The real power of #storytelling


I’ve always been fascinated about storytelling and on a couple of occasions over the past few years, I’ve taken the nerve-racking step out of my comfort zone to see if I can develop into a good storyteller. But what makes a good storyteller? My expectation was that a good storyteller would be someone who could put together a compelling story, deliver it with passion and keep an audience engaged and interested. But is it just this?

Last month, I had the pleasure of being asked to present a best practice example in a European annual conference on Building Technologies. This was a great honour and so I jumped at the chance.

The brief was clear: “share a best practice example from the UK. We want to make the conference as interesting and interactive so please try to use a different approach than the usual presentation and if possible use as little PowerPoint as possible.”

So I decided to tell a story.

But where to start from? Before getting into the details, I decided to indulge myself a little and find some inspiration from some great story telling resources. I love listening to great stories – so out came the Story Teller DVD with John Hurt (watched all 8 episodes!) and my favourite ever TED talk (We need to talk about an injustice by Bryan Stevenson). Brilliant examples of how to tell a story and keep the audience hooked. So feeling inspired and with a few tips captured on paper already I  moved onto the next phase.

I like structure so invested in an on line TED course run by Chris Anderson. Wonderful guidance on how to structure a compelling story: (i) identifying the key idea behind the story, (ii) crafting a common throughline (iii) using vulnerability, humour, strong characters and tension to bring the story to life and (iv) making sure I had a powerful start and end to the story.

So with the skeleton of a structure I set about writing the first draft. The story centred around an incredible journey we’d been on with one of our customers over the last four years. As I’d personally not been with the business during the majority of the four year period, I interviewed our Projects Director who had been through every day, week and year of this journey to capture the facts and his firsthand emotions.

The idea was simple – I wanted to share  the significance of having the ability to walk in our customer’s shoes and how this had been the key to our success. Empathy,  understanding and seeing the challenges from their point of view had helped our team find the right solutions and approach.

So I drafted the story and over the next few weeks, with input and feedback from a number of trusted colleagues, I went through nearly 7 different drafts. This feedback was invaluable. I felt that writing a compelling story was like whittling a piece of wood – I had to keep going back to the story, make small adjustments, get opinions and feedback from others and keep “whittling” away until the final story started to emerge.

Once complete, I sent a copy to our Projects Director for final comment and then set about rehearsal. And then it was off to the conference.

Until then, I was expecting that telling the story and watching people’s faces in the audience would be the highlight of this experience. The truth is that, although I thoroughly enjoyed telling the story and although I received lots of positive feedback and comments from the audience, these weren’t the highlights of this experience.

The highlights came from two unexpected sources.

I have two young sons who enjoy a story at bedtime so I used the three nights before the conference event to read this particular story to my kids and see if I could capture their attention. My seven-year-old son was so taken with the story during the rehearsals at home, that on the Sunday before I flew to the conference, he insisted that he wanted to read the story to me. Twice.

The excitement, the passion in which he read the story to me gave me all the energy and confidence I needed that this story had the power to capture imaginations! Also he made me promise that I’d give him a copy to take to school as he wanted to read the story to his teacher and class mates.

The second surprise was when I got back to the office and the Projects Director asked me how the event had gone. He shared with me that he’d printed the final draft of the story out, taken it home and let his wife read it. His wife had been through the real journey over the last four years and had watched and listened to her husband go through the emotional roller coaster over this period.

These two events outshone the actual experience of delivering the story at the conference in a way I couldn’t have imagined. And it brought home the real power of a story; it’s not just about watching the faces in the audience and capturing their imagination.

It’s about telling a story that others want to share.