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The Five Ingredients of a Good Business Story

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The Five Ingredients of a Good Business Story

Science is showing what we already knew – a story is far more memorable and engaging than an information dump.

To successfully promote your business and get more customers, you need to be able to tell a great story – ideally more than one. In my first article of this series, I covered the four critical stories you need to have in your armoury.

In this article, we’re going to delve into what makes a good story; and how you can weave five critical elements into your stories to make them stronger.

1. Vulnerability and authenticity. 

Being vulnerable and authentic brings the wall down between you and your audience. One way to do this is to admit something painful, funny or embarrassing that helps people connect to you. Master storyteller Al Gore uses this technique in An Inconvenient Truth* – introducing himself with “I used to be the next president of the United States”. Funny and self-deprecating, this introduction immediately makes his audience warm to him.

Another way to be vulnerable and authentic is to share a deeply meaningful experience, with all the emotion that goes with it. Consider Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED Talk, in which she describes (in graphic detail) what it was like to have a stroke. She holds back none of the emotional intensity of the experience, and as she describes her stroke, she is brought to tears.

I’m not suggesting you have to lambast yourself, or even burst into tears on stage. But I am suggesting you let down your guard and let the audience see the real you. They’ll like you so much more as a result.

*If you’re interested to learn more about the evolution of An Inconvenient Truth, read The Slideshow that Saved the World – it’s fascinating.

2. The big why.

Our stories must address the ‘big why’ on both a personal and a broader level. Simon Sinek’s famous TED Talk explains this perfectly. Sinek says, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it”. He points out, “Martin Luther King gave the I have a dream speech, not the I have a plan speech.”

Of course, to be able to do this, you must have a big why in the first place. If you don’t have a purpose beyond selling more widgets, I suggest you go back to the drawing board and figure out exactly ‘why’ you do what you do, before you start trying to communicate it.

Once you have clarity on your bigger purpose, the stories you tell on stage and in print – even in the elevator – should give credence to this bigger purpose. For example, Simon Sinek’s big why is to help build a world in which people go home every day feeling fulfilled by their work. His presentations cover topics like Love Your Work, Fulfilment is a Right and Be the Leader You Wish You Had. It’s clear how they fit with his big why – and we can be pretty sure we’re not going to see him presenting about a random unrelated topic just because he was asked!

3. Structure.

Have you ever listened to a long, rambling presentation that never got to the point? Or struggled through a dull report or proposal? Typically, this happens because the author or speaker is trying to communicate too much; and hasn’t structured the information, so it leads the audience through a compelling story.

Story structures have evolved over thousands of years as an effective way to encode information, so it is entertaining and memorable. You may not know it, but you’re already familiar with one of the most famous story structures – The Hero’s Journey. This is a remarkably consistent structure we see across millions of stories, including epic tales like The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars.

In the business world, the ‘Venture Scape’, described by Nancy Duarte and Patti Sanchez in their book, is an effective structure for motivating people towards a big, difficult goal. There are many ways to structure your story, but to get you started, Nancy Duarte provides a very simple, winning structure. As a minimum, make sure your story has a beginning, middle and end – including a call to action, so your audience knows what to do next. 

4. Surprise.

The best stories keep us in suspense, building up to the moment when the truth is revealed, or we discover that all is not as it seemed. In my Public Relations days, journalists would highlight the difference between a good and bad news story like this: Dog bites man – bad story; Man bites dog – great story.

How can you build an element of surprise or revelation into your stories? If you’re in doubt of the power of surprise, I invite you to watch this clip of Susan Boyle’s Britain’s Got Talent audition; just make sure you have a tissue handy. The Interviewer from Bus Stop Films is another delightful example of the power of revelation. Watch it and marvel at how memorable it can be when we have our assumptions challenged. 

5. Transformation.

The examples I gave above also include the fifth crucial element; transformation. No story is complete without a transformation – if everything is the same at the end as it was at the beginning, we are left unsatisfied.

In the Susan Boyle audition and in The Interviewer, the transformation comes when we experience a profound shift in our attitude. In this case, the transformation is in the audience ourselves. But in your story, the transformation could be in the storyteller, another person, a relationship, a business or even the world. What’s the transformation that businesses or individuals experience when they work with you? And how can you make it real, tangible and relatable for the audience? 

Go forth and conquer audiences. 

These five ingredients will help you tell stories that stick in the hearts and minds of audiences. After all, what’s the point in communicating a message that’s instantly forgotten? By incorporating elements of storytelling that have been honed over thousands of years, you stand a much better chance of having your message recalled and acted on.

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