What is a story?
I often begin my Strategic Storytelling trainings by asking participants this question. Without fail, this question creates a room full of confused faces.
So let me ask it anyway. What is a story? Aristotle had an answer to this question. 2,400 years ago, Aristotle analyzed the Greek art of rhetoric — the persuasive arguments popular among politicians and salespeople of his day (and also in ours). He named three aspects of a persuasive argument: logos, ethos and pathos.
- Logos means the logical content of the argument. Does the story make sense?
- Ethos means the ethical identity of the speaker. What does the audience already think about her? How is that prejudice supported by the way she presents herself?
- Pathos means the emotional experience of each audience member. How does the presentation make the audience feel?
What Aristotle helps us understand is that a persuasive argument is different from a mathematical equation. In math, there is no world beyond the logic of the arguments. A statement is either true or false, black or white. In contrast, rhetoric relies on the combination of objective logic with the subjective judgements of the audience.
This gives us an answer to our question. What is a story?
A story is a dynamic relationship between a storyteller, her audience and her content that results in a meaningful experience of connection.
In business, we find ourselves in storytelling contexts often:
- when delivering a sales pitch to a prospect;
- when aiming to create alignment among a team;
- when introducing ourselves to others, especially while networking;
- when explaining a failure or disappointment;
In each of these contexts, our story functions on our own subjective framing of either the past or the future.
Accordingly, we limit ourselves when we think of our story as simply a piece of content. Because our story is dynamic — meaning that it changes alongside our perspective and analysis of a particular situation — we create more effective communications when we pay more attention to our process of storytelling.
A well articulated storytelling process is the sweet spot between facts and emotions.
The Business Storyteller’s Toolkit
To be clear, I’m not saying you should make up some cutesy anecdote to distract your audience from the facts. Most humans have high bullshit detectors. What you’re saying needs to be factually correct.
However, what you’re saying also needs to be delivered at a pace, style and context that resonates with your audience. Move too quickly, and you’ll overwhelm your prospect with features and benefits, causing her to shut down and say no. Write a careless email, and you’ll upset your employee, who feels slighted by your abrupt choice in language.
The storytelling sweet spot is the balance between facts and emotion. Accordingly, as storytellers, we must develop a suite of skills that goes beyond the cold rationality of logic:
- the “emotional literacy” to empathize with what your audience is feeling;
- the flexibility to spontaneously change your approach based on your audience;
- the discipline to develop modular content that can be reorganized in real time;
- the practicality to regard each new storytelling as an ongoing learning experience;
- the vulnerability to prototype, test and consistently improve for next time.
Developing these skills progresses in lockstep with the outputs they create. As a business storyteller, I guide my clients to create four main tools:
- Vision Stories. Communicating your vision to inspire others to act.
- Origin Stories. Building trust and connection by telling people how you became who you are.
- Testimonial Stories. Creating practical, emotionally resonant examples of your work.
- Training Stories. Infusing factual knowledge with storytelling concepts to improve comprehension, recall and impact.
These skills, in addition to the logical construct of our argument, enable us to dependably create meaningful connection experiences — experiences that drive authentic results.
Strategic Storyteller Jordan Bower helps marketers, salespeople, leaders and entrepreneurs optimize the emotional content of their communication, allowing them to connect more authentically to their audiences. His website is jordanbower.com.