Stories are a compact way to communicate vividly, practically and persuasively. You can quickly capture people’s attention, illustrate abstract principles in action, and appeal to emotions.
However, telling stories well is often easier than finding good stories. Almost all of the books, articles, websites, and storytelling conventions on storytelling are about how to craft and relate stories, not how to unearth them.
So how do you find good stories when you’re pressed for time, staff and other resources? And even more challenging, how do you find stories that showcase others and their experiences, including customers who quietly love you or individuals who are buried deep in your organization?
Elizabeth Doty, author of The Compromise Trap: How to Thrive at Work Without Selling Your Soul, shares some tips based on her experiences finding great stories.
First, though, is a “don’t.” Don’t be direct and say, “Tell me a story that illustrates this point.” It’s too hard for most people to think on their feet and quickly share a compelling, well-crafted story with an instructive moral. According to Elizabeth, people don’t index stories in our memory this way. To get really good stories out of people, we need to come at the stories “sideways.”
So follow your nose, be curious and ask quality questions or make thoughtful requests. Ideally, you want to go where people work or, if not easily feasible, meet with them on neutral ground, such as a conference or meeting room.
You can ease into the story collecting in these three steps:
- Open the topic of interest and why it matters.
- Get their opinions and what they’ve learned about that topic (the morals of the stories they’ve lived, basically).
- Ask for the experiences that led to those opinions or taught them those lessons.
For example, you can ask or say:
For individuals: What are some things that work well for you that you think are unique? What’s distinctive about what you do? What’s been a good experience that you’ve had? What differences have you noticed after this experience?
For customer service people: What’s the best way you’ve learned to handle a customer complaint? What experiences have you had that lead you to believe that this is the best way? What feedback have you received from customers about your approach?
For leaders: Who have you seen or heard about who’s doing work that exemplifies the changes you’re striving for? What’s special about what they’re doing? How do they and their work exemplify what the organization is about?
As people start to talk with you, continue asking questions in a non-threatening, conversational way. Concentrate on getting more information. Ask them to reflect on how they felt at the time and how they feel now. Also query them about the impact of what they’re doing on themselves, customers, co-workers and other people who matter.
You’ll know you’re on the right track when your budding story teller comments, “That’s interesting. I haven’t thought about that in this way before.” Then, ask them to reflect some more.
Once you have this rich data dump, you can start shaping the story. For example, describe the setting, explain the situation or problem, and then provide the solution.
Also, be sure to put the story in the right context. For example, what’s the intent of the story as well as its moral? To reinforce your organization’s identity? To emphasize the organization’s values? To highlight a problem? To celebrate a success? To inspire? Or something else?
For example, stories that show how your company remains true to its origins are a powerful way to connect employees and customers to products. Both the founders of HP and Apple started in garages. Even when these two companies bring out innovative products today, the narrative that many of us recall harks back to the garages of their roots.
Also, consider Subway’s big customer and later spokesperson Jared. After dropping almost 100 pounds in three months by eating at Subway, he credited the sandwich chain for helping him save his life and start over. He became the hero of a personal weight-loss story that also doubled as a credible, emotional and simple testimonial for how Subway helped someone transform his life.
Stories like Jared’s are most valuable when the narrative is clear and people get the point of what you want to emphasize.
Once you’ve found and refined your story, then record it. Do so in as many ways as is feasible, in writing, video and audio. And start sharing it.
You and all the other story tellers will be speaking to people’s hearts and minds, which is why stories are such powerful, memorable communication tools.