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An easy formula for unlocking the power of stories

By Rob Biesenbach,

As communicators, we are constantly reminded of the power of stories, and urged to incorporate more storytelling in our work.

I find people are either totally intimidated by the notion of telling a story or they're overly confident, passing off mere "happenings" as full-fledged stories.

So allow me to demystify and clarify the storytelling process so you can learn to find, shape, and tell better stories.

What is a story?

I took writing classes at Chicago's famed Second City training center, birthplace of many comedy legends – from John Belushi to Tina Fey – and incubator for everyday schmoes like me.

They taught us a very simple structure: A story is a character in pursuit of a goal in the face of a challenge or obstacle. How that character resolves that challenge is what keeps us interested.

Now there are certainly other elements to stories, but these are the three building blocks. (Beside, three is just easier to remember.

Why is story structure so important?

All our lives we're immersed in stories. Americans spend $10 billion a year going to the movies, $15 million on video games, and 35 hours a week watching TV. Storytelling structure is ingrained in our consciousness. In fact, our brains are hardwired for stories.

As a result, we naturally respond to their familiar rhythms and patterns. Defy this structure, and you risk confusing your audience and diminishing the effect.

Drilling for stories

Gini Dietrich wrote recently about harvesting stories. I use a different analogy, but the point is the same.

I believe everyone has a vast reserve of untold stories just waiting to be tapped. Sometimes those reserves are close to the surface, and other times you have to drill deep.

Say your company has an internal initiative to promote teamwork or quality. That's your goal. Think about the obstacles that get in the way of employees' achieving the goal – outdated technology, faulty processes, etc. Then go look for characters – everyday heroes within the organization who have a great story to tell about overcoming those hurdles.

Or you can look among your customers for stories. What are their goals and challenges? Maybe your product is the hero, maybe it's one of your people or maybe it's the customer herself.

The key is to find great characters – people who are relatable and articulate. That's something you can't program or plan for. You just have to go out and dig until you find the right one.

Priming the pump with emotion

And when you're interviewing potential subjects, you'll want to prime the pump. Tap into those emotions that make stories so powerful. Don't just talk about what they do; find out why they do it. Are they proud of their work? Why? What makes them jump out of bed in the morning? How does their job fit into the big picture?

Don't be afraid to get personal. Ask about their heroes, their passions, their family, or children. The point is to get your storytellers to relax, open up, and speak from the heart.

Unleash the power of stories

In the end, nobody cares about programs and processes – they care about people and their struggles. Great stories with strong characters will always go further than facts and figures alone. And that's the power of stories.

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