We tell stories on behalf of our audience

The power of stories is that it’s us who re-live the life of the story’s hero.

That’s true even in a business context. A story is a great story when it makes us feel: “That’s me! That’s exactly what I struggle with.”

A good story provide us with a new perspective on our own lives. It lets us imagine actions that we wouldn’t take without the story. It lets us feel feelings that we wouldn’t feel without the story. It lets us visualise outcomes that we would consider out of reach without the story.

Great stories lead to action.

And that’s why we tell stories on behalf of our audience.

A short story

Think of a room somewhere in a house. Maybe there’s a sofa inside. Someone’s reading a book.

What do you see?
How does her hair look like?
How old is she?
What’s her name?
What book does she read?
Does she look over as you enter the room?
What does she say?
How do you reply?
What time of day is it?

I just don’t buy that you don’t know how to tell a good story. Because you just started a good story. Everything you see now is coming right out of you. It’s not my story. It’s yours. Go on. What happens next?

Sure, there’s a lot of literature on how to tell stories. But all those rules are secondary. First comes imagination. And imagination you have.

You have all you need to tell a story when you have a life.

The house is on fire

Think of a great book you enjoyed lately.

How did it begin? Mine started with a burning house.

Great authors know that once the reader is drawn into the story, there will be plenty of time to introduce all the details.

Great authors also know that when they fail to draw a reader into the story quickly, they will just put the book aside after a few pages.

Now think about the last presentation you listened to.

How did it begin? Mine started with the presenter introducing his CV … and it continued with milestones of his company’s history.

Not only didn’t he draw me into the story right from the beginning … he just never bothered to draw me in at all. He delivered all the details but never provided me with a single reason to care. He told me everything but failed to make me curious for anything.

Great stories draw me in because they make me care. They make me curious. They give me a reason to want to know what’s next.

Right from the very first sentence.

Once the audience is drawn into the story, they will want to know more. They will want to know all the details.

Regular presentations dump info. Great presentation make me care for the info. Regular presentation start somewhere. Great presentations start by making me curious.

How does your presentation begin?

The magical question to increase tension and suspense

In a great movie or book, the question “What happens next” is basically the definition of tension and suspense. Whenever there’s suspense in a movie, we want to know what’s next. When there’s tension in a conversation, we want to relieve the tension.

“What’s next?” is also the magical question that keeps a speech in the flow. If you want to increase tension in your speech, the most important question to ask yourself is “What will my audience be dying to know right at this point in my speech?”

Leaving aside all the theoretical frameworks that teach us how to structure a compelling speech, this one question gets right to the heart of the matter. When you get that question right, you’ll end up at exactly the right structure without ever having to worry about any rhetorical theory.

To bring you on track to finding the appropriate question, here are a few variations for what your audience might be dying to know next:

  • “How is that possible?”
  • “Why is that?”
  • “What can we do about it?”
  • “How does this relate to our experience from that other project?”
  • “How did you manage to overcome that?”
  • “What does it cost?”

So, what’s your audience dying to hear next?

If your product changes things for the better

If your product truly changes things for the better then all you need to do is to speak the truth.

I’m amazed by how often people just don’t trust in that truth. They will look for all sorts of fluff and stuff to decorate the truth to make it look more appealing.

Fascinated by the breathtaking shows of the competition, people will go to great lengths to hunt down an even more breathtaking wow factor – looking for fancier titles, more bang in the visuals, and of course expensive tech equipment.

Don‘t get me wrong, all of this can be very useful. Make things sound and look as good as you can.

But in the end, it’s not about how great things look but how well they resonate. Audiences enjoy a great show, no doubt about that. But would you rather care about “what a great show” or about “what a great idea”?

If your product is actually amazing, then what you need most is clarity. And empathy. These two are the prerequisites for a great story.

Start there. Focus on the truth not the decoration. Work on making your story resonate as strong as possible. And when you’ve got that kind of aha, the wow will take care of itself.

What you spend your time on

There’s a golden rule in screenwriting: Anything you spend much time on will amount to something in the story.

The problem with many presentations is that the presenter spends an enormous amount of time on an enormous amount of details that don’t amount to anything in the end. Well, actually, the biggest problem is that often there isn’t even a story in the first place.

A much better approach is this: Start by asking yourself what your story is and then include exactly those details that are required to tell the story. If a detail doesn’t amount to anything of significance in your story, leave it out. If, on the other hand, it’s highly important for a key part of your story then treat it that way.

Strange reality

People meet, incidents occur, without anyone ever having done anything intentionally for this to happen. Reality just happens.

Still, as humans we can’t help but look for motives and reasons. When someone tells us a story, we intuitively ask: “Why did he do this?” or “What is she up to?” – even when there is no meaningful answer to that at all.

What someone tells us must make sense. Even if reality doesn’t.

The challenge with speaking is this: to make a meaningful story out of a strange reality. Speeches are about reality but they are themselves narratives. Even if the source material is strange, the presentation about it must make sense.

What’s worse: Each listener has her own idea of what makes sense and each member of your audience looks for reasons and motives that fit his or her worldview.

Therefore, as a speaker we have to tell not only a story that makes sense and is truthful but one that makes sense from our audience’s perspective.

Communicating your product means telling your story

Marketers often think about stories as a tool in their communication toolbox. You have your product. And then you start looking for a story to tell around that product.

Yet, what makes the most beloved brands so successful is that their product is the story. We buy into the story that is Coca-Cola, Airbnb, or iPhone. We buy into the story that is Seth Godin, Simon Sinek, or Tony Robbins. All of these brands are they story they tell.

And because they are, it’s so easy to tell little everyday stories about those brands. Little stories that become part of the brand story. Little stories that communicate what that brand stands for in ways that are totally authentic to the brand.

Story isn’t a sideshow to our product. When you have a cause and want to make change happen, your story is the product. And communicating your product means telling your story.

In memory of Sir Ken Robinson

It’s not the most spectacular presentation that works best but the one that resonates most.

This speech of Sir Ken Robinson not only resonated a lot with myself, but with millions of viewers around the world. It’s TED’s most viewed speech of all time. It lacks anything that would count as spectacular.

It’s pure conversation – Robinson letting us in to his mind. Inviting us to take a look from his perspective. Making us see the things he sees and feel the things he feels. Telling simple everyday stories turns his speech into a powerful message about our children’s creative potential.

It’s not fluff and decoration that makes his speech so powerful, but his thoughts that he invites us into.

On Aug, 21st Ken Robinson died of cancer. His message remains.

It’s still story first!

For many of us, the new world of online communication feels like a restart. We have to get used to new technologies and accustom ourselves to speaking in front of a camera. This brings about many new challenges. Which camera is best? How do I arrange the lighting? What’s a good microphone? The list goes on. Yet: don’t fall into the trap of distracting yourself with technology!

To be sure, it’s important to look good on video. It’s even more important to have great sound. But: just as with PowerPoint and any other technological trend of the past, having a great story takes you a long way while great technology has never been a substitute for relevance and resonance of your content.

It’s still story first!

Therefore, this is what you should primarily focus on: How do I need to adapt my story so that it works on video? What’s different for my audience when viewing me on a small screen compared to interacting with me face-to-face? How can I engage them although we might be continents apart?

This has more to do with empathy and storytelling than it does with technology. By any means, use the best technology you can get. But don’t loose sight of what matters most: the connection to your audience.

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Dr. Michael Gerharz

Dr. Michael Gerharz