The art of storytelling (Teddy’s on fire!)


Under a sunburn-sky in Waterperry Gardens, I discovered two things: the endurance-limit of a three-year-old and how to explain the art of storytelling.  Every tent around us brimmed with sculpture, illustrations, weaving, carvings… but my niece had visited Granny’s Calligraphy stand and had eaten an icecream, and was now done for the day.

“We’re going home very soon,” I assured her, “But Will’s going to go look at the wood carving – I know it’s too hot in there,” I added hastily, as her lips began to wobble, “So we’re going to sit here, and have some water and a story.” We sat on the dry grass in a tent’s sliver of shade. “Do you want a story, or a poem, or a story from inside our heads?”
“Inside our heads!” she cried.
“Okay… first we need a character.”
“A teddy!”
“Super. A teddy. So, now we need a problem.”
“Teddy’s on fire!”
And so Teddy’s story began, the story of an old sleepy teddybear, the oldest of all the toys, with a deep, gruff voice and threadbare fur, who was left carelessly on a windowsill, under a magnifying glass, on a hot hot day in June, when all the family were out and all the other toys, the Lego mini-figures and the Sylvanian family and the Slinky spring, were fast asleep in their boxes… By the time we reached the ending (the toys heroically extinguished the raging house fire and collapsed on the lawn, sodden and exhausted, where the returning family were bewildered to find them), Will had returned from the woodcarving tent and joined us, and we weren’t allowed to leave until the story finished.

Boil a story down to its bones and that’s what you find: a character, a problem, and an ending.  Whether you’re entertaining a hot, tired child or capturing your clients’ imaginations, stories are a winner and whatever you call them – “case studies”, “anecdotes”, “examples” – they need those ingredients: a character, a problem, an ending.

Even though we all grow up on stories, it’s easy to forget any one of those ingredients. You write the story of a business’s growth from start-up to success and all the obstacles it overcomes – but a business isn’t a character. We need a character at the centre of a story: that’s what makes us care what happens. Do you want to get your audience by the heartstrings? Give them someone to care about. What’s more, the more we know the character, the more we care about them and by extension their goals. We need more than a name: give us a cameo of their personality. Not just any teddybear: an old sleepy teddybear, the oldest of all the toys, with a deep, gruff voice and threadbare fur. Not just any entrepreneur: a sharp-eyed quick-to-laugh woman who can see numbers dance and dreams in code.

Similarly, you might tell a fantastic success story, with a wonderful person at the heart of it – but if all you tell is the success, your story has no problems. Success is what happens when the problem is solved: in your story, go through the problem, not round it. You might say “aim” or “goal” instead of problem – but then you need to add “obstacle”, as well. If I have an aim and nothing stands in the way of my instant and glorious success, that’s not a story. That’s just a boast.

And finally, when you’ve set the story up, with your character and problem, tell us how it ends. That may seem obvious, but I’ve read plenty of case studies where the character identified the problem and – the end.
“So what happened?” I ask my author.
“Oh, they didn’t listen to my advice, they carried on making a loss for a couple more years, and then the director they should’ve got rid of turned out to be embezzling funds and they went bankrupt, but I can’t say that.”
Storius interruptus is a terrible thing. The ending is an essential component. If you can’t tell the ending, you can’t tell the story – or you can rewrite it as a fictional example, not a case study, and make up your own ending, but you can’t tell a story without an ending.

A story has one other secret, magical component: a point. We live by stories and shape our lives by them. They’re models of how the world goes and promises of what we’ll get if we do the right things. That’s part of their incredible power and part of why stories matter far more than simple entertainment. When the point is too big and brash and obvious as a neon flashing sign, it becomes that nauseating thing, A Moral. I didn’t finish Teddy’s story with a Moral about Why You Shouldn’t Leave Magnifying Glasses In The Sun, because by the time a flaming teddy bear has set fire to an entire house, that much is clear. But I did add several reassurances on the subject of modern fire-retardant materials and if her teddy really had been flammable, I might have pressed the point. A story also has subtler points, beliefs and ethics interwoven in the details: in how the toys worked together, with a long chain of lego men and the Slinky’s bounce-ability and how the dogs weren’t very clever but were strong and that’s useful too, and Teddy’s noble self-sacrifice and how the other toys wouldn’t let him go down in flames (literally). Likewise, your story has its point, the reason you’re telling it, but it also has all its subtle points, your beliefs about how the world works, what behaviours are valuable, what ends in failure, what brings success.

When you tell a story, you’re God of that world. That is power. So next time you’re standing on that stage, firing up that blog editor, or gathering together those case studies, remember your character, your problem, your ending – and your power.

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