I’m a child of the ’80s, which means that I was weaned on romantic comedies and weight loss commercials. Maybe it was their ubiquity . Maybe it was my French grandmother’s love for cheese. Whatever it was, somewhere along the way I became very familiar with an idea that’s vital to great storytelling: the transformation.
Here’s someone 150 lbs ago.
Here’s the same person today.
This simple contrast between what we can think of as “the Old World” and “the New World” is at the core of so much of today’s great strategic storytelling.
Transformational storytelling is especially relevant when you’re advocating for a… wait for it… transformation in your audience. The purpose of a transformational story is to advocate and create impetus for a change in behavior, such as a change in action, a change in strategy or a change in identity.
A transformational story doesn’t just tell you what that action should be. It literally shows you the process of transformation. By doing so, it enlists your audience in the process of change and positions you as the guide that can help them get where they want to go.
As the founder of a business called Transformational Storytelling, my workshops, consulting and coaching services are all based on four foundational storytelling concepts designed to heighten the resonance of messages that advocate for change.
If you’re someone who is trying to persuade or influence others, hopefully you’ll find value cutting out the flab in your messages — see what I did there? — by learning the same basic ideas I teach my clients.
Concept #1: A Story is a Process
In today’s language, “story” is an incredibly flexible word. A story might mean
- someone’s personal experience
- the history of a product, company or brand
- a news article
- a blog post
- a video
- a social media post
- an advertisement
- a myth or fairy tale
- a movie
And so on. There as many definitions for story as there are ways to prepare shrimp. (A shameless excuse to insert a Forrest Gump gif in this post.)
We can get technical about the different ways to categorize these types of stories. But let’s start with this simple definition:
A story is the process of infusing information with emotion in order to make meaning.
There’s that e-word for the first time. Emotion. Stories have lots of it. In fact, what we can literally say is that stories are made out of emotions. Sure, on the surface, they’re made of words and pictures and lots of other stuff. But when you get down to the core, every story is designed to catalyze an emotional experience in its audience.
Here’s a simple test for establishing whether something is a story:
Does it make you feel something?
If the answer is yes, it’s a story.
If the answer is no, it’s not.
Now, of course, there are many different types of feelings and many different ways of inciting them. Heck, because there are also many different ways feelings are experienced by many different audiences, we can say that there are literally an infinite number of possible stories out there. But that’s a little too complicated for right now.
Let’s first ask ourselves: why would someone want to infuse emotion into information?
Here’s a few basic reasons:
- Emotions make content more interesting
- Emotions make content more memorable
- Emotions make content more connecting
- Emotions make content more meaningful
These truths apply no matter whether you’re telling an anecdote about your weekend, or whether you’re pitching a product to a potential client. The way you create emotions will be different, of course. And chances are you’ll try and incite different emotions, of course. (You probably don’t want to make your client pee their pants with laughter.) But anyone who has ever sold anything knows that emotions like trust, likability and curiosity are fundamental to the sales process.
Making something emotional doesn’t mean making it into a tear-jerker. Making something emotional is all about creating meaning for your audience.
Let’s actually see an example of this. Here’s Steve Jobs introducing the iPhone to the world for the first time, back in 2007.
How is Steve creating an emotional experience for his audience?
One final idea: if, as we said before, it’s true that a story is the process of infusing information with emotion in order to make meaning, it follows that we can define one other important word:
A storyteller is someone who follows the process of infusing information with emotion in order to make meaning.
As soon as you ask yourself “how can I make this more emotional?”, you have become a storyteller. You don’t need to deliver the story to be a storyteller.
Concept #2: A Story is a Relationship
Imagine yourself in a conversation with a close friend. Maybe you’re out at a coffee shop or walking in a park on a beautiful sunny day. Even if you never even think about it, we can say that three things are happening simultaneously between you during that conversation:
- the two of you are telling stories to each other
- the two of you are excavating stories from each other
- the two of you are making a story that you can retell to others, yourself or each other at some point in the future.
We can see that there are 3 “actors” present any time someone tells a story. There’s the person that’s telling the story — maybe right now that’s you, maybe now it’s your friend. There’s the audience for the story — in a good conversation, that’s swapping back and forth too. And then there is the content of the story.
You might think that the content is literally what you are saying. But when we dig a little deeper, we can see that the content is a combination of a bunch of things simultaneously. It’s what you’re saying, but it’s also your body language, your tone of voice and your word choice. When we shift the story to, say, Instagram, we can see that the story is a combination of your images, any words you’ve got overlaying the image, any sound, if it’s a video. No matter what medium you choose — writing, video, oral storytelling and so on — we can see that the story is actually bigger than just the literal story.
Let’s take this one step further. In every story, these three actors are interacting with each other. They have a relationship:
- The storyteller and the audience are relating with each other and adjusting their story in real time.
- The audience and the story are relating with each other. (Obviously if you tell the same story to two different people, you’re likely to get two different types of responses.)
- The storyteller and the story are relating with each other. (Just by telling the story, the storyteller is developing a new attitude on it. That’s why it’s hard to tell the same exact story two times in a row: the second time it just feels stale.)
For example, watch this video of a storyteller at a story sharing event. Notice the way that her relationship with the audience shapes their experience of the story.
So we can see that the audience and the storyteller are in relationship.
What’s that relationship made out of?
According to Aristotle, just three things:
2,500 years ago, Aristotle lived in Ancient Greece, at a time when there was no Netflix, no Instagram, no Facebook. Could you imagine? What people did then to keep themselves entertained was get together and tell stories. In fact, it was common for people to attend grand events where speakers would deliver political speeches for hours. Think about that the next time your battery dies on your phone.
Aristotle would attend these speeches, but rather than watching the speaker, he’d watch the audience. That’s how he realized that stories could be defined by their relational experience. What he further suggested was that the experience of listening to a story could be broken down into what he called the “3 appeals” listed above.
Think about your experience as you’re reading this article right now. If you’re anything like me, you’re thinking
- Does this make sense? Is it logical?
- Who the hell is this guy? What gives him the credibility to teach?
- How is this making me feel? Am I enjoying this? Is this boring? Would I rather be on Instagram? What are the emotions in the message?
These three appeals are at play every time we engage with a story. That’s the reason why Steve Jobs had us laughing, when he introduced the iPhone above. Even though he was introducing a product, he wanted his audience to enjoy the experience. And because he got us laughing, they were willing to sit there for an hour — and probably much more than that, if you consider all the time that crowd spent reading and talking about the iPhone.
The emotional payoff was an intrinsic part of that story. But the emotions only made sense in the context of the logical argument Jobs was making. The iPhone really was a superior product to its competitors. Jobs made that point too. And being Steve Jobs gave him the credibility to deliver this message in this way.
It’s the interplay between logic, credibility and emotion that makes up the content of the message.
Here’s another example of an effective use of logic, credibility and emotion:
See the way the three elements play together? We can see then that storytelling is the multi-level ecosystem of relationships that are created through the process of storytelling.
This is the aspect of storytelling that makes it challenging to learn. Because there are so many storytellers and so many audiences, there are also so many ways to express logic, credibility and emotion.
Unfortunately, you can’t just assemble these things together like you’re baking a cake. You can’t just say: I’ll have a dash of logic and a half cup of credibility. Too much logic will crush the emotion. Too much emotion can undercut the credibility. Too much focus on credibility can tear the whole thing apart.
It’s the HARMONY between these elements that defines how the story is perceived.
Concept #3: A story has HARMONY
Strategic storytelling has been difficult to learn for one big reason: there’s no widely agreed upon standard about what makes a good story.
Because of this, storytelling is in a similar place to where advertising was in the Mad Men era. Decisions are made by gut feel, and the most senior opinion in the room always wins.
That’s why we get stories like this:
There may be no way to compare stories against each other, but there is a way to be clear about whether or not something is a good story.
When we’re making a story, HARMONY is the goal we’re aspiring for. HARMONY is what creates balance between the three elements of credibility, logic and emotion. HARMONY is what makes a story just “feel” right.
Let’s look at each of the elements of HARMONY one by one:
- The HOOK is what catches the audience’s attention at the beginning of the story. It’s the compelling question that gets us to put aside our distractions and watch through to the very end.
For example, watch this opening scene of Trainspotting to see a great hook in action. Ask yourself: what are the questions that this scene poses? Would you be interested enough to watch to see what happens next?
- Every great story is tailored to its AUDIENCE. These stories keep the values, language and symbols of the audience clearly in mind, so that the story feels like it’s “about” them.
For example, watch this ad by Grammarly. Who is the audience the storytellers had in mind?
- Great stories engage us by forming RELATIONSHIPS with the characters they contain. When we care about the characters, we care about the story. When we don’t, we won’t. The Grammarly ad shows us how quickly a character relationship can be formed.
- We’ve already said that emotions are the building blocks of stories. But here, let’s get more specific: great stories provide us with a series of appropriate EMOTIONAL experiences. There’s not just one emotional experience. There’s several. Together, these emotions work to create the meaning behind the story.
For example, watch this enraging ad by Dove. What emotional experiences are present in the ad? How do they all buttress each other and the story’s underlying meaning?
- As the Dove ad shows us, great stories are ORIENTED to issues that the audience cares about. They’re about the most important issues in our lives.
- Similarly, great stories tell us what to do NOW. They don’t simply get us enraged or frustrated. They provide us with guidance about a reasonable, urgent and achievable next step.
Again, referring to the Dove ad, we can see that the ad ends on a “high”, in that it provides us with a reasonable way that we can take action. This makes the ad seem inspiring and heroic, especially because it enlists us to take action. Ultimately, we are left with a sense of heroism — which reflects well on the product and Dove.
- Finally, great storytellers involve YOU, the storyteller. We feel your fingerprints on the final story. We understand you and your credibility. Maybe we even feel it during the telling of the story.
Where is the YOU in the Dove ad? It comes through in a few nuanced ways.
First, it comes through in the subject matter and the “voice” of the story. We can tell these are people who care about this issue. Second, it comes through in the call to action, through the subtle use of “we”. And third, it comes through in the characters. We’re left imagining that the people who produced this ad know and care about kids. We imagine that they’re parents too. This heightens the credibility and the call to action.
Here’s another recent ad that shows HARMONY:
Remember, you don’t need to like the ad to see HARMONY.
One last thing: HARMONY isn’t prescriptive. You can’t go through it one by one, like a checklist. But what you can do is use it as an evaluation tool, so that you can see whether the story you’re building is working — or where it’s not.
Here’s the complete HARMONY evaluation tool:
Concept #4: A Story is the Result of Transformation
Whew! Still there? This has been a lot of content. So let’s keep the last stretch short and sweet.
To end, let’s turn to a great storyteller: President Obama. Here he is in 2010, telling a wonderful story.
To set the stage, Obama was going around the country, trying to drum up support for his health care initiative. This was shortly after he was elected. He’d deliver a long speech, and then finish with this story:
Great story, right?
Did you see the HARMONY?
Did you see the way it communicated logic, credibility and emotion?
OK, here is Obama telling the same story again. Only this story is being told about 2 years earlier. What’s different?
Which story is stronger? Clearly, the later one. By then, Obama has found his pacing, he’s nailed his language, it’s much more practiced.
But something else has happened too. Even though the details of the story are the same, you get the feeling that these are two different people. The older one (from the first video) is more mature and self-deprecating than the younger one. That maturity is the story.
Telling great stories requires the same kind of transformation. Just like in the Jenny Craig ad, great stories are about a move from the “Old World” to the “New World” that we’ve undergone ourselves.
Our ability to link our own inner transformation to an outer one is what gives great stories their resonance. It’s what makes them feel right.
By sharing our own stories of transformation, we enlists our audience in the process of change and position ourselves as the guide that can help them get where they want to go.