Crafting that Compelling Story – A 3-Point Cheat Sheet

Regardless of our job role, one skill every one of us needs is storytelling. The truth is we are all born with it, but let’s just say some of us are a little rougher around the edges. Having spent most of my time around tech folks, I suspect we probably beat this skill out of them which is why so many presentations we sit through or documents we read, make us at the very least drowsy — some even maybe put us in a coma. These same people, when you observe them talking to friends or colleagues can be great raconteurs. Some of this comes from just not having performance anxiety that presentations induce in all of us. So without having a few libations how do we spin a good yarn? And particularly in a business context how do ensure that we’ve provided our listeners or readers something of value – that elusive takeaway?

Here’s what I’ve learned.

A. Begin with the end in mind I’ll use the example of a seminar or webinar that you intend to host. Write down the one takeaway that your listener or audience walks away with – it could range from broad statements or highly specific

  • Entrepreneurship is hard – so you’d better be certain, what it is your passion? And why you are doing this?
  • Good leaders recognize strategy is as much about deciding what NOT to do, as it is about what it is you’ll do
  • Writing 1000 words every day is the key to finishing your book – then all you have to do is edit it
  • Measuring ROI on your GIS project can seem hard but it’s not rocket science – here’s how our customers are doing it

B. Use the power of three  While scientists and psychologists thought that the human brain can hold only 5-7 things at a time, newer research suggests that number might actually be (gasp) 4! So why risk it? I find if you break down things into three chunks, they are a lot easier to hold at least in my easily distracted mind. Now break it down into three chunks. Sticking with the entrepreneurship or leadership theme,

  • Context: Set the stage – often best set as a story – that usually illustrates or reinforces a widely held belief. How Steve Jobs had a mythical touch when building products or how Unilever or P&G were masters of strategy leading to their success; Or why government projects are always a boondoggle, like the Big Dig in Boston
  • Counterpoint – core premise: Is that really the case? Here are eight products that Steve Jobs launched with much fanfare and failed miserably at; here are the huge missteps P&G made and here’s what we’ve learned from NASA’s space mission, which has had minuscule failure rates – so here’s the takeaway – entrepreneurship is hard, there will be naysayers, you’ll fail before you succeed, so you’d better know what your passion is about, if you wanna be able to stick with it
  • Break it down: Offer an actionable set of things that they can do – how can they realize this core premise you’ve made? Maybe it’s a checklist – that helps them understand themselves better? It’s reading of case studies – of how other entrepreneurs succeeded (or better yet failed and recovered), followed by a checklist.

This can work, whether the topic’s losing weight, giving a speech, or how to measure the return-on-investment on a project.

C. Challenge your audience This is what we marketers term the Call to action!  This could be as simple as inviting questions that allows them to challenge your assertions or having them take the first step (“What will you do differently tomorrow morning, because of what you learned here”) The key here is that this doesn’t remain your story but one that compels them to action – ideally an action that benefits them. Of course, if it benefits you whether purely psychically (I did some good!) or professionally (lands you a consulting gig or job) that’s icing on the cake. As my father tried to teach me, “Give first before you ask.”

Here’s a great presentation on how one technical guy (Claudio Perrone aka AgileSensei) went from being just a dude to a compelling storyteller to even cynical technical folks).

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