This review first ran in the April 14th edition of The Hamilton Spectator.
A father and son are on vacation.
They’re walking on the beach when they find hundreds of stranded starfish baking in the sun.
The boy picks up a starfish and puts it back in the ocean.
The dad tells his son there are too many starfish to save. “We’ll be here forever,” says the dad.
“Relax dad,” says the boy. “I’m just saving one starfish so CEOs and motivational speakers can repeat this story over and over again whenever they need to drive home the point about how one person can make a difference. Now let’s go have breakfast.”
We all know that telling stories is better than inflicting death by PowerPoint on an audience. We’re hardwired for storytelling.
But don’t be lazy and recycle whatever comes up when you Google search “stories to inspire an audience.”
Skip the often-told starfish story and instead follow Rob Biesenbach’s advice for telling more compelling tales.
“A story is a character in pursuit of a goal in the face of some challenge or obstacle,” says Biesenbach.
To tell a great story that sticks with your audience, ask yourself five questions:
Is the character in your story real and relatable? We don’t care about processes and programs, says Biesenbach. We care about people. “Your character is the heart of the story. Bring your stories down to the human level. If a problem exists it must surely affect actual people.” Tell us about someone like us who’s in a similar situation and facing the same kind of challenge. Share a personal story or introduce us to one of your customers, clients, patients or students.
Is there sufficient conflict? If there’s no conflict, there’s no drama driving the narrative of your story. “Conflict arises from the tension between the character’s goal and the challenge facing her.”
Are the stakes high enough? Go big with the challenge. “For a story to work, there has to be something important at stake – a serious problem that cries out for action.”
Is there clear cause and effect? Tightly link the chain of events in your story. “Causality is more meaningful to us than mere coincidence.”
And is there an emotional core at the heart of your story? “Emotion fuels stories,” says Biesenbach. “When your audience feels something, they are more likely to do something.”
Once you’ve checked off these boxes, structure your story in three parts.
In the beginning, introduce us to your character.
In the middle of your story, set out your character’s challenge.
At the end of your story, bring things to a resolution.
“Think of your story as a Hollywood blockbuster. In the end, the enemy is vanquished, the boy gets the girl, justice is served. There’s a reason these movies are so popular: they give audiences what they want – a satisfactory conclusion.
“Your story should not be in the style of indie or art house cinema, where the characters don’t really change and problems go unresolved. The indie film may be truer to everyday life, but it’s not particularly satisfying for general audiences.”
Biesenbach’s written a practical guide to help anyone become a better, more focused storyteller. The stronger your stories, the better your odds of winning hearts, changing minds and getting results.
“Our stories help define who we are and what we stand for. They set us apart in a noisy, competitive world. And they help ensure we’re remembered. Don’t be intimated. Storytelling isn’t reserved for artists and poets and folksy cowboys huddled around the campfire.”
@jayrobb tells stories as director of communications for Mohawk College, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.