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Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins

EVERYONE CAN BE A GOOD STORYTELLER

Anyone who has read Steven Levitt’s phenomenal bestseller Freakonomics remembers the advice that his father gave him when Levitt, an economist with suspect mathematical skills, wondered about his professional future as an economist. The advice: Find a niche. The advice itself is not the memorable part, of course; it is the story that accompanied it. Levitt recalls that his father explained how he, too, was not the genius of his class and decided that his best bet was to find an under-filled niche that the stars of medical school would ignore. Thus, Levitt explains, his father developed an expertise in intestinal gas and eventually became known as the King of Farts.

Freakonomics is filled with evocative, funny and illuminating stories, which explains, according to Annette Simmons, author of Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins, why it was so successful. Facts are important, she writes, but they often fail to connect with those who hear them. To truly be informative and persuasive, you need good stories — especially personal stories.

Another major advantage of stories is that they effectively convey experiences. “Experience changes minds, alters decisions and creates cohesive action,” Simmons writes. The best way for investors to understand the impact of poor working conditions in the company’s developing world factories, for example, is to walk through a sweatshop. In most cases, however, using the tool of personal experience to influence others is not feasible. A good story, if told with enough feeling and detail, can act as a vicarious experience, plunging the listener into the situation.

Six Stories to Tell

Many people believe that they are not good storytellers, when in fact, Simmons points out, every one of us tells stories all the time. We may not realize, however, that when describing a funny moment of forgetfulness or venting about a frustrating customer-service experience, we are telling a story. Of course, not all stories are appropriate for influencing people. Venting makes us feel good but is hardly a teaching moment.

Simmons identifies the six types of stories that, she writes, “lead to influence, imagination, and innovation”:

Who-I-Am Stories. People won’t trust you if you don’t get personal. “Reveal who you are as a person,” Simmons writes.

Why-I-Am-Here Stories. Use stories to explain your agenda and to be authentic. Explain what’s in it for you.

Teaching Stories. Telling a story that creates a shared experience will be more motivating than just giving someone advice.

Vision Stories. Describe, through a detailed story, your vision of the future.

Value-in-Action Stories. Use stories to show a value in action. Hypothetical situations will sound contrived. A true story will make a compelling case for that value.

I-Know-What-You-Are-Thinking Stories. Use a story to show your listener that you are already aware of their unspoken objections or suspicions — and that you have an answer.

Finding the Right Stories

One of the challenges to becoming a good storyteller is finding the right stories. Simmons offers four buckets of story sources from which storytellers can draw: a time you shined, a time you blew it (embarrassing stories build trust); a story about a mentor (which shows humility and gratitude); a story from a book, movie or current event (that exemplifies the core message).

Simmons devotes a chapter to each of the six types of stories. In each chapter, she assigns the reader a general situation. In the chapter about teaching stories, for example, she asks the reader to imagine a pet peeve concerning a job poorly done. The assignment is to tell a non-judgmental story to teach the person to do a better job.

In the final section of this practical how-to book, Simmons helps the reader hone the craft of storytelling. She covers areas such as how to add sensory details that make the story experiential, the importance of brevity and the power of multiple points of view.

In an information-age world that seems enamored with the mass processing of “Big Data,” Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins offers the refreshing perspective that the most traditional of all types of communication — the oral history — is also the most effective tool for influencing and leading people.

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