Thursday, March 11, 2010

Tools are Easy: Storytelling is Hard

I have been considering the nature of effective storytelling lately.

I work with a range of clients who all need to tell their stories through different media. Ideally, they will be open to exploring stories across media -- from in-person communication at length to the 140-character Tweet.

The question is: how do you make the most of each medium?

In-Person Pitching

My clients need to pitch for both business and for investment. The question always becomes: how do you transform a presentation into a conversation people want to continue?

After all, business takes place after your last word is spoken - usually, after you've left the room.

Take Doug Richards' video from School for Start-Ups, for example. Doug has invited me to his event to help with the storytelling because he thinks I have a different take. He's right.

Doug talks about compelling stories for investors with dragons, bad guys, good guys, and so on. It sounds good, but how would you translate that for someone who wants to present?

What's true is that it always makes sense to engage listeners' feelings (at least) as much as their minds. One always remembers the way a communication feels -- whether it's in a meeting (competitive? generous?), on a conference call (dull? impatient?), or in writing (rude? friendly?). The same, of course, goes for those who communicate in front of a room.

But where do you go from there?

Storytelling Means More Than One Thing

Vocabulary might be a problem -- perhaps we need other words for articulating one's value proposition with a beginning, middle, and end?

When I was hired last week by an investor team to work with entrepreneurs , the programme's head interpreted my request to transform the data into a story to mean "tell me something that happened in your life."

Indeed, this can be a useful strategy. Specificity always helps listeners engage, and if done well in context, personalising abstract concepts or challenges will set your pitch apart from others.

On the other hand, the investors wouldn't want 10 teams in a row telling a specific story about the connection between their lives and projects. The format would become predictable, and people would tune out.

So What Makes a Good Story?

The secret to effective storytelling can't really be defined by any particular format. It's true that all stories usually have characters, place, conflict, and resolution. However, creating a narrative is not straightforward -- there is no formula -- if you want your audience engaged.

One strategy that can be effective is to make the story meaningful to you. It must create a feeling in YOU that feels contagious to your listeners.

Quite simply, this is empathy.

But Wait: There's (Always More)

In addition to feeling the truth of what you say, perspective and context must be a factor in the way you express yourself. Are you creating the right kind of chemistry with listeners by making your experience accessible?

If there is a secret, it is that there is no single recipe for effective communication except listening well and interpreting the needs of your listener as you go. Call it improvisation, if you like. The key is to remember that as effortless as improv can appear, no one is born knowing how to do it well.

It doesn't happen without a lot of practice.

I think that's why I enjoy my work so much. It's not training. It's learning, both for me and my clients. Every time is different.

More on other media in the next post.

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