Whatever the nature and extent of a presentation, be it formal or informal, whatever the objective(s) and audience may be, you will probably have much greater success if you anchor the material in a human context.
The best way to do that?
More specifically, create a setting, introduce major “characters,” focus on an issue (question, problem, opportunity, etc.), identify possibilities, develop a plot, and explain what a “happy ending” would be.
Need some ideas to stimulate your thinking?
Here are “rules” that were originally tweeted by Emma Coats, Pixar’s Story Artist. Number 9 on the list – When you’re stuck, make a list of what [begin italics] wouldn’t [end italics] happen next – is a great one and can apply to writers in all genres.
o You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
o You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be very different.
o Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about until you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.
o Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
o Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
o What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
0 Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
0 Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.
o When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.
o Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.
o Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.
o Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
o Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
o Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.
o If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
o What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
o No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.
o You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
o Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
o Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?
o You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?
o What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.
Best sources for additional information about storytelling?
I recommend these three:
Stephen Denning’s The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling: Mastering the Art and Discipline of Business Narrative
Annette Simmons’ The Story Factor (2nd Revised Edition)
Doug Lipman’s Improving Your Storytelling: Beyond the Basics for All Who Tell Stories in Work and Play
Also: Bill Capodagli and Lynn Jackson’s Innovate the Pixar Way: Business Lessons from the World’s Most Creative Corporate Playground
How and why to “get it”: the hidden agenda
Initially, I misunderstood this book’s title, incorrectly assuming that Kevin Allen – in the manner of someone who has planned a treasure hunt – would help his reader to locate something of substantial value. In a sense that is true. However, that “something” is essentially worthless unless and until (a) the person who uncovers it understands and appreciates it and (b) knows how to use it to best advantage. Case in point, vandals raiding the ancient library in Alexandria used copies of plays by Greek playwrights such as Aeschylus and Sophocles as fuel for their camp fires to cook food.
I selected the title of this review from a longer passage in the Introduction: “Get it? Get what? The ‘what’ is the hidden agenda, the emotional motivator behind all the statistics, the business jargon, and the other things that surround any key business issue. It is in fact how people make decisions, with their hearts.”
Allen is a veteran advertising executive and an accomplished “pitch man” but he clearly agrees with John Hill, co-founder of Hill & Knowlton, that the best pitch is one that offers “truth well told.” He shares everything he has learned about how to prepare and then present such a pitch for the readers whom he characterizes as “you dreamers, strivers, fighters, doers, and itchy-feet people ‘growth aspirants.” Allen is convinced that, for them, their ability to pitch “is the very spearpoint and lifeblood of achieving these ambitions.”
The reader is provided with an abundance of information, insights, and counsel to help achieve strategic objectives such as these:
o Locating the “hidden agenda”
o Identifying the “conceptual target”
o Connecting with the hidden agenda
o Defining one’s “core”
o Selecting and articulating one’s “credo”
o Defining the characteristics of “real” ambition
o Formulating one’s “win” strategy
o Mastering the power of storytelling
Allen is a results-driven pragmatist, determined to understand what works, what doesn’t, and why so that he can then share with others what he has learned. Whether or not people realize it, they are making pitches every day and usually draw upon most (if not all) of these resources of rhetoric: exposition to explain with information, description to make vivid with compelling details, narration to tell a story or explain a sequence, and finally, argumentation to convince with logic and/or evidence. If you want others to “get it” when you communicate with them, then you need to locate “it” and decide how best to present it. Kevin Allen offers practical advice whose value is incalculable.
Those who share my high regard for this book are urged to check out the selections in Kevin Allen’s ”Further Reading” section. Also, these: Robert B. Cialdini’s Influence: Science and Practice (4th Edition), Carmine Gallo ‘s The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs: How to Be Insanely Great in Front of Any Audience, and The Story Factor (2nd Revised Edition) by Annette Simmons and Doug Lipman.
Nuts R Us
Think about it. Who are among the greatest storytellers throughout history? My own list includes Homer, Plato, Chaucer, Aesop, Jesus, Dante, Boccaccio, the Brothers Grimm, Confucius, Abraham Lincoln, Hans Christian Andersen, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), Joel Chandler Harris, L. Frank Baum, and most recently, E.B. White. Whatever the genre (epic, parable, fable, allegory, anecdote, etc.), each used exposition, description, and narration to illustrate what they considered to be fundamental truths about the human condition.
In his previous work, The Springboard, Denning focuses on “how storytelling ignites action in knowledge-led organizations” and does so with uncommon erudition, precision, and eloquence. His narrative covers a period of approximately three years during which he used what he calls “springboard” stories to “spark organizational change” at The World Bank. More specifically, to forge a consensus within that organization to support the design and then implementation of effective knowledge management, first for itself and then for its clients worldwide.
How he accomplished that objective is in and of itself a fascinating “story” but the book’s greater value lies in what he learned in process, lessons which are directly relevant to virtually all other organizations (regardless of size or nature) which struggle to “do more with less and do it faster” in the so-called Age of Information. Maximizing use of their collective intellectual capital is most often the single most effective way to do that.
In this volume, Denning uses many of the same devices which Orwell does in Animal Farm: He creates a stressful situation to which anthropomorphic animals respond; the lead characters discuss what to do; strategies are selected; conflicts and crises immediately develop; tension is increased by the perils the lead characters encounter; ultimately, the situation is resolved. In Animal Farm, the pigs prevail. In Squirrel Inc.,….
Whereas Orwell’s purpose is to dramatize the evils of totalitarianism, Denning’s purpose is to give “detailed advice on how to craft and perform a story that can spark transformational change in an organization” by examining six different kinds of storytelling “which illustrate the impact of storytelling on our work and our lives.” Although this is a fable of leadership, it is important to keep in mind that (a) everyone throughout any organization tells stories of various kinds each day; therefore (b) the value of the information which Denning provides and the recommendations he makes is by no means limited to senior-level executives.
Why a fable? When considering how he could best communicate the various kinds of stories (e.g. “springboard” stories that communicate complex ideas and spark action), their specific uses in modern organizations, and their relevant similarities and differences, Denning “quickly discovered that conveying an understanding of seven types of stories across four or five different dimensions represented a level of complexity not well adapted to text-book style presentation.”
I include that excerpt because many of those who read this book will also find themselves in situations in which they are preparing to make an especially important presentation and use of a traditional format is not appropriate. Their audience will not respond as well to the “textbook-style” as they will to a entertaining as well as informative narrative which seeks to achieve one or more of these objectives:
• To spark action
• To communicate who the speaker is
• To transmit values
• To get everyone working together
• To share knowledge
• To “tame the grapevine”
• To lead people into the future
Here’s the situation. Diana is a fast-track executive at Squirrel Inc. who is frustrated by her inability to convince senior-management to transform the company’s core business from helping squirrels to bury nuts to storing nuts for them. Why should it? Because approximately 50% of the nuts buried are lost, either because squirrels forget where they buried them or the nuts are dug up by human gardeners. Great opportunity for Squirrel Inc. She shares her frustrations with Bartender who is the owner/host of a nectar tavern located high in an oak tree near the Squirrel Inc. headquarters. (He is also this book’s narrator and thus, in several respects, a surrogate for Denning.) Throughout the remainder of the book, Denning focuses on Diana and Bartender’s joint efforts to use effective storytelling to mobilize the support needed to transform Squirrel Inc.
Because Denning is himself a master storyteller, never does his narrative become precious, cute, quaint, darling, etc. Credit him with wit, style, grace, and — yes — intellectual rigor. His characters may be squirrels but the relevance of his material to human experience is profound: “The underlying reason for the affinity between leadership and storytelling is simple: narrative — unlike abstraction and analysis — is inherently collaborative. Storytelling helps leaders work with other individuals as co-participants, not merely as objects or underlings. Storytelling helps strengthen leaders’ connectedness with the world. Isn’t this what all leaders need — a connectedness with the people they are seeking to lead?”
I especially appreciate Denning’s provision of a chart (“Seven High-Value Forms of Organizational Storytelling,” pages 150-153) that clearly and cleverly summarizes all of his core concepts and specific suggestions. It serves as a useful reminder that the most effective story is one that has a crystal clear objective and includes the appropriate elements (e.g. problem to be solved, situation to be explained, value of the information provided). The story must also meet certain requirements of the given purpose. For example, provision of relevant background information and an analysis of current situation before proposing a future course of action, especially one that may seem bold and threatening to others.
For whatever reasons, only in recent years has there been an awareness and appreciation of the importance of the business narrative. Those who share my high regard for this book are urged to check out Annette Simmons’ The Story Factor, Doug Lipman’s Improving Your Storytelling, and Storytelling in Organizations co-authored by John Seely Brown, Denning, Katarina Groh, and Laurence Prusak.
It is worth noting that CBS’s 60 Minutes is the longest running prime-time television show in history. In fact, its #1 ranking for five consecutive years has been equaled only by All in the Family and The Cosby Show. Its creator and producer, Don Hewitt, once explained the reason for its success: “Even the people who wrote the Bible were smart enough to know: Tell them a story. The issue was evil; the story was Noah. I latched on to that.” The title of the memoirs that Hewitt later published is Tell Me a Story.
Storytelling is universal. Our ancestors covered their caves with the PowerPoint presentations of their time: the images they painted to tell stories about the hunt. Then and now, we need stories; a story is a single coherent whole out of a lot of parts. Aesop, Jesus, Muhammad, Moses, Confucius, and the followers of the Buddha all knew it; every religion has memorable stories at its center.
How to get into and then capture people’s hearts and souls? Hewitt answered with a simple strategy that today’s most successful companies follow every day: “At 60 Minutes, we do what everyone should be doing: Tell me a story. Learn to do that well and you’ll be a success.”