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Writing Articles : Why You Must Be a Story Expert

Why You Must Be a Story Expert

The Importance of Telling Compelling Stories

By Carla Rieger

The cover article in Fast Company's May-05 issue is Change or Die. The author, Alan Deutschman, says the latest findings in psychology and neuroscience have something important to say about stories. Stories can change a person's "frame of view" much more powerfully than dry concepts. Instead of fear-based facts told in conceptual form, you need to offer people a compelling, positive vision for the future told in narrative form — if you want to motivate people to act in new ways. In fact, most people in a leadership role are now expected to know how to structure their message in story form.

Here is a simple example. I coached a woman named Mandy who worked in a hospital and she was responsible for internal customer service. She wanted to pitch the idea of a calendar for a staff gift. This was right around the time that calendar-making software programs were a new thing. Mandy's first attempt was to use fact-based, fear driven concepts. She left a voicemail for her boss.

Hi Carol, I just wanted to run an idea by you. What do you think about a calendar as a gift that's full of staff pictures from the Christmas party? Morale has been very low. We just got through the downsizing and the merger. It's low budget and you know how tight things are right now. Let me know. — Mandy

She never heard back from Carol, so Mandy sent an e-mail with the same basic message. Carol replied that they would talk about it at the next staff meeting. But they never got around to it. That is when Mandy and I worked on a simple but different pitch.

This is the second way she ended up trying it. She asked if she could see Carol for about 10 minutes face-to-face. She agreed. Here is how Mandy tried it this time.

"I was over at the house of a friend the other night for dinner and I noticed on her refrigerator was a calendar. For the month of October there was a picture of my friend, Wendy, playing air guitar with people. She said that photo was taken at last year's Christmas party. They had an air band contest. Several of her co-workers were secretly huge Abba fans and so they memorized then lipsynched the lyrics to Dancing Queen. They took photos of the whole evening then turned it into a calendar and gave two calendars to all the staff members. I have it right here — take a look."

Mandy showed the calendar to her boss and it was full of photos of people laughing outrageously, a picture of Santa Claus juggling giant candy canes, a photo of another group of employees on stage doing comedy sketches, and one fellow dressed up like a giant exclamation mark.

Many continued, "Everyone loved this gift better than any gift before or after. My friend bought an extra one for the Fitness facility where she teaches part-time. They had been having trouble recruiting new nursing staff. After a nurse at the Fitness Centre saw the calendar — she applied for a job there. She said it looked like a fun place to work where people seem to care about each other."

Mandy finished her story by starting to explain about the cost involved, but Carol interrupted her and said, "I don't care what it costs, let's do it! I love it."

The calendar was a big hit with all the employees in Mandy's hospital. Not only did staff buy more at their own expense, even seven years later people still have that particular calendar up on their walls.

The Five-Part Mythic Story Structure

Everyone loves a good story. A story paints a verbal picture in people's minds and is remembered much more than linear facts. Stories help you create emotional intimacy with people. People are more moved to take action on your message if they feel moved emotionally. Below is a brief synopsis of the mythic structure used in some of the biggest movie hits in history — such as Star Wars; Schindler's List, The Full Monty, Tootsie, the Wizard of Oz, etc. Whether you are telling a comic story or a tragic one, whether it is 3 hours long or 5 minutes, using a mythic structure will definitely capture people's attention. I use the story inside the story example above as an example of a mini mythic structure:

Set the Platform: You must establish the present situation or status quo. Mandy wants to pitch the calendar idea to her boss because morale and budget are low, but she is getting little response.

Tilt the Platform: You need to rock the boat and bring in a new element. The main character of your story must make a new decision or discovery, or bring in conflict or trouble. Mandy decides to use a story approach and tells about how another facility in the same position used the calendar idea.

Consequences: You now need to describe what happens as a result of this change in #2 above. The calendar is easy to produce, people love it and word flies that their facility is a great place to work.

Getting Back to Stability: You now need to describe how the hero deals with those consequences or is affected by them. This is usually a small or big heroic act, something new, unusual or creative. Mandy gets her boss involved in the story and then shows her the calendar with gets her hooked.

New Platform: Finally, you need to describe the new status quo or how this story changed the main character. Mandy's boss decides to go ahead with the idea and it is just as successful with their staff.

The key to writing your own mini mythic story is to think of a time in your life when you had conflict, or went through a big change, or got into trouble, or you had to face something challenging, or life threw you a curve ball. I'm sure you have more than one of these incidents. Make of list of them. Pick the most compelling ones for you that include a message you can relate to your topic. You will need to have passion and emotion behind it. Also choose a "Platform Tilter" that feels complete for you, otherwise you won't have an ending to your story yet. In other words, don't talk about your struggle to quit smoking if you are still struggling with it. Once you have a story in mind use the Five-Part Structure to write it out. Then edit, edit, edit, for as Shakespeare once said "Brevity is the soul of wit." •

© 2005 Carla Rieger. All rights reserved.

Carla Rieger is an expert on creative people skills at work. If you want a motivational speaker, trainer or leadership coach to help you stay on the creative edge, contact Carla Rieger. Tel: 1-866-294-2988, email carla[at]carlarieger.com, Web site: www.carlarieger.com.

Updated 1/6/14