When you want to learn how to describe yourself or your business, people look to storytelling as a way to improve their core message.
But what is storytelling? And how do you actually get better at it?
And what does it matter for businesses today?
“Story” — the word is vague and yet so appealing — so it can be difficult to know where to start, and how to use what you learn in your everyday practice.
If you’re not telling your story, who is telling it for you?
This essay will look at some of the core truths about stories and storytelling in Part I, and then I’ll share a few tools that are practical and easy to implement in Part II. Use these core principles across many communication needs, from a personal biography to the description of your company.
Storytelling is a fundamental human tool that we all do innately. The problem is that over time, we’ve been bombarded with terrible examples of bad messaging, and we don’t know what models to look to. Our brains are wired for storytelling, because stories help us learn, explore, and retain information through second- and third-hand experiences. We know when we’re in the presence of a good story, but do we actually know what’s happening inside of them?
We can recognize when we’re captivated by a great story. The problem is, can you dissect what’s happening into tools you can use to your advantage later?
Stories are innately human. Everyone is a born storyteller.
Case in point: when you recount events that you’ve done, even a simple sentence as you walk through the door, you’re setting up a basic story structure:
“You won’t believe what just happened — first I went to the grocery store, then…” — your ears prick up.
You’ve set up the most basic form of a story: do you know what it is?
Here’s another example —
“The beach was dark and quiet. It was eerie — the moon was dark and someone had turned off all the lights on the boardwalk. Alison felt uneasy as she stepped nervously out into the dark. Who had turned out all the lights?”
Both of these examples use a very specific form of storytelling that we’re all hardwired to understand. Do you know what it is?
I’ll explain it today as we deconstruct storytelling. But first, I want to debunk a few myths about storytelling. Somehow we think that only an elite few can be storytellers, and it’s a skill that we don’t have.
Part I: Common storytelling principles that apply to business and life.
1. Everyone is a storyteller.
Some people say that storytelling is limited to an elite few or a professional clique. In reality, that’s not true. All humans are born storytellers, and we are born to look for, hear, and describe our world in stories.
When someone comes back to us and says, “Avoid Atlantic Avenue, it’s crazy full of traffic,” we select a different route because we got information — in the form of a story — about someone else’s experience.
2. We tell stories to connect, dream and imagine.
We use storytelling to connect inwardly to ourselves, outwardly towards others, and to imagine futures. Humans spend up to four hours per day inside of imaginary landscapes — in daydreams, thoughts, visualizations, and places beyond the present. We live in a world of stories.
We use storytelling to connect inwardly to ourselves, outwardly towards others, and to imagine our futures.
Children are born telling stories — in fact, we play for exactly this reason. Playing is our built-in mode of imagining the future and the past. In telling stories, and playing make-believe, we’re able to learn at a much faster pace than if we had to rely only on our own experience.
We are learning creatures. We learn by experience and through our imagination. When something good happens to us, that’s a reward. When something bad happens, there’s a punishment. These incentives teach us over time.
In stories, we get to pick up and enter into the landscape of someone else’s learning — and learn for ourselves, even though we may be sitting in one place, not moving.
3. Stories are how we are hardwired.
Prior to written language, we had to keep important information about the world around us, somehow. We’ve constructed melodies, songs, and other modes of storing information.
Is it any coincidence that “storing” and “storytelling” are related? We are hardwired to remember cause and effect relationships — “I saw a spider, that spider killed my friend, spiders are bad.” “REMEMBER THIS!” Shouts your brain.
Lisa Cron’s research on the brain science behind storytelling is what prompted her book, Wired For Story, if you’re curious about how it works.
In research in The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottfried, he talks about how we actually make up stories all the time, whenever we see two events happening.
If we see a group of women and they’re all wearing tiny shorts, we might tell as a story to ourselves about how they are all going to the beach. In research on people with their two brain hemispheres segmented or separated, they discover that our brains actually wire stories into our minds when presented two pieces of information.
4. A story is what you take with you.
In any situation or setting, a story is what you take with you.
When giving a presentation or sharing your brand or idea, what someone walks away with is the story. They’ve taken all the information they’ve been given and distilled it into the easiest parts to remember.
Listen to what people catch from your descriptions, and guide your story towards what people naturally keep bringing up!
A story is what you take with you. Listen to how people explain
It’s less about what you want to say, and what people do with what you say. Pay attention to what people respond to, and adjust accordingly.
5. We are surrounded by far too many examples of bad storytelling — powerpoints, inadequacy marketing, and droll presentations have numbed our innate ability to tell stories.
Unfortunately, we’re surrounded by terrible examples of storytelling. In The Story Wars by Jonah Sachs, he talks about all the sins of modern storytelling — from our need for vanity to posing as an authority, and more.
There are far too many bad examples out there — boring presentations, terrible pitches, inadequacy marketing — that we’ve forgotten what great storytelling looks like.
Basically, the last century of mass broadcasting let the leaders in charge of storytelling get lazy. There’s too much talking about yourself, not listening to the audience, and shouting lists. Technology (like powerpoint) even encourages bad storytelling by putting bullets and lists as the mode of operation.
The good news is that once we recognize the bad examples for what they are — boring presentations that put us to sleep — we can stop copying them and start engaging.
6. When you sell anything — yourself, a brand, a business — you tell a story.
When you sell things, you tell a story. It’s not about the thing at hand. And powerpoint lists are terrible ways of communicating.
When you sell things, you’re telling a story.
Think about a toothbrush. You’re not selling a plastic stick with a bunch of flexible bristles on it. Why describe it like that?
When you sell a toothbrush, you’re selling the idea of a cleaner mouth. Why is that clean mouth important?
Think about Listerine: you’re not selling a bottle of alcohol, you’re selling … a date.
The ability to be well-liked.
Advertisements are stories about who you are and who you should be, and great advertisements want to capitalize on something deeper than the physical thing that they are selling.
What do they believe about human nature? What story are they telling you, implied or otherwise?
7. We are naturally curious, and we all want to be smart.
Finding Nemo, the movie, is about a little guy who gets lost and needs to find his dad. Along the way, he goes on adventure after adventure in order to return home.
At the beginning of the movie, we, the audience, know the purpose of the whole movie within the first few minutes: this is a story about a father and son finding each other again.
The same is true in most situations. We interrupt because we want to get to the point faster. When presented with a puzzle, most people work furiously to get it right — first.
People like to be smart, and curious. Stories let us engage our curiosity.
We want to be smart. We like the puzzle of a story, and we want to guess how it will end. Stories entertain us because they keep us in suspense, and they tickle our brains to try to guess how something ends.
Part II: How to improve your business and personal storytelling today.
So how do you take all this and make it applicable to your stories and messages? Here are some concrete ways to improve your storytelling right now.
8. Your English teacher was right — it is about “showing” versus “telling.”
Too often we jump straight to the point. Think about each of these as lead sentences:
“It was the hardest day of my life.”
“The thing is, simplicity matters.”
“Never underestimate the power of a good friend.”
These are all true statements, but it’s not gripping or exciting. Whatever your core philosophical statement, think about leaving it unsaid.
Just like the toothbrush examples before, the point of your story isn’t to beat someone over the head with the idea, but rather to SHOW it through lots of vivid detail and an example that highlights your core philosophy.
We don’t need to be hit over the head with ideas. We want to learn through the experience.
For example —
[It was the hardest day of my life.] vs:
“I’d just finished a fourteen-hour shift in the cement factory. I had no idea what my dad did, so that summer I signed up to join him at work. Three days in, and I could barely lift my hands. My forearms burned, and my calves were shot from jumping in and out of the trucks. I’d probably lifted more than a hundred sacks of cement mix in and out of the truck. When I got home that day, all I wanted was to lie down. Then I discovered…”
[Never underestimate the power of a good friend.] vs:
“I’d just found out that my grandmother had passed, and I couldn’t make it home in time. My job had closed the week before, our office putting up the ‘for sale’ sign after more than eight months in the red. On the bus ride home through the foggy drizzle of Portland’s grey fall days, I wondered how I could pay for groceries for the rest of the week.
As I got off the bus, I saw someone sitting on my stoop. “Probably another homeless person,” I muttered to myself, thinking I’d be one soon myself. As I got closer, I saw that it was actually Andy, holding two bags of Indian food takeout. He wrapped me in a big hug. “I thought that you could use this today,” he explained, pointing to the food.
Words are the only vehicle someone has to understand your vision.
9. Detail, detail, detail. The environment matters — because it lays the foundation for imagination.
Words are the only vehicle someone has to understand your vision. The more you set the stage for where you are, the easier it is for someone to buy in.
Great storytelling is about detail — but a specific kind of detail. How do you set the stage and the context for what’s happening? What does it feel like to be you?
Stories immerse us in an event far away from where we are, catapulting us into a new time and space. Key descriptions anchor us into this new space through the use of all of the senses — smell, sight, touch, taste, sound, texture, even kinesthetics.
Begin by describing the world around you, in vivid sensory detail. The English language has thousands of words to describe the subtle differences in texture and weight and material. Tell the story of what the world looks like. Great fiction books often begin with these details — take a look at 1984 or Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for great opening scenes.
With written narrative, all we have are words. Contrast this to film, where we can show rich detail through visual imagery. In our hyper-visual culture, we sometimes replace describing feelings with posting a quick picture, because it’s easier.
But in writing, all we have are words. Choosing words and describing the scene, in detail, is what brings someone into your story.
10. Introduce conflict — by using the “bait” method.
Here’s a secret about the human brain: we all like to be smart.
We like to figure things out, and know the answers to things. Whenever we are presented with a puzzle, we like seeing if we can figure it out before someone else does.
In storytelling, a great way to engage your audience is to add a teaser at the beginning.
In storytelling, a great way to engage your audience is to add a teaser at the beginning. By using a little bit of bait, you stoke the curiosity in your listener’s mind. Ira Glass talks about this often, and if you introduce a story with an underlying question (like “the house was eerily dark,” or “it was a different night than any other,”) the listener begins to wonder why it was so dark, or why the night was different.
This “curiosity gap” between a piece of information that asks a question, and the story that resolves the question, helps the reader stay engaged and curious about the story. A little bit of conflict introduces a puzzle to be fixed!
11. Shorter is often better. Keep it simple!
At the end of the day, a story is what you take with you — and we don’t remember every detail of every story, but rather, the highlights vividly.
When you’re presenting your idea, biography, or product, start with something short and sweet.
The idea of an elevator pitch is right, but with a twist. It’s not how much you can cram into 1 or 2 minutes, but how easy you can make something that’s understandable and sticky.
At a conference, if you babble and ramble when introducing yourself to people, they’ll forget most of what you said. If you string it into a story, and you keep it simple, people will be able to take that with you.
You don’t need to get all the perfect information into one sentence; in fact, being imperfect can prompt likability and curiosity!
A quick and easy test for how good your story is is to listen in to what’s being said.
Introduce yourself to someone, and then listen to when they introduce you. I’ll often keep it simple — I focus on writing and swimming. I’ll say, “I work as a writer; I teach writing, and I’m also an open-water swimmer.”
Then, when I’m being introduced, Clay leans over and grabs his friend and says, “You gotta meet Sarah, she’s a swimmer!” — I listen to what people hang on to, and what captivates them.
I can’t possibly capture everything about myself (or my business) in a single sentence. But what I can do is find the most interesting part, and start there.
Conclusions and takeaways: journaling and practice.
What did you take away from this introduction to storytelling?
How can you change your story to make it sweeter, simpler, and easier to understand? Is there anything you’re still curious about? Leave a note in the comments, and I’ll be happy to chat with you.
Here are a few ways to take your work forward in your journal and practice:
- Practice: how can you write a one-sentence description of who you are that’s super simple? What three keywords or nouns would you use to describe you? Think of it as a gift to your audience — the less you say, the more they can remember.
- Writing exercise: describe your environment, in vivid detail. What is the shape of the space that you are in? What does it smell like, taste like, sound like?
- Bookmark 10 great “About” pages that you love and highlight what stands out to you. What techniques and styles are used that you particularly admire?
- Take a quick look at your email inbox (but don’t get lost in it!). Take a screenshot of your inbox and print it out. Highlight what’s already been read, and what you’ve skipped. Are there any themes? Look at what you click — which email titles are stories? Which ones are boring? What do you skip over? Your inbox is a great case-study for clues to how storytelling works in your everyday life.
Great storytelling, just like anything else, is a learning journey. The best stand-up comics practice their material dozens (if not hundreds) of times to learn what works best.
And remember: a story is what happens between two people. So get out there, practice your story, and use each experience to get a little bit better.