The Magic of Stories

Communication  Leadership
21 November, 2014

My thoughts on making storytelling a cherished tradition, at home and work

It is amazing how stories can change our perspectives – the way we think, act and feel. The magic of stories can inspire us in a way that perhaps cold, hard facts cannot.

For many years now, my wife, Roopi and I have been trying to instil the love of stories in our kids. One of the games that we enjoy playing with them (usually before bed time), is this – one of us starts a story and then the others, in turn, build on it. Each of us shares a couple of sentences and we go on for a few rounds, till one of us completes the story. Usually, we start by choosing a theme like honesty or chivalry to build the story around. Apart from being thoroughly enjoyable, we have found that it really is a wonderful way to encourage our kids to be more imaginative and expressive on-the-go.

I am sure that you can identify with this. Growing up, you probably had a favourite storyteller in your family, most likely a grandparent. And if you have kids of your own, or in your family, you have most certainly been a storyteller yourself. Storytelling in itself is age-old. It’s wonder lies in the fact that stories can transcend boundaries of time, possibility and experience.

So why am I writing to you about storytelling?

Stories can also be powerful business tools. You can use them to engage and communicate better with your teams. They can be particularly effective when you are convincing someone about a change, teaching important lessons or getting a complex idea across.

Even when you are providing feedback or coaching someone, sharing your personal stories of how you may have dealt with a certain issue can be very powerful. When you tell a story well, it can create an intense, personal connection between your audience and your message. Bottom line, if you want to truly inspire and motivate your teams, you need to learn how to tell a good story. It is a skill that we need to continually work on getting better at.

A good story is like a recipe – certain “ingredients” need to be part of the mix for it to be a success. In order to be able to tell a great story, you need think through or familiarise yourself with every aspect of it – how it starts, when the big aha moment kicks in, and of course, the punch line at the end. Most importantly, you need to know how to make your audience truly identify with your characters.

You could be using a bunch of props, power point slides, an email, a conversation over coffee or even a 140 character tweet. You could be speaking at a conference, interviewing a prospective Godrejite, selling an idea or building a brand. That’s the great part about storytelling. You can use it just about anywhere and in just about any way. There are no rules. But there are ways to make your story and the way you tell it, more impactful. I have put together some pointers, borrowed from different storytellers, to share with you.

1. Open with a story

When you are doing a presentation or giving a talk, opening with a story can be one of the most effective ways to capture people’s attention quickly. The key message of the story can often be a great way to set the stage for the content to follow. Remember though to circle back to the story at the end of your presentation to tie the key message together.

2. Whose story is it?

Before you start, stop and ask yourself – Who is my audience? What will interest them? What message do I want to communicate with the story? Will they identify with this story? That is what is important here. Avoid management jargon. Be concise – don’t make a story longer than 3-4 minutes.

3. You only get to make a first impression once

The start is everything, especially given that we live and work in environments where stories and information abound across just about every medium. You need to break out of the clutter and grab attention. If you don’t strike a connect at the start, you run the risk of losing your audience. Figure out an impactful start to your story. It could be something personal or funny, an anecdote or even suspense.

4. Give them someone to root for

Stories work better when you have characters. One of the biggest joys of listening to a story, is when you are able to identify with the characters. You put yourself in their shoes and experience things, real and imagined, for yourself. It engages you with the story. And if the purpose of the story is to demand action, then this is a powerful way to ensure it. So, as the storyteller, use this to your advantage and create characters who your audience can identify with.

5. Follow the ‘Goldilocks’ theory of details 

Like in the fairytale, give your audience just the right amount of detail. Too little wouldn’t make your story meaty enough. Too much would give it all away without them having to make an effort to follow it. Give them just enough detail and access to the different elements in your story, so that they can follow it and try to piece together a probable conclusion. It almost makes them part of the story.

6. Build it up

Anticipation is a big part of the excitement of a story. Sometimes, in our eagerness to tell a story, we forget to build it up step by step. Doing so ensures that your audience is always looking for more. There is always the question of what happens next. It keeps them engaged enough to stay with you through to the conclusion.

7. The aha moment

Stories could be celebratory, informative, funny or even serious, but don’t forget to include an ‘aha’. It is that one moment that really brings the audience and storyteller together. It is what your story should build up towards. How you position this aha moment in the overall flow is very important, because this is when your audience is the most engaged. Once you have succeeded at this, you can use the moment to truly make an impression.

8. End with a bang

By the time you end your story, it needs to have come full cycle. You should have answered all questions that either you posed or encouraged your audience to think up. To make the story truly impactful, you should reiterate the key messages at the end.

9. Create your repertoire of stories

One of the big reasons why many of us hesitate to use storytelling is the perceived fear of not having any interesting stories. But look within yourself and your experiences and you will find plenty of personal stories that your team members would love to hear. Pay attention to the details around you.  And start collecting stories. When something memorable happens with you, write it down.  Of course, whenever you get a chance, read. And if you want to read a good book on this topic, I suggest ‘Lead with a Story: A Guide to Crafting Business Narratives that Captivate, Convince, and Inspire’ by Paul Smith.

Now, the best way to start applying these principles is to commit that in your next presentation or talk, you will use at least one story. Experiment and have fun. The more you practice, the better you will get at storytelling. And please do share your favourite stories with the rest of us.


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