I expect a book on communication—which is what storytelling is—to teach me something new or remind me of truths I had better not forget. Rob Biesenbach’s Unleash the Power of Storytelling: Win Hearts, Change Minds, Get Results surpassed my expectations, and I am happy to recommend it to you.
As I read the book, I thought about a speech I will give in May, one I had already drafted. I wanted to see whether any of Biesenbach’s storytelling advice would help me make that speech better. It did.
The most compelling reminder for me came in the first chapter, “What Makes Stories So Powerful?” It was this: “Stories tap into emotion.” Biesenbach, who is a consultant, trainer, actor, and storyteller, wrote:
The best stories trigger an emotional response, which is key to provoking empathy in our audience and unlocking decision-making. Research suggests that ‘emotionally charged events’ carry far more weight and persistence in our memory than ordinary, neutral events.
This point—and the author’s elaboration on it in Chapter 4, “Emotion Fuels Stories”—made me realize that in the opening story of my upcoming speech I hadn’t revealed what the situation meant to me emotionally. By adding one simple sentence, I could take the story from charming to profound.
Among the book’s many great reminders is this: Not all stories have happy endings. This point is obvious in life, but it may not be obvious in corporate storytelling, where we typically want to look good. It came to life in Chapter 2, “How to Create a Story,” where Biesenbach illustrates the beginning, middle, and end structure of a story about an entrepreneur who had forgotten to ship an important package to her biggest customer. Perhaps the story would end happily: the customer appreciates that the entrepreneur took an overnight flight to deliver the package on time. But maybe the ending would be more sobering: the customer is not impressed with the last-minute superhero gesture and ends the relationship. The first is a story about crack customer service; the second version tells of a lesson learned.
That point reminded me to add a helpful blemish I had been thinking about to tone down the sunny sweetness of one of my stories. When I took the story a shade darker, a truthful shade that was available to me, it added a deeper meaning. Thank you, Rob Biesenbach!
Here are a few good questions Biesenbach recommends to “bullet-proof” your story’s structure, along with some of his commentary:
1. Is the character real and relatable? Bring your story down to the human level. If a problem exists, it must surely affect actual people!
2. Is there sufficient conflict? When everything goes well or as planned, there’s no drama to hold the audience’s attention.
3. Are the stakes high enough? For a story to work, there has to be something important at stake—a serious problem that cries out for action. [This one was a helpful reminder for me too.]
4. Is there clear cause and effect? Causality is more meaningful to us than mere coincidence. . . . A sure sign of a weak story is when you find yourself saying “and then” over and over again.
5. Is there an emotional core? When your audience feels something, they are more likely to do something (to act in the way you want them to act).
I found many wise gems and practical tips in Unleash the Power of Story. I like the way Biesenbach hammers home the point that you must recognize and gather new stories. A last-minute Google search for a moving tale will not yield fresh results.
I also appreciated the section on separating good details from bad ones. Good details set the scene and bring a story to life. Bad details bog it down. According to Biesenbach, three ways to make details more effective are to simplify dates, make numbers more meaningful, and omit proper nouns. Here is some of his advice:
Dates tend to trip people up. Was it a Tuesday or a Wednesday? The 12th or the 14th? July or August? It rarely matters. Instead of saying, “the deal that was signed on March 22, 2005,” you can just call it the 2005 deal. . . .
Make Numbers More Meaningful
Raw numbers should be rounded: “several hundred” works better than “278.” Percentages should be converted: “half” beats “53%.” And big numbers should be scaled: “one out of five Americans” is easier to grasp than “63 million people.”
Omit Proper Nouns
Just about anything in capital letters is ripe for trimming, starting with names. Minor characters in your story don’t need to be named, especially if they make a one-time appearance. You can just call them “the bank manager” or “the CEO”. . . . A good rule of thumb is "name the known and omit the obscure." So if you're talking about a company nobody's ever heard of, just refer to it by what it does: "a small venture capital firm." If it's Google or Kraft, go ahead and name them.
A valuable point that comes through in Biesenbach’s book is that many situations and communications involve stories—not just presentations but interviews, introductions, eulogies, toasts, resumes, articles, and application essays. I like the idea of developing one’s personal brand story and using it to understand oneself better and to assess the potential fit of jobs and opportunities. I also like the book’s generosity in sharing so many sample stories.
If you would like to refresh your ideas about storytelling (or think about the topic for the first time), I recommend this book. At 165 pages, Unleashing the Power of Storytelling: Win Hearts, Change Minds, Get Results isn’t the most comprehensive book I’ve read on storytelling, but it is the most practical and fun. Published by Eastlawn Media and retailing for USD$17.95, the book is available at Amazon and other booksellers. Visit the author’s website.