Using stories for advantage: the art and process of narrative
Effective stories that win both the listeners’ hearts and minds are critical communications tools that can enable leaders to achieve difficult strategic goals. When crafted with emotion and logic, potent stories not only help make sense of disparate facts, but they can also motivate people to undertake a formidable challenge or make consequential changes in behavior.
But too often, leaders wing their way through their communications, only to find that they aren’t getting the results they want. What if the reason a leader is not persuasive lies in how they are telling the story? Effective narratives are largely the product of discipline and structure, not merely art or creative serendipity. And discipline and structure can be enhanced by learning how to present them using story-telling techniques. Leaders can learn to be better storytellers and in doing so, increase the likelihood they will achieve their strategic goals.
In our practice, we have found that skilled leaders focus on four elements when crafting effective narratives: audience, purpose, acts, and flow. Effective storytellers know and understand their audience. They have a well-defined purpose for communicating with that audience. Together these insights influence the narrative choices they make about what to say and how to say it.
Effective storytellers also choose the relevant building blocks of information to include – what we call the ‘‘acts’’ of the story. Then they create a flow that sequences these acts into a narrative arc. They connect the ideas, layer in key themes and imagery, and pace the delivery. Taken together, this process can create an engaging and coherent story that communicates a well-conceived purpose to a particular audience. This greatly increases the likelihood that the result will be a desired change in audience behavior.
Each of these four elements involves a fundamental choice for leaders.
1. Audience: Effective leaders know what different key audience members care about and what moves them. They see things through the audience’s eyes. Ultimately, the success of your presentation depends on your ability to reconcile how you convey a particular message with how your audience understands the exchange, processes the information, and feels about the experience. All audiences have a rational and emotional side. On the one hand, the audience is looking for a rational explanation for the things they care about. On the other hand, the audience will be influenced by experiences, biases, and feelings.
2. Purpose: Persuasive leaders have a concrete picture of what they are trying to accomplish with a story, and the actions they want the audience to take. The purpose of a story represents
your reason for telling the narrative, to this particular audience, at this particular point in time, and on this particular subject.
3. Acts: Acts are the component parts of a story that help you determine what you’re trying to achieve with each section of the performance. Each act has a specific role, and they combine in different ways to form a narrative. Effective narratives have simple and elegant structures that don’t cram too many acts into the story, and don’t jump back and forth between acts in a confusing manner. Every message should support exactly one act.
4. Flow: Some people are natural storytellers. They are a small minority. The rest of the population needs explicit guidance to make their storytelling flow. Everyone can learn from those effective communicators whose presentations routinely employ a logical sequence of appropriate acts. When joined together in a purposeful way, with thought to the flow and pacing of each step, a series of well-chosen acts can create a compelling and clear narrative structure. Flow involves attention to foreshadowing and echoing, balancing foreground and background, maintaining internal consistency, creating a deliberate rhythm, and incorporating tension.
Putting it all together
As you integrate these concepts into your speechmaking, remember a few key things. Storytelling is as much an art as it is a science. Successful storytelling requires both structure and creativity.
With some practice, leaders can learn to construct effective stories (and how to improve their own presentations by deconstructing the effective stories they hear). Ultimately, this systematic approach promises to illuminate the choices a leader faces prior to making a presentation and provides a proven structure to make them. A deeper understanding of audiences, a more thoughtful and methodical purpose, and a clear and deliberate narrative structure consisting of carefully chosen acts and inspired flow all combine to yield purposeful results – a powerful message effectively delivered, received and acted upon.
Special thanks to Randall and Harms for this excerpt. Read the full article.