The art of storytelling

Storytelling is a masterful craft. It doesn’t only take us on a journey, but makes us feel part of it. I’m sure you can think of someone like this in your life, someone who can ‘tell a good story’.

But what exactly is a good story?

One of the topics covered at the Stanford Executive Program for Nonprofit Leaders which I recently attended was the power of stories, by Jennifer Aaker.

Jennifer argued that stories should 1) have a focused goal; 2) grab attention; 3) engage, and; 4) enable action.

Straightforward? Not quite. The proof is in the pudding… and execution is tricky.

First, you need to create the mechanisms to systematically collect stories which will enable you to develop signature pieces about your brand and relevant stakeholders (e.g. clients, staff, donors if a not-for-profit).

Then, you need to carefully consider how to craft your stories. For example, the choice of words matters (keep an eye out for my next article We are all sheep on communication), and the sequence might too… It is said that emotions often drive decisions, to which we then apply logic. So starting a story with the emotive part, and then supporting it with facts can be a good approach.

Another element to consider in your storytelling is visuals. Paint the picture for your listeners or readers – detail the scene, use expressions, describe the ambiance. It will grab their attention and imagination more vividly.

6-word stories

Another aspect of storytelling discussed during the Stanford course was length. Stories don’t have to be 300 pages to be powerful. Consider this one, for example:

Baby shoes. For sale. Never worn.

Walking through the streets of San Francisco, I walked past a tricycle police car with this phrase printed on the side:

Great people. Tough job.

In four simple words, it successfully tells the immense value the academy places on their officers, and aims to shift the perception of citizens.

In class, we were given 30 seconds to write a 6-word personal story, thinking of a defining moment in our life. I would encourage you to do this brief activity with your colleagues, board or even family. In an organisational context, questions that could help prompt 6-word stories include “what do we stand for?” and “where are we heading?”. The outputs could lead to greater discussions into the purpose, values or culture of your organisation.

There is no doubt stories are powerful and storytelling is an art that deserves attention. I hope I have shared useful tips to support your tale.

Let me leave you with one of my 5-word personal stories:

Searched for more. Found myself.

Now, what’s yours?

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