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Personal Branding

Want Your Message To Stick? Tell A Story.

The road to helping others understand and accept our ideas starts with storytelling. A look at how narratives inspire empathy and loyalty.

It’s the reason Steve Jobs sold millions of iPods by skipping the technical specifications and simply stating that one thousand songs could now fit in your pocket. It’s the reason trial lawyers appeal to a jury’s humanity as much as the letter of the law. It’s the reason political candidates fight to define each other’s narrative. When human beings need to persuade people about ideas, we tell stories.

In 2007, the American Association of Advertising Agencies published the results of a two-and-a-half year study that charted the effectiveness of two types of ads: ads that told a story and ads that appealed to rational reasoning. The result?”For the most part, ads that tell stories and engage and involve consumers create stronger emotional relevance than product-centric ads,” the study concluded.

We all remember the “Wassup” ad from Budweiser that told the story of a group of close friends with their own inside jokes. But do you remember the Miller Lite ad that touted the brand’s low-carb recipe? Probably not.

In his book The Storytelling Animal, Jonathan Gottschall points to research by Italian neuroscientists as evidence for the effectiveness of stories. By implanting electrodes in a monkey’s brain, researchers discovered that certain parts of the brain were activated both when the monkeys performed an action and when they witnessed other monkeys performing that same action.

In other words, we live vicariously through the actions and stories of others. It’s the reason we wince when we hear a disgusting story or feel our heart race while watching an action movie. It’s also the reason that ideas that evoke a specific narrative are more memorable — they invite empathy, which increases the likelihood that they will be accepted and adopted.

“If you don’t know how a principle came to exist you’ll never adopt it as your own,” says Jonathan Harris, an artist and co-founder of the online storytelling repository Cowbird. Without a good story to back it up, ideas are easily dislodged and replaced in our memories.Ideas that evoke a specific narrative are more memorable – they invite empathy, which increases the likelihood that they will be accepted and adopted.

Telling a Great Story

No surprise, telling great stories takes effort. To uncover a handful of key tenets, we asked some experts for their advice on how to be better storytellers in our work lives.

Figure out your controlling idea.

In traditional storytelling, you can start with a character or location and let the story line wander, twist, and turn as you explore an underlying theme.

When you’re using a story to persuade someone about your idea or your product in a professional context, the approach needs to be a little more precise.

You have to first determine the one idea that you wish your audience to remember. Then, make that “controlling idea” the cause for the conflict and climax.

“Most good stories have one or several of those moments and the rest of the story is infrastructure to allow that moment to exist,” says Harris.

Set the mood.

The specifics depend on who you ask, but a good story always allows the listener or reader to get lost in the tale.

“It might just be three sentences long, but a good story starts with one kind of mood or attitude,” says Kevin Allison, head instructor at The Story Studio.
“The mood is a through line that has gone on a journey towards the end and shifted. That’s the skeleton, the main thing running through a story that makes it more than random information.”

Choose the right structure, and stick with it.

Syd Field preached a three act structure for screenplays. Gottschall thinks of a story as character, predicament, and attempted extrication. Veteran storyteller and past 99U speaker Jay O’Callahan prefers people, place, and trouble as his ingredients.

Whatever construct or approach you prefer, the importance of structure in storytelling cannot be overstated. Craft the arc of your story meticulously for maximum impact.

Keep it short.

“People appreciate an economic approach to words,” says Storylane cofounder Jonathan Gheller. “Use only the words you need to use and not the words that will impress other people. Make it count.”

Use details and images to build empathy.

O’Callahan likes to think of a story as a series of images hanging on a clothes line with three poles. You need a beginning, middle, and end (e.g. the three poles), but the imagery inbetween is what ties it all together and makes for a truly memorable story.

Focus on emotions and sensory descriptions and don’t worry about providing a comprehensive account of the situation. Constantly ask yourself: How can I make this more emotionally resonant for the individual who is reading/listening?Use only the words you need to use and not the words that will impress other people.

Show vulnerability.

“A lot of people make the mistake of thinking they have to put their best foot forward all the time, like they are their resume,” says Allison. “One of the most valuable stories to listeners is when a confident person gets up and talks about a time they struggled and failed.”

When you admit your own faults or flaws in a story, the audience is more likely to empathize with you and remember your message.

Practice, practice, practice.

If your background isn’t in storytelling, it’s important to set up a productive means of getting feedback for your storytelling practice. Sites like Cowbird and Storylane are new communities based on written storytelling.

Toastmasters offers public speaking practice in a supportive environment as well. There are also storytelling classes and events all over the country.

“It sounds somewhat trite and repetitive, but doing all of these [things] well is incredibly hard. But if you get good at this, it will help you connect with others in a more profound way,” says Gheller.

What’s your take?

Do you use storytelling in your day-to-day? Or to get people onboard with your ideas?

Sean Blanda

Sean Blanda is a writer based in New York City and is the former Editor-in-Chief and Director of 99U. Find him on Twitter: @SeanBlanda.

Comments (22)
  • Greg Gazin

    Great article. I do presentations on presentations skills and use the Jobs analogy all the time. Plus, Toastmasters has done wonders for me! I highly recomned it too!

  • Matthew Butler

    really interesting article. thanks

  • erin @WELL in L.A.

    Good stuff! I found Jim Loehr’s “The Power of Story” to be tremendously helpful in telling the story. As well as the gusty “go-do-it” attitude story writing style of Danielle LaPorte!

  • Scott Wagers

    Great to see that the Disqus problem with the comments is fixed. Although because i could not comment the other day i have been thinking about it some more and really now appreciate the universality of what you are illustrating here.

    Lately I have changed my presentation style. No more complicated graphics or animations and very little text. Just a few illustrative images and I tell stories. Its completely anecdotal, but it seems to me that I now get more people asking for the slides. It is however ironic, because the slides on there own are minimal.

    The universality comes in when I think about science. Science is a creative act. One of the best pieces of advice I have heard about getting a scientific paper published in a top tier journal is that you have to tell a complete story. You don’t just write about one experiment, you write about a series of experiments that when taken together make up a story that explains what is going on.

    So, it is not just for presentations, or articles – storytelling is important in many human endeavors.

  • Sean Blanda

    Love it, especially the advice for getting papers published. Thanks for commenting!

  • Kjg

    Great article. It really validates that finding a way to inspire ppl and showing them how the task at hand or what they’re listening to is connected to a greater good can get them to act or be more perceptive. Storytelling usually makes my briefing process more easy so that what your working on is more than just another project.

  • Steve H-B

    Sound advice with real practical use for anyone that has to ‘present’ anything to anyone. I’m a professional speaker and for me it (good story telling) is one of the key things that differentiates a ‘professional’ from a ‘public’ speaker.

    One tip that I would offer in addition to the excellent ones in the article is that you can often use Karpman’s drama triangle when putting a story together. It gives you the idea of the three V’s which is often used in newspaper story telling where there is often a ‘Victim’ a ‘Villain’ and a ‘saViour’.

    As the post says in a good story you don’t always (nor should you) have to be the hero (SaViour) and often being in one of the other two roles can get you more audience empathy.

  • Tim Shisler

    As a storyteller and producer I start with asking two questions:

    + Why am I telling this story?
    + Why does the audience care?

    If I can’t answer the two I usually continue looking for another angle. Also when I do answer them they shouldn’t contradict each other. If they do then I’m telling a story with “distraction” in which one side dominates the story arc. It’s a reason most stories are just okay vs. great.

  • Adam Lieb

    Great point Tim.
    Anyone who is starting a business should ask the same two questions. Why am I doing this? and Why does anyone care?

    When telling a business story (marketing) you sort of have to combine these two principals. Telling the audience a story, as well as telling them about your business. The story ought to answer both of those questions.

  • Sean Power

    Excellent article. Keep up the good work. I love your website.

  • Tim Shisler

    Yep, though the trick is to tell a story the audience cares about and not just about your business. I find many times the audience comes second to the message and while it can work, many times the story gets lost in the need to push a message. It’s a balancing act for sure.

  • Nelly Matorina

    Really informative article! I always enjoy reading articles like this which seem to put into clear words and concepts the ideas I’ve been coming up with again and again through experience. After I started the Rhetoric, an online non-profit open-collaboration magazine, a lot of the time I felt like I was just “winging it” and thinking of how to do structure, layout, management system, website design, finding contributors, etc on the go. Our concept is somewhat vague when you try to explain it in a few words (my 10-second pitch is that we write are focused on creative writing, commentary, music articles, art, and photography within a set theme framework per issue made by over 50 contributors from 14 different countries), but things like style and the way we work are much harder things to pass on so fast, even though it is very distinct. That’s when I started writing our story, with the background, how we came about and why we’re all spending so much time on this project. When I’m finished writing it, I’m sure my 10 second pitch will evolve into something beautiful.

  • lidia varesco design

    I just attended a session on storytelling at Chicago Ideas Week (Storytellers: The Power of Perspective, Presented by Leo Burnett) so I was delighted to see this article upon returning to my office. (it was the perfect addition to a blog post I was writing about storytelling!)

    Listening to the storytellers today made it apparent how much more powerful a connection and message is when storytelling is involved—no matter the medium (they showed examples of video, advertising and literature).

    One of my goals has been to incorporate more storytelling into my business. The tips you offer are easy to implement and useful. Thanks for a great post!

  • Harrison Winter

    Great article.

    Simon Sinek gave a great TED Talk on this same notion, about how “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it”.

    I’ve worked in advertising for the past 10 years and agree that storytelling is crucial to having your message remembered. When a great story is told, it also means that your message (even as a small company) is likely to get passed on to other people as well. Stories are often how we share information.

    This is the core philosophy that drives the sharable videos my company now creates for clients.

    Harrison Winter

  • The Girl Who Knows

    As a film producer I must say I have a bit of a “thing” for stories.
    I love your take on bringing storytelling into your business – and it absolutely works! As erin@wellinla:disqus mentioned ~ Danielle LaPorte is pure genius at this. So is my go-to copywriter, Alexandra Franzen.
    Lots to think about + take in ~ thanks for the great article Sean!

  • Andrew Nemiccolo

    Sean, great advice on telling stories, thanks for sharing. Every professional can benefit from storytelling. The flip side of the coin that I’d add is “Story Listening.”

    People, organizations and brands that look and listen for stories from their clients, partners and employees can engage at an even deeper level.

  • Jon Nugent

    Let me tell you a story, it’s the story of “Why” and not “How” or “What”. You can see the entire story of WHY on TED by Simon Sinek on Youtube.

    To create simple storyboards, I would also recommend Mike Bosworth’s new book, What Great Sales People Do: The Science of Selling Through Emotion.

  • Steven R Scroggs

    Hi Sean, Thanks for the insight and inspiration. How all goes well as you step forward. Hey thought you might like some good music

  • Xandre Lima

    “By implanting electrodes in a monkey’s brain, researchers discovered that certain parts of the brain were activated both when the monkeys performed an action and when they witnessed other monkeys performing that same action.” Really? That seems to me like subjective validation, not scienfitic method… There is a cognitive bias in this research. What if the monkeys only respond to visual cues, not verbal cues? How can you associate the “monkey research” with studies in human training for professional work? Could people learn a job just by listening to stories, or watching a professional at work is a productive way? There is is a big difference between factual and causal serendipities in researches. I would have to read the entire paper to get to a better conclusion about this association.

  • Mariam

    I was preparing a lecture on using symbols and icons in advertisement to tell stories and to sell, and i’m really happy that i came across this article.
    It’s not the story your’e selling yet your audience get attached with it in a way they buy the real product unaware of it’s real impact on them. For example in the technology field, companies bring their products as a family must have piece and sell the story of us caring about values, where in fact they create more issues with family gathering and relationships.

  • john john

    Articles and photos
    on this site is interesting. thanks
    تور چین

  • Sergey Yatsenko

    Telling a Great Story. – The Original History from Thought Leader is Best Resources for the right Understanding. Transformation of Thought Leader give New Understanding & Analytical Wisdom.

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