After a recent webinar I got this fabulous question from Liam R.:
"I don’t have my own stories for the presentations I make. What do you suggest?"
Few people start with a bag full of stories, and even those with a bunch should be adding to their collection. Over time you’ll find a few different skills useful to develop, including
- Defining story for yourself
- Finding versus constructing stories
- Developing your storyspotting skill
- Building your “swipe file”
- Finding multiple angles in one story
Defining story for yourself
One of the things I’ve found in a lot of work with clients (especially trainers and marketers) is that it’s easy to find “a” form of story and try to force-fit what they do into that definition. A good example is “the hero’s journey.”
Research about stories universally confirms the value and effectiveness of story in understanding, learning, and/or persuasion. What researchers differ on is exactly how many forms of story there are. In Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath do a good job of arguing that there are three essential forms of story (a good summary of which at the bottom of this page).
I’m going to argue something even more foundational that’s useful to consider when storyspotting, however: the complete and utter commonality with all story is transformation from one state to another, a before-and-after if you will. This usually comes in the form of overcoming conflict.
Here’s why I think it’s useful to think in terms of a problem (current state), promise (desired future state), and path (how you overcome the conflict):
You may find it useful to relax your version of “story” to also include anything that helps illustrate the before-and-after you are communicating. Sometimes this may come more formally with the structure of a story. Sometimes it may accomplish the same thing simply with an image or metaphor or something that makes the point.
Finding versus constructing stories
Finding stories takes time. It happens when we see or experience at story that would make a good illustration of a point. We can and should develop our storyspotting radar.
Constructing, stories, however, is often overlooked. It’s useful to remember that there’s a difference between “factual” (really, actually happened) and “communicates a truth.” A good example of the latter are Aesop’s Fables.
There’s an in-between, too — one in which you find a story that’s close to fitting what you need to communicate but isn’t perfect. One adage of many professional speakers, storytellers, and trainers is “Don’t let the truth come between you and a good story.” I’m not sure that’s my favorite way of putting it (I never want to be telling untruths), but I do think we can adjust the facts in a way that maintains integrity.
Here’s an example:
I recently opened a speech with a story about something that really happened to me when I responded to an unruly audience member. The story perfectly illustrated the short talk I was going to give. My problem is that I was the hero of the story (and we want the audience to see potentially see themselves as the story). So the story I told was one where some other audience member responded to the unruly one (thereby removing me as the hero and giving every person in yesterday’s audience a chance to see themselves as such). Was this factual? No. Did it communicate a truth? Yes. Was anyone harmed in the change? No. Was anyone helped? Yes — the very audience for whom the story improved.
Developing your storyspotting skill, part one
For the sake of this post, let’s assume you’ve decided that your version of story is something that “helps someone see themselves in a new way.” How do we find stories?
I’ve chosen “storyspotting” for a reason. It’s not “story hunting.” If you need to communicate something and know what that is, if you don’t immediately have something come to mind you can spend a long freakin’ time hunting for just the right thing (the same is true when you go looking for a stock image that demonstrates just what you want). In other words, you develop the habit of spotting stories as you go.
The essential skill in storyspotting, therefore, is clarifying what story is to you and making that an important, habitual part of your life.
We see, literally or figuratively, what’s important to us, and our reticular activating system screens out other stuff to keep us from being overwhelmed by the noise. Once you’ve identified that you’re looking for stories (and have an idea of what that means to you), you’ll start noticing them. This might not be a perfect analogy, but it’s like you suddenly came into possession of a red Volvo station wagon — and suddenly you start noticing all the other Volvo station wagons on the road (and particularly the red ones).
Building your “swipe file”
A “swipe file” was originally a collection of tested sales letters or some such thing, but I experienced it as a child when grandpa, a preacher, would see something in a newspaper or magazine and literally cut it out. He’d write some label across the top (e.g., “leadership”) and file it under “L” in a draw with a zillion manila folders in it. Then, when needing an illustration on leadership, voila!
In modern terms you will likely have to develop a system that works for you. Do you cut/paste, open a voice recorder on your phone and audio-jot yourself a reminder, or…?
I find that Evernote’s an indispensable tool for this because 1) I can clip, drag and drop, or otherwise capture stuff in multiple ways and 2) sync it across multiple devices.
Even if you don’t have Evernote, though, you can save and file. It could be a zillion word documents and folders. You could just name or rename files so that they’re easily findable using computer-based search.
Either way, it’s important to tag or label something in a way that means you’ll find it because over time you’ll end up with a pile of these things (or you should hope to, anyway).
This leads to a slightly more advanced idea…
Developing your storyspotting skill, part two: finding multiple angles with one story
A friend of mine is a television reporter with a zillion stories to tell. One day we were “looking for the angle” of a heartwarming story he covered about a mentally slow boy who served a high school basketball team (with towels and such). The payoff was when, for the kid’s last game with the team, the coach put him in and the other team let him score a basket. The auditorium, predictably, erupted with cheering.
What struck me, however, was that this one story doesn’t just have one angle. There’s a story of persistence with a kid who never gave up on showing up. There’s a story or two of compassion from the coaches’ perspective. There’s a story of parental pride about the kid’s parents sitting in the stands. And on and on.
Your storyspotting skill shouldn’t stop at a “one story, one lesson.” There may not be more than one angle, but as you develop seeing things from multiple angles, you may be able to repurpose that story in more than one way for more than one audience.
Which leads to the tagging and filing we just spoke about. It’s hard to file one piece of paper in more than one manila folder. It’s also hard to file one digital piece of paper in more than one digital folder. But if you used a tool (a database, Evernote, whatever) that enabled you to tag stuff in multiple ways, those tags could not only be multiple different lessons you could derive from the story, but you could tag by audience type or anything else.
The bottom line
The power of having good stories at the ready for nearly occasion can’t be overstated. Your communication impact will soar. Better yet, when you collect-as-you-go, you’ll end up with many -- including many that you’d have otherwise 1) missed by not seeing them in the first place or 2) forgotten in the busyness of life.
Thanks for the question, Liam. Hope this helps.