In Time magazine at the end of 2015 James Murdoch wrote about the importance of stories. He lists examples of transformative story-telling both in the US and in Bollywood. But on a darker note he mentions how the ISIS (Daesh) story of blood-soaked vengeance against western oppressors has motivated individuals all over the world to unspeakable acts of violence.
We agree with him that stories matter. They matter much more than most people realise. We struggle every session to persuade serious, clever people to tell stories about their own organisations, products or services. Somehow the facts and numbers come more easily but telling stories seems frivolous.
Here is my guide to crafting stories with impact. These are not stories to be written in a novel, although there are some similarities, but stories that are crafted to become part of presentations or media messages.
What is a story?
Most people understand that if you are talking about a new product or service a client example is a good idea although they are often ridiculously difficult to come-by. Occasionally, organisations go to a lot of trouble to collect ‘signed off’ case studies. These are undoubtedly highly valuable. But they are certainly not the only sort of story that can be of use in business. As a simple short-cut a hypothetical case study works pretty well. So does an anecdote from a person’s own life. Anecdotes about my own mother have been very useful for a number of clients, how she reacts to call centres, the difficulties she has with pin numbers etc.
Beginning, middle and end
Good ‘stories’ need a beginning, a middle and an end. Simply to state ‘we helped a client save a million pounds, dollar or euros’ is the most basic of example. In the aid world to say ‘we helped a Syrian refugee family’ or a ‘subsistence farmer in Ethiopia’ tells the audience or the journalist very little. But it doesn’t take much to turn these simple statements into a story that has impact.
Create people we care about
The first step is to create characters an audience can identify with. You don’t need a great deal of detail. Just a bit of humanity will immediately give your story more impact. If your Syrian refugee is a young widow or your client an ex-serviceman making his way as a civilian, suddenly the story comes to life.
Add colour and tangible detail
The next ‘trick’ is to add the odd bit of detail that creates a picture. Let us take our widow in Syria. A few words can paint a picture of the horror of her life; sheltering in what was once a school, making a camp for her three children in the corner of an old classroom.
Any detail that creates a picture will give a story more impact.
Add drama or tension
Finally, it will help your story if there is drama or tension. Some dilemma where a happy ending is not assured. If our ex-serviceman was thinking of giving up his business and signing on, if coming to your bank for a loan was his last ditch attempt to stay afloat, suddenly we have some dramatic tension.
We never suggest making-up these stories. We don’t have to. They always exist. It is just hard persuading people that stories not facts are the thing that will change the mind of an audience or spur them into action.