How to construct powerful stories to engage, inform and influence
Tell a story to begin a presentation and watch the audience put away their smartphones and start listening.
I was 11 years old and, over the course of a term, our teacher read us a story. We hung on every word, savoured each moment, and couldn’t wait for the next chapter. The story was The Phantom Tollbooth, a multi-layered quirky children’s adventure story that’s now recognised as a classic of children's literature.
What I didn’t realise at the time was the amazing ability of a story, to not only captivate, but to influence and motivate action. And I also didn’t realise at that time that The Phantom Tollbooth had cracked open a curiosity door in my mind to the power of story.
It wasn’t until years later that the door was swung wide open when I read an article by Steve Denning, the former Director of Knowledge Management at the World Bank. He’d spent years trying to convince the senior exec team at the World Bank using rational argument and PowerPoint presentations. In desperation, Denning tried a new approach, and finally persuaded exec team to take action … with a story.
What this revealed for me is stories have a tsunami-like power to, both, connect people with something at a deep level, and motivate them to act. I now had a glimpse into the power of a story but was struggling with the way to construct one.
So how do you develop a story that motivates people like Denning’s story did?
It was far from clear to me where to find the answer, and while I never actively pursued it, I was alert for any clues on ‘how’. I wish I could say it was a short journey. But it wasn’t. I was a little like Dorothy, in the Wizard of Oz, finding herself at the other end of the rainbow, knowing she needed to get home. However, while I knew there was a pot of storytelling gold somewhere – I couldn’t even find the rainbow.
The pot of gold I was looking for was the essence of a story
Was there such a thing? How do you construct one? Was there a straightforward approach you could use in the intro to an article, the kick off to a presentation, a 30 second elevator pitch, a report, a blog post or a promotional piece? What about an essay, a book or a screenplay? What about relating something to your friends at a BBQ? Or was it really just that some people are great storytellers?
There are any number of books and courses on storytelling. But most left me with more questions than answers. Plenty of advice, over a long period of time – but nothing that jelled. Too many options, too much complexity.
But then a podcast from Park Howell, piqued my curiosity, and led me to Randy Olson. Olson is a scientist, turned Hollywood filmmaker. He’d spent years searching for the keys to storytelling, and then teaching scientists how to use stories to engage and motivate their audiences. But he’d never found a simple rule for the structure of a story. That all changed when Olson saw a documentary on the making of a South Park show. In it, Trey Parker, the South Park writer/creator, explained what he does to rescue South Park first-draft scripts floundering in the swamp of ‘not funny’.
The challenge is how to create interesting, engaging and influential stories. We never got taught it at school, and almost certainly didn’t learn how in any kind of tertiary training.
Parker replaces all the ‘and’s with ‘but’ or ‘therefore’
Like being struck by a giant wave at Waimea Bay, Olson was bowled over by the elegant, powerful and simple rule Parker was using for storytelling. Olson’s pivotal contribution to the art and science of storytelling, was to take Parker’s rule and develop it into a straightforward “fill-in-the-blanks template”.
When I saw the template, the door in my mind wasn’t just opened – it was ripped off its hinges. The essence of story hit me in the face like standing on the rake on the lawn. Parker had captured it in three words: And, But, Therefore. Here’s how to use Olson’s ‘And, But, Therefore’ (ABT) as a framework to make any story clear, captivating and compelling.
But first, let’s answer the question: Why use stories?
Stories are how we’ve communicated from person to person, tribe to tribe, generation to generation for over a million years. And our brains evolved to support that. It’s baked into our DNA. It’s some of the most fundamental software we run. It’s so fundamental we’re not even aware of it. Like a fish unaware of the water it swims in, or as humans, oblivious to the air around us – until we think about it.
While we’d like to think our brain has kept up – it can’t, and hasn’t, changed that quickly. Million year old software is what still really runs it … no matter how much we’d like to think otherwise. Stories go straight to our emotional (limbic) brain and affect us, often deeply, before our neo-cortex (conscious brain) even gets a chance to run across the top of it. Which all means, no matter what we think objectively, logically and consciously, stories affect us all on non-conscious levels we mostly don’t even recognise or comprehend.
There are 3 key types of stories
Those that ramble on and on and you can’t wait for the other person to finish. Those that are so confusing you give up and change the TV channel, or flick to the next YouTube video. And those that draw you in and take you on a journey.
Kendall Haven in Story Smart defines effective stories as those that:
Successfully engage and hold that engagement.
Accomplish the communications purpose (your influence or teaching) for which they were created.
The challenge most of us have is how to create interesting, engaging and influential stories. We never got taught it at school, and almost certainly didn’t learn how in any kind of tertiary training.
So what’s the key to an effective story?
It’s one we can use immediately, that engages and motivates the audience to take action? A story has three parts:
The challenge or problem
The resolution or solution.
Look at any movie, book, or documentary and they can all be broken into those three parts. You need to build an introduction and setup, introduce a problem or challenge that creates tension and grabs attention, and then provide the solution or resolution. Easy huh? Except how do we do that?
The answer is to use ABT.
ABT is Randy Olson’s simple one sentence fill-in-the-blanks template that you can use to construct any story. ABT delivers the ‘how’ like a parachute drop of desperately needed supplies behind enemy lines. Here’s what it looks like:
___________ and _________, but ________, therefore ________
The setup is the ‘and’ piece
– This is where/when we were AND this happened AND then …
The problem, challenge or conflict is the ‘but’
– BUT then this happened and we realised everything changed …
The solution or resolution is the ‘therefore’
– THEREFORE we had to... (go on this journey)
That’s it – simple, easy to use and well defined.
Park Howell calls ABT the DNA of story
Here’s an example: “In our business we’re well set up with a great ERP system AND a range of highly optimised applications that help us run our business successfully, BUT in recent years we’ve realised that Artificial Intelligence, Blockchain and the Internet of Things will play a critical part in our competitiveness in the next two to five years, THEREFORE, we now need to find funding to embark on a programme of work to find out how we should be using these new technologies so we don’t get run over by the competition . . .”
That’s it – the story to set the stage, introduce the problem and provide the platform to persuasively deliver your solution, proposal, product or service.
The essential thing is that ABT is the basic building block you can use to build a story. It’s simple to use and works wonderfully for the relatively short stories we need to use in our business and personal lives, to reel in attention and to influence.
Bonus: ABT can also be nested. You can use ABT as a structure for the overall framework of a longer story, and then also use ABT for sections/chapters and subsections. So that’s an introduction to ABT. The next piece of the puzzle is when and where you can (or should) use ABT stories.
Use stories whenever you want to get, or keep, people’s attention and to influence
Tell a story to begin a presentation and watch the audience put away their smartphones and start listening. It’s best to use a story that’s relevant to your message. But it doesn’t have to be, so long as you can link it to the rest of the talk in some way.
“Slides leave listeners dazed. Prose remains unread. Reasons don’t change behavior. When it comes to inspiring people to embrace some strange new change in behavior, storytelling isn’t just better than the other tools. It’s the only thing that works…”
Steve Denning, former Director of Knowledge Management at the World Bank
Use it to introduce the project you want to start or fund, the extension to the building, the new truck, or idea you’re wanting buy-in on, or the product or service you’re selling
Use it in a report, in an email, a Facebook ad, on a website landing page, or to start a blog.
Whenever you’re creating one of these whip out the ABT template and write an ‘And, But, Therefore’ for it. It’ll only take a few minutes and will clarify and focus your thinking. And will help you create a far more powerful message.
Another marvellous benefit of ABT is that you can use it to construct a story on the spot, in the middle of a conversation, or when asked a question. It will help you stay on track, focused and concise, keep the other party or audience engaged, and give you the best chance to move or influence them. You can even use at a bar with your friends.
But, hang on, aren’t stories made up?
Are you proposing we make stuff up or bend the truth? No – not at all. This is about how you can present your ideas and proposals in a way that will mean they’re easily understood and acted on.
So, tell a story. Not a made up story. A truthful, accurate, well delivered story that will run like a luge in the bobsled track of your audience’s mind.
What should we watch out for with stories and their structure?
Earlier I referred to two other types of story you need to avoid like chewing gum on the footpath:
The ones that goes on and on – and are boring
The ones that have such complex plots that confuse or lose us. These often have multiple plots and subplots
The boring stories have no conflict, no challenge, or don’t have a problem to lift them out of their tedium. They go nowhere. Merely a list of “this happened, and then this happened, and …”with no direction and no real end. No point and no call to action. The confusing stories don’t stick to a single idea or theme. They have too many ideas, or plots and subplots, that distract and confuse.
The best stories are ones with a single idea or theme, that have a result, moral or call to action. Focus on ‘One Idea’ and build your story around that. If you don’t want your audience’s eyes glazed over in boredom, or lost in confusion, then focus your story on a single idea, or theme, and use the ABT structure to build your story.
To summarise, here’s what we’ve covered
Stories are an incredibly effective way to communicate.
Our brains evolved to communicate with stories. It’s baked into our DNA.
Great storytellers have worked out how to fashion a story to engage, entertain and ultimately influence.
Don’t tell ‘And, And, And’ stories (boring) or stories with multiple plots (confusing).
Stick to one idea and build the story around that.
ABT is the fundamental building block of story. You can use it to construct any story.
It’s a long time since my year-six teacher cracked open the door in my mind regarding the power of story. My search for the essence of a story was a long journey.
But when ABT finally whacked me in the face it was the epiphany I was searching for. If you’re a natural storyteller then you have an advantage over the rest of us. If you’re not, then ABT is the best tool to help you get started, or improve on what you have. And you should also know that story and storytelling is a journey. Even the best storytellers evolve their craft. Everyone can get better…
I hope this has cracked opened the door to the power of storytelling for you. If it has then I suggest you grab your Kindle, download Randy Olson’s book ‘Houston, We Have A Narrative’ and power your way through it. It explains the ‘how’ of ABT in far more detail. Then go start using it to improve your own storytelling … and let me know how you get on.
And if you have kids – get hold of a copy of the Phantom Tollbooth and read it to them. Watch them hang on every word…and maybe you’ll crack open the door to the power of story for them too.
Campbell Such is GM IT for Bidfood, a wholesale food distribution business and a top 50 company in NZ. He has a varied career in New Zealand and internationally, working in technology, management and roles in marketing and sales. Reach him at Campbell.firstname.lastname@example.org and through his blog.
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