Four aspects of powerful stories

Why stories are important

I often wonder what makes stories so powerful. Most of the successful business presentations I see are based on powerful underlying stories. The best presenters, be it in the boardroom or in front of a large audience, are able to entice their listeners into entering a story with them. They then lead them through it and live the conclusion of the story together. The best storytellers can move their audiences to tears or have them at least nod in empathic identification.
As especially board room meetings can have a significant influence on the direction large organizations take, of course I am very interested in this powerful tool.

Stories from a risk management perspective

From a risk management perspective, another angle is relevant as well … how complete and accurate is the story painted a representation of the actual situation of the organization it is being told to and tries to influence.
We appear to have some built in defense mechanisms against stories which do not align with the operational reality of an organization; but if a story is close to but not quite the actual reality, it may pass. If is story is influenced by risks which are relevant, but perhaps not the most relevant, we may have an issue. And due to the “close and immediate” issue which often skews risk assessments, a well told story, if not completely accurate and complete, may well lead an organization astray.
So stories are relevant from a risk management perspective as well.

Four powerful aspects of stories

Reviewing a number of great presentations and related stories, I’ve come up with the following four points I believe make a story powerful. They may not be all of the elements. They were however the elements I found back in all of my notes, over and over again.

  • Recognition A story is easy to recognize. If a story is told well and relevant to the matter at hand, listeners will very quickly identify the story with the situation they find themselves in or the situation they are working on or discussing. Recognition plants the seed for further growth … lessons learned by the characters in the stories will faster become lessons for the listeners as well.
  • Access A story is easy to understand. The concepts which are put forward in stories are often not very complex concepts. They tend to be rather black and white. The extreme positions are actually enhancing recognition. Decision pathways that in reality may be very difficult or convoluted become almost freeways of thought in a well told story. Again, they guide the listener, as long as he suspends his disbelief, through the decision process. A great story almost hacks the brainstem and plants a full grown idea in the mind of a person, as long as this person is receptive. If you have seen the movie ‘Inception’, you may remember that the main character stated the planting of an idea was very difficult. Actually, by means of a good story, it may be very easy for a receptive mind.
  • Retention A story is easy to remember. It glues to the mind, it sticks and it repeats itself over and over again in the mind of the listener. The more he revisits the story, the better he will remember it. The better he will remember it, the more he will be influenced by it.
  • Adaptability A story is easily adaptable to a personal situation. A well told story provide a lot of surrounding detail, but will allow for the listener to fill in the details himself. This in turn allows the listener to bring the story into his mind and anchor it there by filling in the blanks. Stephen King, in his groundbreaking “Dance Macabre” a non fiction work on the horror story and its history, states that the best horror stories are those which let the listener fill in the blanks with his own fears. The medium provides a significant influence in this. The book provided the most fertile ground. You needed to imagine even the voices yourself. Radio was great as well, as it brought the story to a fertile set of minds, glued to the radio, and let them fill in the blanks. Movies and TV nowadays take away a lot of the work to be done by the listener/viewer. As a result, the risk of a disconnect is higher.

Lessons from stories

What does this point to? If a story is good, it is in line with the reality of the organization. If the storyteller is good, he will allow for the minds of his listeners to fill in the blanks. He takes them to a land of his choosing, where the characters are defined by him, but the environment is entirely the choice of the listener. By taking his listeners through his ideas, he guides them through a thought process that eventually will lead them to an understanding or a decision. The best storytellers determine in advance, when building the story, what the outcome should be.
It also tells us that the best storytellers don’t use too much visual materials such as Powerpoint because they realize this distracts the listeners rather than assist them in gaining access to the story.