greatest communicators. In speeches like The Gettysburg Address, Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream, and even Steve Jobs’ iPhone launch the storytelling makes extreme and instantaneous transitions between what is commonplace and what could be.
Disparities like this are incredibly persuasive devices. They act as emotional cues that challenge the audience to decide whether or not they want to agree and align with the vision. It follows that these speeches were all rallying calls that intended to leave nobody on the fence. The choice was to stay with the unsatisfactory old system or to embrace the brave new world.