Recently, there have been many articles by sales and speech trainers about using stories to sell your message. As good as this advice is, it often falls short in one respect… the writers don’t always tell you why to tell stories. Without a big enough ‘why’, you might not put in the necessary time and energy to learn how to use this valuable skill.
Since the beginning of recorded human history, people have told stories. Early man sat around camp fires telling tales of the days hunt; Aesop’s fables were moral tales wrapped around memorable characters; political and religious leaders have made their greatest impact through vignettes and parables.
If you are a parent, you are familiar with the phrase, “Daddy [or Mommy], read me a story!” I remember reading the same books over and over to my sons when they were little, even though we both knew how the plot would unfold and the tale would end. And they would be just as excited after the fiftieth reading as they were after the first. Knowing the outcome, why did they still want to hear the same tale? In a larger sense, why are we all attracted to stories?
There are many reasons, and one of the most powerful is emotional connection. World Champion Speaker David Brooks has noted that human beings share six basic emotions: Happiness, Anger, Sadness, Disgust, Fear, and Surprise. Without exception, every effective presentation I’ve heard taps into at least one of these emotions. The first time you heard the fable of the Tortoise and the Hare, you were probably surprised at the outcome. When reading ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’, you most likely felt anger at the plight of Anne’s family, and surprise by the insight of a teenage girl who, despite her tragic circumstances, still concluded that, “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are really good at heart.” When you first saw the movie ‘Jaws’, you probably felt the fear of being in the ocean with the possibility of a Great White shark eating you for an afternoon or evening snack.
Stories can be so powerful that even those that are not based in fact can become part of our culture. These ‘urban legends’ can affect your behavior. In their classic book ‘Made to Stick’, brothers Chip and Dan Heath discussed the phenomenon of the tainted Halloween candy myth. During the 1970s and 1980s, this story circulated so widely that it became ‘common knowledge’ that kids who went trick or treating were in danger of being poisoned from candy given out in their neighborhoods. Parents would inspect each piece of candy for evidence of tampering, apples would be checked for razor blades, and so on. At one point, Halloween became a threat to enough families that the popularity of the holiday suffered, and many stopped participating in this American tradition.
There is an astounding fact about this myth… there was no truth to it. After painstakingly researching this subject, the Heath brothers discovered that there was not one documented case of strangers poisoning candy and handing it to children on Halloween. This urban legend circulated and become an accepted fact because it tapped into our fear. The growth of this myth serves as a great lesson into the power of a well-told story, and its ability to change the way we think, feel or act.
The power of story goes beyond tapping into six common emotions. The ultimate benefit of many stories is that they provide audiences with hope. The Star Wars movies at their core are about redemption; the Harry Potter saga is a tale of good defeating evil; the movie Titanic offers hope that love can conquer time and death itself.
You don’t have to be George Lucas, JK Rowling or James Cameron to impact lives. In a world that too often focuses on negativity, your life and experiences can provide the hope that others need. When you combine an understanding of why stories are important, and learn how to develop your own and deliver them in a dynamic style, you have taken your next step to becoming a great story-teller.
ACTION Step: Consider your favorite stories, whether they are books, movies, or any other medium. Write down why they appeal to you. The reasons you write down will be the same reasons why your stories will appeal to others. The result: a deeper connection with your audience.
© 2012, Michael Davis. All rights reserved.