What History Teaches Us About Storytelling

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I’m sure you’ve reluctantly sat through one before:

A loooong, no fun, please make it stop, data-filled presentation by an entrepreneur. Or even worse, maybe you were that presenter - it happens!

While quantitative data, albeit boring, is central to any business, presentations truly come alive with stories. 

Now let’s ask ourselves why this is the case. And, why entrepreneurs should move beyond the boring business-as-usual to learn how to tell compelling stories.

THE IMPACT OF STORYTELLING

Here’s a fact: An entrepreneur with a promising business idea—but an inability to sell that idea—will rarely find success. Entrepreneurs must communicate the value of their offerings.

Jennifer Aaker, Stanford University Professor, discovered that stories are remembered up to 22 times more than facts alone. Which means, your entrepreneurial story—and why you do what you do—may literally be the very foundation of your success. 

Creatively telling your story is one of the most powerful ways to emotionally connect with your audience. So, how does one inspire people to listen, understand and critically think about what you have to offer?

WHAT HISTORY CAN TEACH US ABOUT STORYTELLING

If we look at history, it’s easy to see that storytelling is embedded in our way of life. Humans have been telling tales since the beginning of time (at least that’s how the story goes.)

Take William Shakespeare who is considered one of the most remarkable storytellers. The language of “To be or not to be,” still resonates with us to this day. He had a knack for using syntax, humor and drama to tell his audience a story. Or consider Mark Twain, the pen name of author Samuel Clemens. Twain mastered the craft of humorous storytelling and his writing still matters more than 100 years later because it is centered on human nature—something everyone can relate to. 

History can teach us that language, form and the delivery of your story matters. And, while most of us will never reach the heights of a Shakespeare or Mark Twain, we can all do better than simply spouting quantitative data. 

MODERN DAY STORYTELLERS

We all understand that storytelling isn’t just a thing of the past. There is a lot to learn from the living as well. Picture a teacher reading to her class or friends chatting around a campfire: modern life is rooted in storytelling. It’s everywhere: with comedians like Ellen Degeneres, songwriters like Bruce Springsteen and business leaders like Sheryl Sandberg, modern-day storytellers are at the center of our culture. Some of the greatest professionals today are successful because of their ability to tell stories.

Bruce Springsteen built an entire career telling the stories of the common man. The New Jersey factory worker who scrapped to get by or the rebel teen who grew up in a time of civil unrest. His stories are played out in song and dance and have led to one of the most profound musical careers of this generation.  When you go to a Springsteen concert, the audience knows every word to every song. Imagine if your audience is able to recite your story back to you? Isn’t that the point?

Let’s look at Sheryl Sandberg, an American technology executive, activist, and author. A few years back, as Facebook COO, Sandberg planned to deliver a data-filled presentation about women in the workplace. A friend convinced her to scrap that and share the challenges she faced as a working mother. Sandberg took her friend’s advice and delivered what went on to become a viral talk, leading to an extremely successful book and movement titled, Lean In. 

Sandberg reinforced the lesson that presentations are not all about statistics. 

Both Springsteen and Sandberg reinforce the notion that people are inspired by stories—especially when they can see themselves in those stories. And, just as Sandberg discovered, studies show we remember stories better than facts and data. 

WHAT DO THE BEST STORIES REQUIRE

Stories need to be strategic, intelligent and aligned with an audience. The greatest storytellers know how to legitimize their stories with intellectual material while captivating their audience with emotion. Twain rooted his jokes in human nature. Sandberg shared relatable challenges of motherhood. The most effective storytellers determine what material will resonate with their audience and tailor their stories accordingly.

Though there are many proven ways to structure a great story, there are no quick tricks. The best stories require research, critical thinking, preparation and practice. And while it takes time to craft a business story that people remember, your ability to do so will have a direct impact on your success. How will you make your story compelling?

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This story originally appeared in Odwyer's on November 24, 2017