Let’s face it – we all need to be persuasive in our daily lives, in our work, and in our communities. By persuasion, I mean determining a course of action and demonstrating to others that it is the best possible path forward. (Persuasion can also be used to mean coercion, or getting to do something that they don’t want to do, and that is not how I mean it here. As I say in my workshops and bootcamps:
“These are powerful practices. Use them for good, not for evil!”
Today I want to discuss the art of storytelling, and how it can be used to help people – your audience, your consulting client, your corporate team, your community volunteer group – achieve their goals.
While there is a lot of buzz around storytelling, as demonstrated by at least two books published this year on the subject (see resources), for most people (including me until about a year ago), storytelling is something that exists in a separate domain from our daily life, a domain reserved for entertainment, for education, for enlightenment – but not for success in life.
Think about this – millions of years ago, before language was invented, our ancestors sat around the fire and communicated with one another, using gestures, facial expression, sounds, and cave paintings. We think of all of these things today as “art”, but back then, it was communication. The fusion of the sounds, the expressions, the body language, the visuals, expressed a story, and that story – usually told by the leader of the tribe, or perhaps a challenger – inspired the group to action.
So storytelling has been used to inspire action from time immemorial, before written language, before technology, before society.
Throughout the centuries, storytelling continued to be used to inspire action, while simultaneously evolving into the art form we know of today – although this evolution is a very recent, post-Renaissance thing.
However, as storytelling for entertainment morphed from a pleasant diversion into an array of multi-billion dollar global industries (think books, movies, and video games), it began to dwarf its original purpose – at least, in the mind of the public.
And while we are perfectly comfortable telling stories in social settings with our friends and families, business associates, community members, even strangers, when we turn to practical matters – giving a speech or a presentation, telling other people about our business, or rallying a work team – we tend to slip back into a stilted “professional speak” that loses its storytelling flair, and thus fails to capture those millions of years of being entralled and inspired by a great story that live in our DNA.
What is a Story?
Joseph Cambell, philospher, mythologist, and author of Hero With a Thousand Faces, described the basic structure of a story in a compelling way, which he called The Hero’s Journey. (Image from http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/TheHerosJourney, which also contains a terrific summary of different variations on the theme).
The Hero’s Journey involves 4 essential phases:
This structure is seen in stories ranging from almost every ancient myth to today’s blockbusters (can you see Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings?).
To me, it reflects the journey we have taken as a human species, from from wandering nomads, to small societies who learned how to grow food, organize themselves, and developed technology; to larger communities who had to deal with the problems (disease, warfare) brought on by their evolution and were forced to transform into better, fairer, and more advanced societies.
It’s a spiral of growth and transformation that we take on, individually and as a collective, again and again, never reaching “the end” but always emerging through to a new cycle.
Jonah Sachs, in The Myth Gap, states that great stories underlie all great civilizations.
How Can We Use Storytelling to Persuade and Inspire?
One of the most powerful ways that storytelling can be used is to help the audience “suspend their disbelief.” When we enter the fictional world of the story, when we are swept up in the drama unfolding in front of our senses (mirroring the drama captured in our DNA), we are far more likely to drop our resistance to the ideas and values being presented. This is especially true when compared to the normal tactics used today to attempt to inspire us – data-jammed powerpoint presentations, logical but dry and emotionless speeches, pie charts and graphs.
J Gottschol, in his book The Storytelling Animal, writes that “stories are Trojan Horses” – a way to influence the audience to let down their guards and to engage with the ideas, hopes and values that we present. Presenting your ideas as a narrative is a great way to create an emotional connection with your audience, while presenting yourself as an expert.
To be persuasive, your story has a number of key elements, including (taken from Henderson Group/ Scientific American Mind):
- Common reference points – the story must be familiar in some ways to the lives of the audience
- Compelling characters representing common archetypes
- Some sort of conflict to be overcome
- Specific details that bring the audience into the moment and allow them to see, feel, hear, taste or smell the experience with their own senses
- Dialogue – speak the way that people speak and they will relate to the story
- A connection back to the big picture or purpose (otherwise it’s just a good story, not a tool for persuasion!)