Leave out the boring parts

Storytelling is rather simple if you follow this advice from writer Elmore Leonard:

“A story is real life with the boring parts left out.”

Simple, right?

Just leave out all the boring parts and voilà: your story is ready.

But.

What if you can’t leave out the boring parts? Because, let’s say, it’s a really dry topic … with lots of facts …

Sounds like bad luck, doesn’t it? I mean you can’t just leave the facts out when it’s about the facts, do you? You’re basically doomed to be giving a boring talk.

Well, unless the premise is wrong.

Which it is: Facts are facts. In and of itself, a fact is neither boring nor exciting.

But if the facts relate to our lives, if the facts have an impact on our lives (even if it’s just an impact on your business’ bottom line), then we’re back in Leonards domain: Leave out the boring parts, i.e. those facts that don’t relate to the point we’re trying to make about our lives.

Facts make for a boring story if (and only if) you write real life out of the story and if you waste your time on the facts without making the connection to real life.

The misuse of stories

Stories are powerful.

Which is why they are often misused. The more emotional, the greater the potential for misuse.

A couple of years back, at a conference, I listened to a speech about water problems in mega cities. The speaker started with a story about a poor family who suffered some severe diseases due to contaminated water. It was a touching experience. She really made us feel the pain.

Which earned her harsh criticism during the coffee break.

Because it turned out that she had been misleading us. The problem: The story wasn’t representative of the situation. Not at all.

It was a story that was meant to evoke emotions (which it did). But it was a dishonest story in the sense that the speaker had picked a very specific, very special situation that painted an unusually dark picture. One that wasn’t representative of the situation at all. It was purely there to evoke emotions while not making the proper point.

That’s a crucial difference: The best stories are such that they are representative of the whole picture despite highlighting only a specific part of the picture.

Skilled communicators pick stories that paint a vivid picture.

Great communicators pick representative stories that paint a vivd picture. A story that is powerful because it evokes emotions and captures the essence of the complete picture.

All amounts to something in the end

A golden rule in storytelling is that anything the author spends much time on will amount to something in the story.

If it didn’t, the editor would certainly have cut it out. It’s just bloat that makes the story longer but not better. It adds detail without adding meaning.

Now, look at your website. Does anything you spend much time on amount to something in your story? Or is there content that makes the page longer but not better, information that adds detail without adding meaning?

A good editor would cut it out.

What Rocky teaches us about business storytelling

Almost everyone has been Rocky at one point in their life.

You just knew that you have what it takes … if only the world was at bit more fair and didn’t throw all the mess at you while treating the already big fish with (even more) money, (even more) relationships, and (even more) luck.

When someday luck would call you – just like Apollo did with Rocky to give him the opportunity to fight for the world championship, you’d prove that.

Haven’t you been Rocky? You knew that if only luck would call you to give you the opportunity to show the world that you really have what it takes, you would prove them right? Just like Rocky did? (I know that many of you actually have.)

That’s why Rocky resonates with so many people – even those who would never watch a real boxing fight. It’s not the boxing why people love Rocky. It’s the journey.

Rocky, just like any good story, is a canvas, a canvas we project ourselves on. We look at the hero, but it’s us who we see. If it’s a great story, we derive lessons from what we see and implement them for our own lives.

The same principle works for business stories.

Unfortunately, most business stories work rather differently. They are not designed as a canvas but as a spotlight. A rather bright one, in fact, so that the audience can appreciate the hero and cheer for them.

The problem with that is that audiences already have a hero to root for: themselves. They don’t need you to replace that hero.

A better way to tell a business story is to think of it as a canvas so that – even while we’re speaking about ourselves – it’s the customer who recognizes themselves in the story.

Can you point to a business story that does that for you? I’d love to hear it!

What selfish marketers overlook

Some marketers treat us as kind of dumb.

For example in the way they try to persuade us by hiding their cons and exaggerating their pros (if not downright inventing some).

Let’s call them the “selfish marketers”.

The fascinating part is how much effort selfish marketers invest into this. They spend huge resources on inventing promises that sound irresistible or stories that create buzz – not to mention all the money they throw towards marketing agencies who give them more of that.

By doing that, they try to decorate a product they don’t trust in themselves to be good enough if they told us the truth.

In my experience, your effort is better spent in telling a true story and making it work. That involves refining your product so that you can actually trust it to be good. It also involves listening closely to what your customers actually want (and need). It doesn’t stop with the quest for clarity to find the words that make your customers see what you see.

The selfish marketer starts from building something and puts all their effort in crafting a story on top of that something.

The honest marketer starts with empathy, uncovers what matters to the customers, builds a special thing that delivers exactly that … And then they tell a true story about it … using words they trust in and believe, themselves.

The best products are those that customers love even more when they know the complete truth. They are not irresistible because the promise sounds irresistible but because it is. And so, your customers support you in creating the buzz.

What’s a product where that’s the case for you?

Consider the of course effect

In chasing the “wow effect”, many businesses overlook the “of course effect”.

The of course effect is what makes it a no-brainer to choose your product. It’s what makes people wonder why no one else had that idea before.

The of course effect makes people get accustomed to a product so quickly that they would miss it after the first use should someone dare to take it away from them.

The central locking system on cars was an of course effect. The skip intro button on Netflix was an of course effect. The double click to zoom on iPhones was an of course effect.

Of course effects are way stronger than wow effects.

What’s the of course effect in your offering?

Monty Python’s animations

Want maximum effect from minimal work?

That’s why I use cutout. It’s the quickest and easiest form of animation that I know. – Terry Gilliam (Monty Python)

The quote is taken from this clip and dates back to 1974:

Compared to what Pixar does today, Monty Python’s animations were crude. Paper cuts, made from actual paper with actual scissors, very, VERY roughly animated.

And yet, for Monty Python’s fans they worked. Terry Gilliam, who was responsible for all of the group’s animations, explains why:

The whole point of animation to me is to tell a story, make a joke, express an idea. The technique itself doesn’t really matter. Whatever works is the thing to use.

It’s easy to get lost in perfecting your technique. Using the latest and greatest methods to make shiny trailers that look professional, take an awful amount of time to make and, well, fail to make the point.

Terry Gilliam was more interested in making the point rather than using the fanciest technology. “Whatever works is the thing to use.”

He started from the story, not from the technology. Once he was clear what story to tell, he was looking for the easiest way to tell this story. For him, it was paper cuts. For you, it might be something completely different.

Whatever it is, start with the story and then use whatever works to tell it.

Brutal honesty

Do you trust you customer with the decision to buy from you? In other words: If they knew everything you know, would they buy?

If not, then why not?

The best way to find out whether your product is breathtakingly good, is to tell a brutally honest story about it (even if it’s just to yourself). Then, observe what happens.

The best products are those which people fall in love with even more after they’ve been told the complete truth.

Everybody is interesting

“We believe that everybody has a story and is creative in their own way.” – Astrid Klein

Long-time reader Thomas Maile nominated Mark Dytham and Astrid Klein as leaders who light the path.

The two founders of the PechaKucha movement have changed the rules for presenting forever. In a world that was used to death by PowerPoint with presentations that seemed to run forever while leading nowhere, they established a format that has made quite an impact.

PechaKucha Nights are held everywhere across the globe giving everyone a stage and the chance to tell their story and let us in into their world.

Thomas made his nomination with these words:

“German news magazine DER SPIEGEL once called PechaKucha speakers ‘pop stars of PowerPoint’. While that’s a cute description it’s also one that doesn’t quite do justice to what PechaKucha is really about.

First (and obviously), PechaKucha is a strict presentation format: exactly 20 slides each advancing automatically to the next after exactly 20 seconds, adding to a total of 400 seconds, i.e. 6 minutes and 40 minutes. Every presentation is the same length and has the same format.

But underneath, PechaKucha is way more. By spreading across 1200 cities around the world, PechaKucha gives a stage to the unheard voices. It allows people like you and me to talk about what matters to them. That to me is the power of “EVERYBODY HAS A STORY”. PechaKucha gives the opportunity to tell it. It’s also why the Spiegel headline is not quite true. It’s not for pop stars. It’s for everyone.

Astrid Klein and Mark Dytham have done an amazing job of fostering that movement. To me, they serve as a role model for leaders who light the path.”

I couldn’t agree more to Thomas’ words. Recently, I’ve had the pleasure to chat with Astrid and Mark and they deserve every word that Thomas has said about them.

What struck me most was their deep belief that everybody is equal. In their own words: “PechaKucha is about democratizing the stage”.

It gives everyone an opportunity to speak up. It surfaces those voices that don’t consider themselves pop stars but have stories to share that are just as interesting – often even more so – than the ones that the pop stars, influencers, and gurus share.

On their freshly remade website there are a lot of gems to discover. Head over to discover some.

And then, when you come back, read the “Leaders Light the Path” manifesto and nominate someone yourself. It’s really easy.

There’s something wrong with storytelling

If storytelling is that ancient tool that fuels all human learning, then shouldn’t it be easier after all these years?

Shouldn’t we just have learnt by now how to tell a story? Just like we know how to add 2 and 2 together?

And yet, looking around (or googling the term “storytelling”) I sometimes get the impression that telling stories is designed to be complicated. That somehow only a privileged breed of “storytellers” are supposed to really master the art. And that you need to learn a complex framework (such as the hero’s journey) and a number of other techniques before you can even start to tell your story.

I don’t think that’s true. Quite the opposite: I firmly believe that if you care for what you do and if you have an offer that actually solves someone’s problem, then you already have all you need to tell a compelling story.

The most surprising aspect is that in my experience, the best stories are not even the stories you tell but the stories you spark in your audience’s minds.

Later this year, I’m launching a new online course to unleash the storyteller in you. My promise is that this will be the simplest and yet, most effective approach to storytelling you’ve seen, yet.

We’re doing without any complex frameworks and start from what you deeply care about. We’re looking at the fundamental reasons why stories work and then make them work for you. So that you can just start to tell your story from where you’re at.

If that resonates, I’d love to make you a special pre-launch offer.

Reserve your seat to …

  • get early access to crucial insights on and masterful examples of storytelling, released weekly until launch.
  • secure 25% off when you decide to actually enroll in the course at any point pre-launch.
  • join an exclusive, free group video call with me where we discuss common pitfalls in storytelling and during which you have the chance of getting 1:1 feedback on your storytelling.

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Dr. Michael Gerharz

Dr. Michael Gerharz