There’s a book I’d like to tell you about. It’s called The Storytelling Animal and it gives us a fascinating insight into the power of stories. In it, the author, Jonathan Gottschall, writes: “We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.” For public speakers, there is power in our love for tale-telling. By crafting a narrative that is convincing and compelling, we can win over an audience and engage them with our messages. So, what does a story look like, and how do we write a good one?
There is an entire academic discipline devoted to storytelling. It’s called “narratology”, and is the study of narrative and its structures. Narratology seeks to dig down to the basics that all stories share. When you strip it right down, every story has a three-act structure:
- The setup, in which the basic situation is established;
- The conflict or problem in which the initial situation is disrupted;
- The resolution, in which the story is drawn to a close by ironing out all the conflicts – this usually leads to a new, more stable, situation.
It may sound complex, but the good news is that we all tell and respond to stories by instinct. This is what Gottschall is writing about in The Storytelling Animal: we don’t have to know how they’re put together to be able to tell stories effectively – and effective stories get real responses.
So when you’re speaking next, try to tell a story. Humans have told stories since at least the time of the earliest cave paintings. We’re hard-wired to respond to them. They make things more memorable. A good story can illustrate a point better than any statistic or table, Stories are “sticky”, so our minds hook onto them, and use them as a framework for ideas. Stories give structure.
Give your presentation a beginning, a middle and an end – or, if you like, a setup, a conflict, and a resolution. Start with the ending in mind, so that your story has a really clear arc: that middle bit, the conflict, is so important because it’s the hill over which your story must struggle. Starting by knowing, and by flagging up, where you’ll end is a great way to hook the audience early and take them over the obstacles with you.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that stories are just escapism. In fact, they’re deeply rooted in our learning culture and shape us as individuals. They influence what we believe and what we do. Your audience wants to hear a good story – it’s how they will best remember your message. So, tell them one.