Treatment Center: Remedies for Your Biggest Storytelling Maladies

By: Rob Biesenbach
Feb. 1, 2020
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Are you feeling tired, listless or confused when it comes to storytelling? You’re not alone. I deal with people from all walks of life who suffer from debilitating conditions like Storyphobia, Complexitosis and TEDSteria.

Fortunately, there are treatments for these common ailments. So step into my office and let me dispense remedies for your biggest storytelling maladies. 

The doctor is in.

Diagnosis: Complexitosis 

People make storytelling too complicated. Busy professionals don’t have time for 20-step processes, 10-part structures or Aristotle’s seven principles. They want something practical.

Remedy: Make it simple.

A story is simply a character in pursuit of a goal in the face of some challenge or obstacle. The ultimate resolution provides the payoff.

For example, Romeo and Juliet (characters) want to be together (goal), but their families hate each other (challenge). As for the resolution, they end up together — just maybe not in the way they expected.

Beyond arts and literature, this simple structure works for practically any story.

Diagnosis: Brand Obsession

Brand stories are the peacocks of the storytelling world. They get all the attention. But any business with a decent budget can hire a creative agency to come up with a heartwarming TV spot or video featuring loyal customers and dedicated employees. The everyday stories individuals tell are of far more consequence.

Remedy: Tell micro-stories.

Everyone in the organization should be in the storytelling business: 

  • Senior execs who want to get employees on board with a new strategy
  • Sales reps seeking to deepen a customer relationship
  • Technical types trying to explain complex concepts to laypeople
  • Public affairs people who wish to enlist community support
  • Everyday employees who need to demonstrate their value

Day in and day out, these are the stories that have the biggest impact on people’s lives and livelihoods.

Diagnosis: TEDsteria

TED Talks have psyched us out. We watch these expert speakers and feel pressured to tell stories that send people into gales of laughter or rivers of tears. But not every story has to have a huge, dramatic moment.

Remedy: Capitalize on the small moments.

You spilled coffee in your lap on the way to work. You turned the house upside down looking for the phone that was pressed to your ear. You showed up for a meeting a full day early.

These are the kinds of everyday events that provide fodder for stories everyone can relate to. They provoke a chuckle, a knowing nod, a glimmer of recognition — which sometimes is all you need to make an impact and create a connection. 

Diagnosis: Storyphobia

Got skeptics? People who feel stories are all fluff and no substance? That storytelling is a so-called “soft” skill?

Remedy: Blind them with science!

Abundant evidence — actual scientific evidence — points to the power of stories to win hearts, change minds and get results. So if you’re dealing with data-oriented skeptics, bury them in data supporting storytelling.

And as a last resort, maybe don’t use the word “story” if you think it’s going to trigger them. Call it an example or anecdote or experience.

Diagnosis: Kitchen Sink Syndrome

Too much detail — or the wrong kind of detail — can stop a story in its tracks. This may be the hardest part of storytelling: distinguishing the essential information from the nonessential.

Remedy: Focus relentlessly.

The first thing to cut is the data.

  • Round off and scale numbers: Say “1 out of 3” instead of “35.2 percent.”
  • Reduce proper names: Use “sales leader” instead of “Associate Director of Sales, North American Region.” 
  • Simplify dates: Try “early ‘90s” instead of “Aug. 14, 1992.”

Next, understand that not every twist and turn in your story is important. It’s OK to omit facts or to condense and even change the sequence of events. Bear in mind that it’s a story, not an affidavit.

Ultimately, it’s about capturing the larger truth of your story, not every minor detail.

Diagnosis: Hero Fixation

We’re often tempted to center our stories on major historical figures. There are two problems with this approach. 

First, your audience has probably heard these stories before. Most of us know by now that Thomas Edison didn’t invent the lightbulb — he “merely” found a way to make it commercially viable. Don’t traffic in conventional wisdom. 

Second, it’s been my experience that these stories lack relevance to people’s everyday lives. We may be inspired by Nelson Mandela’s courageous defiance of apartheid during 27 years of hard labor, but how is that going to help your audience unravel, say, a thorny customer service issue?

Remedy: Look for everyday heroes.

The most relatable characters are those who are similar in circumstance to your target audience. Talking to customers? Tell a story about another customer facing the same problem. Talking to employees? Tell a story of another employee in their situation.

Connect and compel through storytelling.

This may be the most important lesson. Stick to stories from your own experience. When you tell a story you’ve actually witnessed or been a part of, you’ll be much more connected to it, and your audience will more easily connect with you.

And that connection can lead to a relationship, which can lead to getting more of what you want from your work and your life.

So look around. Stories are everywhere, just waiting to be discovered, shaped and shared. 

photo credit: getty images