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5 Simple Storytelling Techiques

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Stories are an incredibly powerful way to get your message across. Most people would rather go to a movie than attend a lecture. Most people would rather hear about your trip to Easter Island than have you refer them to a series of Wikipedia articles.

Stories can be used in business all the time — in case studies, press releases, direct marketing, testimonials, advertising copy, sales brochures, Web copy, and even instruction manuals. However, as we all know, there are good storytellers and not so good storytellers. Here are a few ideas you can use to make your storytelling come alive. It’s by no means a complete list … what can you add?

Start with a character your audience can relate to. Many companies craft highly detailed personas of their typical or ideal customer. This is a valuable exercise for a lot of reasons, storytelling included. Make your ideal customer the hero of your story. You want readers to think, “That could be me!” right off the bat. Who is going to walk away from a story they are starring in?

Set the stage. One quality of a bad story or storyteller is the feeling that you being subjected to pointless rambling. Remember the adage, tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them. Sound advice! Example of setting the stage –

Here’s how we came to the Rose family’s rescue on the day of their daughter’s surprise 16th birthday party.

Establish conflict. Unless you’re a French or Italian film director, you can’t have a story without conflict. In the example above, the conflict is man against the clock. Conflict can be against some form of external pressure or it can be internal – man against himself. For business purposes, the conflict tends to be external, some force preventing a person or business from achieving its objectives or threatening its survival. I think the starting point for any story is to define exactly what the conflict is. Unless you do that, you can’t keep your story on point.

Foreshadow. Remember talking about foreshadowing in high school English class? Foreshadowing is a simple technique of hinting at what is to come, thus building suspense.

Daughter Jane would be home in an hour, and Sally Rose breathed a sigh of relief. She had done everything humanly possible to prepare the perfect party. But Sally was about to learn that “everything humanly possible” isn’t always enough.

OK, it’s not Macbeth, but hopefully throwing in a bit of foreshadowing will make the audience curious to know what’s going to go wrong. Foreshadowing, used sparingly, keeps the audience on track, keeps the story moving in a clear direction.

Use dialog.Stories are about people, and people talk.

“Honey, I’m broiling,” said John Rose. “Is the air conditioner on?”

Sally hadn’t had time to notice the beads of sweat dripping from her own forehead. “Oh, Lord,” she said. “We have a problem.”

For business purposes, adding dialog/quotes is a must for press releases and direct marketing, and always livens up ad copy and certain types of sales collateral. One thing to be careful of – avoid overwriting. “Sally said” is much better than “Sally whispered nervously.” I think too much flair detracts from the business focus, though some of you may disagree with me on that.

There you have it – 5 simple ways to spice up a story. What storytelling techniques do you like and use?

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27 Responses to 5 Simple Storytelling Techiques

  1. Ulla, speaking of images, your gravatar makes quite a statement! Images are a huge part of storytelling, which deserves a post unto itself. I remember reading “Alice in Wonderland” as a child and being as fascinated by the black and white drawings as the story itself – do you remember?

  2. Brad,
    Actually it’s not another storytelling technique I’d like to add but it’s the advice: Combine your story with images! These could be images matching the story (like your image above) or images which doesn’t seem to match, but attract the eye or contrast the story. You said “establish conflict” – why not use an image of two people having a conflict? Just my 2cents,

  3. Deb, LOL. People do like to hear stories all the way through, whereas they will easily give up when confronted with long blocks of expository text on Web pages, brochures, etc.

  4. Brad,
    Regarding the Avatar: I must admit that I am quite surprised with it – I didn’t actually select it. “Alice in Wonderland” is not a Children’s book in Germany – maybe too sophisticated for German children. But I remember “To kill a Mockingbird” – which was a book for young adults here in Germany. There were a lot of wonderful illustrations. Today illustrations have mostly disappeard from books for adults – books have to be cheap. I regret that very much.

  5. This is all well and good (and it IS good), but what happened at the PARTY?

    Oh, wait, you mean the story wasn’t the point of the post? But I want to know MORE! (grin)

    (Which, of course, is the whole point.)

  6. Joanna, All very good storytelling tips – glad you brought them up. I like the point especially about telling stories your readers will find fascinating. Not easy to do. Still tinkering, and your comment about those strange gravatars gives me more to tinker with.

  7. It’s not an addition but maybe a theme that runs through the points you’ve made – write with rapport. Don’t go wittering on. Pace your reader. Know where they’re starting from. Entice them to keep going along the way with you. Tell a story that *they* will find interesting rather than one that fascinates you (which we’ve already heard before).

    Nice post by the way, and you know I do like the new look here! Are you still tinkering?


  8. Maybe you want to tinker with the avatar settings – your readers look a bit scary?!

  9. Really nice post. I was talking with a co-worker about this very thing and saying if you do it right, even the most mundane of process improvement projects can come to life for readers (in my case, employees who need to hear that their hard work is paying off). I’m going to share your post with my team because you said it so well.

  10. As Joanna said, I like love the fresh new look of this site – sleek, yet orderly and simple.

    Also, I concur with Deb – what happened at the party?



  11. Soulmagnet, thanks for sharing. I came out of the packaging industry, so I know what you say is true.

    Andrew & Deb, The air conditioning repair squad, Fred and Fernando, showed up within 15 minutes and made the necessary repairs with time to spare. John and Sally were so pleased they invited them to stay for the party, which added significantly to Jane’s surprise. The party was a roaring success, except that Fred and Fernando ate all the cake.

  12. Karen, do you think people remember the details of a story because they are in a context? I never thought about it that way. Your Quake story is in an unforgettable context. I think that’s one reason Super Bowl ads are so memorable. You tend to remember them because of the context more than ads of comparable quality that air whenever.

  13. Hi Brad, love the new look! Congrats! When I first introduced storytelling to business clients they thought I had gone a bit daft. Turns out, though I am a bit zany, it was good advice! Trainers and public speakers (and sales people) have long known the power of a story. People not only relate to the story but remember the details. We quickly recall stories but may have to work harder to recall dry facts. I remember the Northridge Quake of 1994 (Jan. 17th) because it was my birthday and I had just started a new job. I may have not accurately recalled the date if it was not attached to a story. Great post Brad!

  14. Brad, I think it partly has to do with our early learning. As children our first encounters with language and learning are stories. Our brains are trained to remember them and it seems to carry over to adulthood. You’re right about the Super Bowl ads!

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  16. Brad,

    This may be obvious, but I would add making your story relevant by incorporating signposts throughout which demonstrate the ways your story relates to the point it’s intended to illustrate. And if its connection to your point still seems a bit elusive, by all means explain it.

    While “Sally said” might be better than “Sally whispered nervously,” replacing the verb/adverb combination with a more descriptive verb — as in “Sally stammered” — might be better still. After all, even in business writing, our object is to make our story come alive. I can see where “Sally whispered nervously” would be a bit much in a business context; but, then again, Subject-Verb-Adverb isn’t the best construction to use without variation in any kind of writing. It’s almost always better to use a more colorful verb whenever possible. Do you think “stammered” would be an un-business-like verb choice?


  17. Hi Jeanne, I love your point and am curious to hear Brad’s take. In my work, I find that the type of writing dictates the word choice. For example, in press releases, it is better to stick with “said,” “commented,” “offered, ” etc. In writing traning sessions howerver, a bit more color is acceptable.

  18. Hi, Karen!

    I agree that, in press releases and other “newsy” types of writing, along with any business communications that are intended to convey a more official tone, the words you’ve mentioned would be more appropriate. I guess it all boils down to the specific type of business communication being discussed, as you’ve said. It’s also true, though, that one probably wouldn’t be very likely to include anecdotal stories in press releases or more official business communications, whereas such stories would fit quite naturally into management (or other types of business-related) training materials.


  19. Hi Jeanne and Karen, Your discussion about dialog is quite interesting – it shows you just how many factors go into choosing the right words. I agree that if you can find the perfect verb (and “stammered” is it), using it makes the scene more vivid. My only concern is, will too many perfect verbs “upstage” the business and customer being featured? Not an easy question. Considering the context helps, obviously. If I were writing a success story about a couple who met through a dating service, I’d add more flourish. In my post, writing about an air conditioning service, I’d lean to “he said, she said”.

  20. Good points, Brad! I think you’re right!

  21. Robert, Good point – I notice you frequently put hooks in your post in the form of a question. It works!

  22. Great post, Brad. What I like to do is open with a “hook” of some kind: a question that causes a double-take or something similar. That piques interest in the remainder of the post.

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  26. Rick, Jerry Seinfeld did pretty well turning nothing into a 30 minute sitcom. Maybe your daughter has a bright storytelling future!

  27. Brad, my eldest daughter is renowned for her ability to take an hour to tell the tale of a five-minute event in her life. My wife, who is the stepmom to my daughters and thus blameless in any discussion of inherited traits, claims to know exactly where my daughter got her talent. It may be unusual, but I have nothing to say on the matter.

    Your techniques are solid and easy to use, Brad! Thanks for this.

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