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The best story wins

Leading with narrative

Storytelling: the oldest form of communication may be the best.

Once upon a time there was a disgruntled employee who fell asleep for 100 years during a PowerPoint training session. Sound familiar? Maybe so if you're trying to teach your workforce new skills using the same tired methods.

Why not try telling a story?

For almost 200,000 years, humans have been telling stories. They tell stories not only to inspire and inform but also to strengthen community bonds and direct human energies.

Ruobert Fulford, in The Triumph of Narrative, writes:

Of all the ways we communicate with one another, the story has established itself as the most comfortable, the most versatile--and perhaps also the most dangerous. Stories touch all of us, reaching across cultures and generations, accompanying humanity down the centuries. Assembling facts or incidents into tales is the only form of expression and entertainment that most of us enjoy equally at age three and age seventy-three.

The story links us to ancestors we can never know, people who lived ten or twenty thousand years ago. As the study of preliterate cultures demonstrates, storytelling was central to society long before humans learned to write. Millions of anonymous raconteurs invented narrative, and simultaneously began the history of civilization, when they discovered how to turn their observations and knowledge into tales they could pass on to others.

The eternal storyteller

The storyteller in Zhang Zeduan's famous painting depicting street life in the ancient capital of Bianjing.

Storytelling was often practiced as one craft among many. The Chinese poet Su Dongpo (1037-1101) wrote:

Whenever the children of the lanes and streets are naughty and their parents get annoyed, they hastily give them some coins and tell them to go and sit down to listen to stories about old times. When the tale of The Three Kingdoms is told, and they hear about the defeat of Liu Bei, they fret and some even shed tears. When they hear of Cao Cao's defeat, they become happy and applaud. This shows that the worthy man and the mean will both leave their mark, not to be erased in a hundred generations.

In 1117, Zhang Zeduan illustrated Su Dongpo's famous remark in his painted scroll entitled "Qing Ming Shang He Tu" ("Spring Festival along the River"). The long scroll depicts the street life of Bianjing, the ancient capital of the Song Dynasty.

At the beginning of the scroll we find a storyteller's booth under an awning at a corner of the street. The storyteller is entertaining a small audience of passersby. With his back half towards us, we can see his profile, an old man with a thin beard, and the enchanted faces of his audience.

A sign hanging outside his booth reads, "Explanations." He pursues his craft in the same way as other craftsmen in the painting, including the wheelwright, the knife-grinder, the boatman, the carrier, the innkeeper, and the peddler.

Storytelling coach Annette Simmons: put some heart into it.

The power of stories

Annette Simmons, in Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins, writes that the unique power of stories comes from not only stimulating feelings but also focusing them on a specific goal.

Stories create a framework, which, as George Lakoff writes in Don't Think of An Elephant!, compels and filters attention. A powerful story can have a powerful influence on one's perceptions. When told, "don't think of an elephant," it's hard to think of anything else. Telling stories takes people to other points of view where they can reinterpret what your "facts" mean to them. And when you control attention, you control conclusions.

Simmons states that getting into the habit of telling good stories requires considerable adjustment for those of us who have been raised in the 20th century. We have been trained to value rationality and objectivity over subjectivity, sensuality, and emotion. She writes:

The truth is, your facts aren't as powerful as human emotions... Rational thinking is a tool of analysis that stops at the frontal lobes. Stories communicate directly with the old brain, the limbic system, the amygdala, and the other core parts of the brain...

The "feeling" parts of the brain are designed to fast-track responses. Stories ignite imagined sensory experiences that represent reality way better than numbers plotted along a bar chart.

Mining stories to tell

Simmons says everyone has buckets of good stories to tell, including these:

  1. Personal stories of success that make you shine.
  2. Personal stories of failures, often important to build trust and credibility.
  3. Stories of mentors and other people important to you.
  4. Memorable stories from books, movies, and current events.

Aristotle famously defined a good story as a connected series of events with a beginning, a middle, and an end. He felt that the most important part of a story was the action and the plot.

Simmons defines a story as "a reimagined experience narrated with enough detail and feeling to cause your listeners' imaginations to experience it as real." She writes that you will find that lhe most winning stories are those that:

  1. Communicate your message.
  2. You enjoy telling.
  3. You actually tell in real-life situations.

Building on Aristotle's insistence on knowledge (logos), feeling (pathos), and credibility (ethos), Simmons offers this advice on telling good stories:

  1. Describe events in a way that evokes a concrete, sensory experience, as it is the way to stimulating emotion. Simmons writes: "When your listeners take in these sensory esperiences in the desired order, you take them rung by rung through the steps of discovery and conclusions up the ladder you wish them to climb."
  2. Be brief. Prolonged attempts at clarity and completeness loses the audience. If your mental template is an objective, linear progression, "you can end up with seventy slides that communicate less than a three-minute story does."
  3. Creativity often goes against the rules of propriety and common sense. People are not used to subjective, sensual thinking and prefer formulas and measureable outcomes to be more "rational." Simmons writes, "I've seen many groups locked in mortal combat over a compensation plan or reward system, as if there were a 'right' answer. Subjective issues have many 'right' answers."
  4. Self-recognition. You have to know yourself and your organization.
  5. Solidarity. Good stories trigger universal emotions that we share with all humans and not just special interest groups. It also helps to skip in and out of other points of view.

The emancipation of the story

Tim Leberecht: stories are best when data boggles.

In business, government, and finance, many consider storytelling skills as a 21st-century requirement of leadership.

Marketing personnel are increasingly using stories to develop brand loyalty. Marketing strategist Tim Leberecht writes: "What has changed, though, is the importance of storytelling. The more data you deal with, the stronger the need for storytellers who make sense of it all. Perhaps, that's the biggest value marketers can bring to the table."

Brand strategist Giles Lury, writes, "This trend echoes the deeply-rooted need of all humans to be entertained. Stories are illustrative, easily remembered, and allow any firm to create stronger emotional bonds with customers."

Daphne Jameson, writing in the Journal of Business Communications, found that managers were using storytelling to resolve conflicts, to intrepret the past and shape the future, and to unify their groups. In their meetings, the managers preferred stories instead of abstract arguments or statistical measures. When situations were complex, stories allowed them to involve more context.

There have been many studies showing the important role of storytelling in technical communications, financial reports, health care, and law.

Stories engage readers and listeners more fully and deeply than any other form of communication. As Annete Simmons says, everyone has good stories to tell. It's time to dig them out, brush them off, and put them to good use. You may even be able to wake up that disgruntled employee.


Plain language in the news

New government PowerPoint presentation on plain language: http://tinyurl.com/7wkaeqt

Plain language in the General Services Administration: http://tinyurl.com/6o6t5vd

Plain language needed in disaster information: http://tinyurl.com/86t5vxr

Ballot questions should be understandable: http://tinyurl.com/7rszn9q

Judge orders claims to be written in plain English: http://tinyurl.com/7rpotdd

Financial advisers to learn plain English: http://tinyurl.com/6m9yeqs

Jargon-buster training for council employees: http://tinyurl.com/78mwfd9

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Telecomm marketing: indecipherable jargon: http://tinyurl.com/6sevtff

Guides through the taxpayer's swamp: http://tinyurl.com/8yl2u57

Rob Jenkins on professional gobbledygook: http://tinyurl.com/7fmy8lw

Poor health literacy predicts earlier death: http://tinyurl.com/85sntz3

The ABCs of health literacy: http://tinyurl.com/83wffav

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