Why Are Stories So Important?
Stories are powerful tools that allow us to communicate ideas and connect us together. As human beings, we are hardwired to hear stories. In fact, since the dawn of humankind stories were the “glue” that kept tribes together, formed cultures, enabled growth and cooperation in large numbers.
We all have personal stories that define who we are, they give meaning and purpose to our place in the world. It took me a while to figure out my personal story, and in fact, I think I’m still figuring it out. My personal story involves struggling with a learning disability at a very early stage in my life, managing to overcome it in my adult life and rediscover my curiosity and love for learning. This story is a key driver that keeps me going and motivates me to help others learn better. This is how I came to discover the field of Instructional Design in the first place. It is also one of the reasons I decided to start this blog and share my passion with the world.
What is your personal story, and how does it drive you to take action?
Stories are All Around Us
Think of the last time you heard a story. You don’t have to go all the way back to your early childhood when your mama read you one. It can be a conversation with a person you met recently for the first time and made an impression on you. It can be a favorite TV series or even a poster or a commercial that caught your attention. The fact that you are remembering it out of the endless other things that fight over your attention says a lot. You may not recall all the details of the account, but chances are you did not forget how did it make you feel.
What is Storytelling?
Storytelling is a skill anyone can learn. It allows you to communicate your ideas in a way that will resonate with your audience and lead them to take action in a meaningful way.
Storytelling doesn’t have to be writing a hefty novel or delivering an hour-long presentation, it can be one sentence or a visual image that communicates a simple idea and provokes thought or emotion.
This one photo was featured on the cover of National Geographic and touched millions of hearts with this one image that brought the story of Afghan refugees under the Soviet occupation.
If you pay attention, you will notice the use of storytelling all around you, from TV commercials of world-class brands like Nike and Apple to simple posts on Facebook or Instagram.
Whether if you are a creator, an entrepreneur, a speaker or anyone who wants to communicate ideas more effectively and drive your audience to take action, storytelling is a skill you definitely want to master.
The 6 Guidelines That Make Up a Good Story
Good stories share common elements. If you want to craft a good story, you first need to have the right elements in place. Once these are in place, the structure will follow.
There are actually more than six guidelines that make up a good story, so apologies for the misleading title, but for the sake of simplicity, I chose to boil it down to the most common ones.
Ready? Here they are:
1. Use Hooks
A hook is something that grabs attention and provokes curiosity in your audience.
Think of your favorite TV series, what is there about it that makes you want to come back for more?
I, for example, am a big fan of Netflix’s Black Mirror, primarily because of the compelling story each episode brings. Each time an episode starts off, I find myself scratching my head trying to figure out what the heck is going on and where the story is headed. The series creators are masters of hooks in the story, and they certainly managed to keep me hooked right from the get-go.
Examples of hooks can be starting from the middle of the action or using strong imagery and emotional description. The goal is to increase the drama by using descriptive details that evoke strong emotional responses. Let’s take as an example the scene that is taking place right now at the local Cafe I’m writing this post from. Instead of saying: “a middle-aged man is talking on the phone at the coffee shop while drinking his Latte,” I can say: “It was late afternoon, the coffee shop was packed with people and the music was loud. He was sitting alone at his usual spot, wrapping his hands around his warm mug of Latte, gazing through the window at the busy street for what seemed like long moments. The vibration from his phone on the table awakened him abruptly from his daydream. He looked at the screen puzzled, thinking if he should take this call or not. He took a deep breath, picked up the phone and answered: “What took you so long?”
2. Let them work for their meal
Don’t give away all the details of your story, let your audience figure stuff out on their own. It’s entirely ok to keep them in the dark for a while, so much so that they should almost beg you to tell them what will happen next. Most people are not consciously aware of it, but our brain is always busy trying to interpret the signals received from our sensory organs and complete the missing parts by itself. Think of a phone conversation you had with your buddy when the line was choppy. If it wasn’t too bad, you were still able to make sense of what they were saying, but your attention level increased significantly to do so. The same goes for identifying objects in a dark room or putting pieces together in a story. The more ambiguous the “real” answer might be, the stronger will be your hook.
3. Develop Your Characters
Great stories have characters. If you have a person in your story that experiences something, whether it is a challenge, a desire, an accomplishment or a conflict, you want your audience to resonate with it. There are few things to keep in mind while doing so:
- Make your characters relatable: Think of your audience and the people they can resonate with. Say you are giving a talk at a professional marketing conference in San Francisco, you would probably want to craft your characters and their experiences somewhat differently than you would for an engineering conference in Germany. More often than not you will encounter a relatively diverse audience, in this case, you should aim for the lowest common denominator, in which it is safe to assume anyone can relate to these experiences.
- Describe your characters as you would in real life: It is much easier for your audience to get to know the traits and actions of your character rather than factual descriptions. Think of the last time you had to describe a close friend to someone who doesn’t know her. You probably didn’t describe her as a woman with long hair and high heels. If you would really want them to get to know her, you would use descriptions like: “She is so energetic, she doesn’t stop for a moment; she is hilarious, always cracks me up laughing, especially after a few drinks.” If this is someone you want to know, your audience will want to get to know them too.
- Give your characters “spine”: A spine can be a sort of underlying mission or a set of values that drives them forward, it stands behind their apparent decisions and actions. This spine is never explicit, it unconsciously influences all the decisions and actions of the character. When the character’s actions are aligned and consistent throughout the story, the audience could not ignore it and will have to figure it out themselves. Make them work for their meal, remember?
4. Have Stakes in Place
A good story should have tension or something at stake. The characters should face a conflict or challenge that they need to overcome on their way to accomplish a higher purpose or reach their destination. We already mentioned the character’s “spine”, or the underlying mission throughout the story. Having an obvious outcome for your character is banal and boring. If you want to keep your audience mesmerized by your story, always try to keep this tension throughout the plot, so it will never be clear if the character will manage to overcome these stakes. Let’s take the classic “Die Hard” movie from the 80’s. I think the reason for its success wasn’t just for its action scenes, explosions and special effects. It was primarily due to the many layers of conflict and stakes the hero had to overcome. John McClane, played by Bruce Willis, was not only a cop that was caught at the wrong place at the wrong time and having to deal with 12 badass terrorists. He was also a pretty lousy father and husband, and he wasn’t cool about it. He was conflicted, and his deep implicit mission, his “spine” if you will, was to get back to his wife and correct his wrongdoings. As the plot thickens, it is never clear whether he is going to get out of this battle alive, but even more so, if he is ever going to get back to his wife. At one point in the story, when McClane is not sure he is going to make it out of there alive, he sends a message to his wife through his partner, revealing his remorse and his realization of how he should have acted. Epic scene indeed.
5. Use Strategic Details
Strategic details, as the name implies, are details that the storyteller purposefully scatters throughout the plot. These details serve the narrative of the story and almost always convey more than they explicitly say. I recently developed an e-Learning module for a major bank in Israel. The module was intended for the bank’s new tellers, which were supposed to identify fake or faulty bills when they encountered ones. I chose to present the story from the second person’s perspective and opened the module with a short introduction. The introduction describes how you started a typical morning shift at the bank while stumbling on a post on Facebook by a good friend that had just been scammed by someone who bought her iPhone and paid her with fake bills. The blog post depicted the friend’s story in great detail, leaving some strategic details about the person who scammed her. The module then continues with scenarios of different customers coming to the teller’s station and asking for conventional operations. Each customer is depicted differently, and I tried to build an inherent tension throughout the module that keeps the learner alert, trying to figure out who is it that was involved with the scam presented at the beginning of the story. Strategic details don’t have to be anything fancy, but if used in the right moments in your story they can go a long way in keeping your audience on their toes.
6. Have a Punchline
You came a long way by now. You drew your audience into your story right from the start with powerful hooks, you let them work for their meal and figure things out, you made them relate to your characters and witness their evolution through all the twists and turns in their journey. They got to the culmination of the story and faced their greatest stakes, the tension is almost unbearable, will they make it to the other side? What if they do? What if they don’t?
At the end of the day, when you tell a story to your audience, it has to be worth their time. There is a promise to be delivered, and a message to get across.
This is where your punchline comes into play.
The punchline is what your audience will remember best. This is where all the strategic details you carefully planted fall into place, this is when the Aa-Ha moment happens. The punchline serves the reason why you told the story in the first place. It doesn’t have to be explicit or to close all the loose ends in the story. It can be thought-provoking, leaving you wondering how the story ends. A great example that comes to mind is the ending of Christopher Nolan’s movie – Inception, which left me (and all other millions of viewers) speechless. The movie ends where the audience is left wondering if Cobb, the main character (Leonardo DiCaprio) is back in reality or still trapped in his dream world. The finishing scene butts off right before the spinning top – Cobb’s “reality check” totem is about to wobble and fall. The fact that the search term “Inception ending” has about 16.7 search results in Google pretty much says it all. Whichever approach you choose to take, don’t forget the punchline.
In the next post, we will discuss how to put all these elements together to make a compelling story that will get the impact you want to achieve.