Does your storytelling sparkle?

Storytelling has had a resurgence in business, with Hubspot, The Content Marketing Institute, and the Harvard Business Review all leaping into the fray – while I blink in astonishment, feeling like the business world has suddenly discovered cheese. Stories are all over your business already. Every time you give an example, a case study, or an anecdote, you’re telling a story. Your bio is a story, your company history is a story, your company plans are a story – so how do you make those stories sparkle? Take a few lessons from an award-winning storyteller. Yep, that’s me. When I’m not helping my clients whisk and whirl all their expertise into captivating, powerful books, I write stories – novels, short stories, novellas, stories that people read not for the information in them, or for useful tips, or to understand a business, but because the story itself is that interesting. So grab a coffee, maybe a nice piece of cheese to nibble, and let’s make your stories sparkle.

First off: have you met the teddybear on fire? He’s an old sleepy teddybear, the oldest of all the toys, with a deep, gruff voice and threadbare fur, and he’ll teach you the raw essentials of storytelling. He’s also, unfortunately, on fire. If you haven’t met him yet, read this first.

Right, now you’re back, and you’ve got the four essentials of storytelling clear: a character, a problem, an ending, and a point. Grab a story to work with: your bio, company history, a case study, anything you like, and have the burning teddy check it. Does it have a character and have you told us a few tidbits about the character? Does it have a problem – or are you trying to hide the problem under a veneer of unmitigated success? (Remember: that’s not a story, that’s just boasting.) Does it have an ending? Does it have a point? Once it’s passed the Burning Teddy Check, you have a story. Now we want to make the story come alive.

Here’s a dead story:

At a popular art event, my niece was hot and tired, and wanted to leave. I had to entertain her while my partner visited some of the stands he hadn’t yet seen. We found somewhere to rest and by using narrative co-creation, I was able to keep her occupied for the necessary time.

We have three characters (niece, me, my partner), a problem (niece is tired, we can’t leave yet), an ending (I was able to keep her occupied), and a point (the power of storytelling). It’s also dead.

Now compare that to how I actually told you the story in the teddy-on-fire post:

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!”

By the time we reached the ending…, Will had returned from the woodcarving tent and joined us, and we weren’t allowed to leave until the story finished.

Let’s play spot-the-difference:

  • at a popular art event under a sunburn-sky in Waterperry Gardens… Every tent around us brimmed with sculpture, illustrations, weaving, carvings…
  • my niece was tired a three year old… my niece had visited Granny’s Calligraphy stand and had eaten an icecream, and was now done for the day… her lips began to wobble
  • some stands the woodcarving
  • We found somewhere to rest We sat on the dry grass in a tent’s sliver of shade.
  • narrative cocreation (dialogue showing us creating a story together)
  • able to keep her occupied for the necessary time By the time we reached the ending…, Will had returned from the woodcarving tent and joined us, and we weren’t allowed to leave until the story finished.

Before you read on, what do you think the biggest differences are? Jot down a few ideas of your own, then scroll past the picture.

sparkle_meadowvetchlingThe live version is more detailed: it’s sensory instead of abstract; it’s specific instead of generalised. (In this case, it’s also longer, to fit more detail in, but that doesn’t have always have to be the case, as this example shows.) Stories come alive when they’re sensory and specifc.

Sensory detail is everything we can see, hear, touch, smell, taste. We live in physical bodies: the physical details are what helps us live inside the story.The dead story just tells you my niece was hot. The live story tells you it was under a sunburn sky, that we sat on the dead grass in tent’s sliver of shade. Give us the physical experience of being inside the story. And a masterclass tip: when the thing itself (eg the heat) is common, describe the effect instead. That’s easier to imagine, less cliched, and more various. In this story, the effect of “hot” is sunburn, dead grass, the value of a sliver of shade. These sensory details also help put the story in real time, so that it’s not all happening in the distance as if we’re looking through the wrong end of the telescope. We can get close up and inside it. Dialogue is also great for putting a story in real time.

Specifics also make the story come alive. It’s not “a popular art event” – it’s “Waterperry Gardens” and the tents brim with sculpture, illustrations, weaving, and carvings. Even if you don’t know the event or the venue, you can imagine it now. Instead of saying “some stands”, I specify “the woodcarving”: you can imagine what my partner is off to look at, and even get a snippet of insight into him as a character. Instead of “narrative cocreation” (an academic, abstracted idea), I show you the dialogue of my niece and I creating a story together. Hunt through your own story for general or abstract words. “Tree” is general: what kind of tree is it? A blue gum, an oak, a willow, a thorn tree? Telling me which tree will let me see it and tell me more about the landscape. A business “flourished” is an abstract statement: what does that look like? Is it visitors pouring through the doors every weekend? Order papers stacking high? The specific will let me see the success and tell me more about the business. Hunt down every general or abstract word and replace it with the specific.

In storytelling, God is in the detail. Life is in the detail. Once you have the raw essentials, sweep through your story to fill it with life – the life of the body, the life of the specific. When it comes alive in your audience’s imagination, that’s when it really starts to sparkle.

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