Alyson-Hannigan_62_1673801aIf you want an audience to stop and listen with rapt attention, tell them a story.

But not just any story.

Remember the character Michelle, played by Alyson Hannigan, in the American Pie movies and her signature line, “this one time, at band camp..?” Out of all the stories that she told “Jim,” played by Jason Biggs, none of them are memorable. . . except one. It had to do with a flute and a certain activity that happened, at band camp. But why was that the only story that stuck with Jim? Probably because it was unexpected, he could definitely understand it without a frame of reference as a band camp member himself – it was emotional and, as he was about to find out, very credible.

It never ceases to amaze me how often in the middle of training or teaching I will pause and then begin a story, and immediately, the smart phones go down and the heads come up and everyone leans forward.

“Stories are told because they contain wisdom,” says Chip and Dan Heath in Made to Stick: why some ideas survive and others die. “Stories are effective teaching tools. They show how context can mislead people to make the wrong decision. Stories illustrate casual relationships that people hadn’t recognized before and highlight unexpected, resourceful ways in which people have solved problems.”

Storytelling is so powerful we teach it not only to presenters and educators but to job seekers. Your resume should tell a little story about you. Some of the most successful TED presentations are stories (in fact, the organizers insist on it).

In an interview, the answer to the questions are often best framed in a story model, that we often refer to as STAR. Situation, Task, Action and Result. It is one thing to tell an employer that you are “experienced” (which means pretty much nothing). It is another to tell them that you started as a novice IT tech who worked their way through the ranks (sharing a bit about your journey), and today have 10 years on-the-job and have produced ____ in results. (you fill in the ____ part).

Stories are strongly associated with entertainment: movies, books TV shows, magazines and even songs. When we watch movies or listen to music we feel drawn into the authors world and we instinctively empathize (Heath and Heath 208-209). We see ourselves in that role – we become the protagonist of our own adventure.

Storytelling also works in our own minds to walk through our past and learn from it. Turns out, according to a study at UCLA, that visualizing and retracing your steps that led you into a problem or bad consequence is a more effective way to deal with and resolve that problem, than by visualizing a positive outcome to it (Heath and Heath 210-211). This is contrary to what many self-help gurus tell us:

“Maybe financial gurus shouldn’t be telling us to imagine that were filthy; instead they should be telling us to retrace the steps that led to us being poor,” Heath and Heath 212.

Another effective method to solve problems is to tell yourself a successful story – let’s call this “mental practice.” This is different than just visualizing the outcome, it’s visualizing the steps to the outcome. In a review of 35 studies, participants that visualized an activity produced nearly 2/3 of the benefits of actually practicing the task (physically). I made the mistake in military flight school to just imagine the day I would get my wings pinned, not the actual work, the sets and reps, that it would take to get to that day.

History is full of stories and stories are the oldest form of education. Marketing is also full of stories. Remember the story of Jared, the guy who lost all the weight eating Subway sandwiches? Of course you do. Why? Because we were told Jared’s story. Had Subway’s campaign been to tell us that by eating their sandwiches we can lose weight, we would have forgotten that ad campaign the moment it aired.

When an employer looks at a resume, they often have no idea who you are. It is your job to paint a picture for them. With all the colors available, do you want to paint a picture in black and white filled with bland bullet points that mostly come from old job descriptions? Or, do you want to paint a rich, colorful picture in 3D that is so vivid the employer begins to visualize you in the position, picturing you adding value to their company and solving their problems? I’m sure you know the answer, but it doesn’t really puzzle me why so many people still try to do the first option – its easier and often we’ve never been taught any different.

Which brings me to my next point. Not all of us are great storytellers. It may take a little work on our part. I was recently at an industry conference where many of the presenters were doing their best to tell stories about their experiences and summarizing with a “lessons learned,” conclusion. Some of the presenters were able to tell stories in a way that you felt like you were a part of the action. Others (I might note many of these “others” used PowerPoint slides with extensive text), were telling stories in such a way that made you want to shove your smartphone into your left nostril and ask the person next to you to punch you really hard in the face – that way you could legitimately have an ambulance haul you out of the room before having to listen one more painstaking second.

If you’re not a good storyteller – become one. Its an invaluable life skill that can be used in:

  • Getting a job
  • Presenting an idea
  • Teaching your kids and others
  • Entertaining people, which helps you to connect
  • Learn from your own past and create a better future

Good speakers are perceived as smarter and more successful which can never hurt in any endeavor.

A good story should have a beginning, middle and an ending and not go on too long. Most people make the mistake of having five or six “closes,” to their stories. This usually happens when they have failed to identify one effective close, so they keep tossing ones out there hoping something sticks. An effective storyteller does not hope something sticks. They work on it until they know what sticks.

But, just being a good storyteller isn’t enough to make something stick – it’s just an essential component to the glue. Find the core of the message you are trying to convey – in journalist circles, this is called “the lead.” (243-244). More often than not, speakers, job seekers in both resumes and interview questions, presenters or briefers start “wading in” to their message but by the time they get to the point, or their best stuff, the listener is already tuned out.

Making a story stick should include elements of making ideas stick – the story should be unexpected – tell them something new, concrete – so that people get what your saying, credible so that they believe it, and emotional so they actually care. Combine as many of these elements as possible into your story, and you may just have something amazing happen (at band camp).

Chip and Dan Heath. Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Take Hold and Others Come Unstuck. London: Random House, 2007. Print.

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