You may have noticed it: there’s a problem with storytelling. Okay, okay, there are problems—plural—with storytelling. But the one I want to talk about today is the idea that “story” doesn’t always seem to fit or work for an organization or a particular approach.
I have thoughts. This is a long one, so strap in, or just read…
The quick version
- GOAL: Get the right people to see you (or your idea) as the right solution.
- PROBLEM: (Example / Rule) We use stories almost exclusively as examples…but we’re not always clear on what they’re an example of. Too often we’re missing the “rule” they represent.
- TRUTH: The situation drives the style of story you need.
- CHANGE: Build your stories to scale—adapt the style of the story you build to the situation you’re in.
- ACTION: Find your “rule”—your Red Thread—and then build your “examples” from there.
- GOAL REVISITED: Not only will you have a way to talk about why you do what you do, you’ll have a powerful and flexible way to talk about why you do what you do the way that you do it. Alignment on that—the why behind how you do what you do—is what makes the right people the right partners in the long term.
If you want to go deeper…
So what happens when stories don’t seem to “work” for you?
One word, many definitions
It often comes down to the fact that while “story” means many things, those “things” are all very different from one another. For example, “story” could mean the same things as a:
But a rumor isn’t a report, a report isn’t a legend, a legend isn’t a plot, and so on. So, often, when we talk about “story,” we’re actually talking about very different things.
And that’s a problem.
It’s especially a problem because you usually need “stories” that satisfy all of those different definitions. I mean, probably not the “rumor” or “lie” ones. But I’m sure you’ll definitely want to have an account of something that happened (as in a case study) or a quick little anecdote to illustrate a point or make something clearer.
But sometimes you need something much bigger. Something that encompasses the “story” of what your organization or idea does (as in a theory of change, or to answer, “what do you do?”) or what it can do if others join or support you (as in a pitch or appeal).
Those are fundamentally different functions. They need fundamentally different kinds of “story” to satisfy them.
The problem is that only one kind of story tends to dominate.
Story as example
What kind of story is that? The kind where we use a story as an example of something. That in and of itself isn’t a problem, except that single style of story can’t be used for everything.
Why? Two big reasons:
(1) “Example” stories are over. Most “example” stories show what happened in the past. That’s useful if you’re trying to show your idea at work, or the kind of work you’ve done, or the kind of impact it, a donor, or investor can have. The problem with that is you can’t affect what’s ended. That means example stories aren’t much good to you if you’re trying to get someone to change the course of something that’s still happening, or hasn’t happened yet. People can’t see where they might fit in.
(2) You need a lot of them. There’s little that makes the abstract concrete like a good story. Because stories are how we make sense of the world, a good story can often communicate a lot more, in a lot less time, than if we tried to convey the same information in some other way. The problem is that, because of how people learn, someone has to read or hear a story that “matches” their own experience closely enough for them to see how it applies to them. If someone can’t see how your example story applies to them (and research shows that most people can’t), then all that work you did to find and tell that story might go to waste.
That last one might be a surprise to you—I mean, how is it possible that people don’t get it? But we need to remember that you already know what you’re trying to illustrate with your story. So, you know, of course it’s clear to you.
But to your audience? Not so much.
See, we humans tend to think everyone else sees the world the same way we do, something called the “false consensus” effect or “consensus bias.” While thinking that way helps our brains conserve energy, it’s…not accurate. No one sees the world exactly the same way you do. That’s a blessing—it’s the root of all differentiation.
It’s also a curse. It leads us to tell stories that have a point to us, but not to our audience.
The moral of the story
We can find the start of a solution in ancient stories that almost all of us know: fables and parables. Both of those kinds of stories are designed to illustrate or teach a particular lesson—the “moral” of the story, a “rule” for guiding how to live life.
To make sure that people don’t miss or misinterpret it, Aesop’s fables, in particular, include the “rule” at the end in a quick and memorable way. You know ‘em, you love ‘em:
A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush
Birds of a feather flock together
Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched
Look before you leap
Slow and steady wins the race
And so on… [side note: he wrote a LOT of fables!]
Including the rules was a way to avoid false consensus (assuming everyone would “get” the point of the story) and to build true consensus instead (we can agree this story illustrates why this lesson is important).
I highly recommend you do this, too. Whether you state the rule and then give the story that illustrates it, or Aesop-like, tell the story and then give the point, or do both (provide the point both before and after the story), providing the “rule” and the example means:
- You’re getting the full benefit of story (“Example is more powerful than precept,” after all—thanks, Aesop!)
- You’re making sure both “rule” learners and “example” learners get what they need
- Your audience—and you!—are crystal clear on the point of the story you’re trying to illustrate
There’s another major benefit to making sure you know the rule behind your examples: once you know the “rule,” it becomes a lot easier to find more examples to illustrate it. If we take “slow and steady wins the race,” for example, yes you could tell the original story of the slow and steady tortoise and the speedy, boastful hare.
But you could also tell stories about saving for retirement, or about healthy weight loss—really anything that illustrates that particular “rule” that persevering at a slower pace over time will pay off more than trying to do something quickly, only to lose out on what we really wanted in the first place. Once you understand the “rule” behind your idea or organization, it’s a lot easier to find other example stories to tell.
(And yes, it’s also possible that you start to find that your stories can be interpreted differently than they are now—that there are other lessons to tell from them.)Once you understand the 'rule' behind your idea or organization, it's a lot easier to find other examples of stories to tell. Click To Tweet
Given the potential limitation of “example” stories, though, there’s one more benefit of “rules” I want to focus on for the rest of this beast of a post: “rules” help you build the kind of stories you need for all the other kinds of stories you need to tell…
The never-ending story
No, not the one about luck dragons—the kind of never-ending story that is still being built. Remember how you need more than one kind of story? Like the story of what’s happening right now? Or the story of what can or will happen with support?
Well, guess what? Those need “rule” kinds of stories. Stories that aren’t over yet. Stories that serve as a guideline for what’s to come.
Those kinds of stories have a name: narratives. I’ll be the first to admit that isn’t a great name for them, not in the least because “narrative” suffers from the same definitions-issue that “story” does: it has multiple, sometimes contradictory meanings.
So let’s think of rule-stories as “never-ending stories” (and thanks to my friend Phil Jones for the suggestion). Never-ending stories are ones like “The American Dream,” which goes something like, “If you work hard enough, you can achieve anything.”
These never-ending stories are stories that:
- You can believe in (because there are plenty of examples of others achieving it).
- You can be part of (because it isn’t specific to one person).
- Serve as a guide for what to do, why, and how (in the case of the American Dream, it’s an approach that leads to an outcome).
So how do you know which to use?
Situation drives style
Well, it all depends on what you need in a given situation. Here’s a handy guide:
- If you’re trying to illustrate something that’s already happened: example story
- If you’re trying to illustrate something that’s happening right now: never-ending (rule) story
- If you’re trying to argue for something that could or should happen in the future: never-ending (rule) story
A handy phrase to remember: The type is in the tense. Example stories are always in the past, so they always use the past tense (“One upon a time, there was a founder who…”).
Any other situation—and any other tense!—requires a never-ending story (“At our organization, we are…,” “With your support, we will…”).
So, the change in thinking here is pretty straightforward: adapt your story style to suit the situation you’re in.
And guess what?
The story structure is the same.
In other words, the same structures you use to build example stories can be used to build never-ending stories. Take a look!
Past tense (example) story—e.g., an origin story:
Once upon a time, our founder wanted to help provide medical care in Haiti after a major earthquake [GOAL]. What he saw there were local health workers in the community who had the best insights into local health challenges, but who also had no access to the latest skills and information taught in medical schools. At the same time, there were visiting health workers, like him, who had that information and skill, but few to no ties to or understanding of the communities they were serving. As our founder explains, “In my medical training I learned technical skills, but it wasn’t until I began working deeply alongside local health leaders… that I saw what living the work means [PROBLEM]. I can learn the work, but to live it means more [TRUTH]. Outsiders will never be the solution, which is why I built this organization as an effort to close this gap [CHANGE].”
Present tense (never-ending) story—e.g., a theory of change:
Our organization exists to help improve patient outcomes in resource-denied populations [GOAL]. Fundamentally, we exist to solve one of the main tensions behind why that can be so difficult: there’s a difference between learning the work and living it—what’s taught in medical schools and books often looks and feels far different in practice [PROBLEM]. Yet we believe a group of people living the work together can learn more—and thus do more—than any one person alone [TRUTH]. That’s why we build communities of caregivers with both shared purpose and practice, living together with the populations they serve [CHANGE].
Future tense (never-ending story) story, e.g., a pitch or appeal:
Our organization exists to help improve patient outcomes in resource-denied populations [GOAL]. But unless we can close the gap between learning the work and living it—between what’s taught in medical schools and what actually works given the cultures and needs in particular communities—we will all struggle to get there [PROBLEM]. Yet we believe a group of people living the work together can learn more, and thus do more, than any one person alone—and that includes you. [TRUTH]. With your help, we can build new communities of caregivers with both shared purpose and practice, living together with the populations they serve [CHANGE].
Notice how each of those stories includes the same elements? That’s because, at the root, the purpose of a story may change, but the parts never do.
So, if you want to…
make sure you always land the point of your stories,
make sure that point is cohesive and consistent over time and across all your stories,
have “stories” you can tell in any situation,
and not have to re-invent your stories from scratch every time…
Start with the parts!
The extra benefit: each of those parts represents the principles and precepts behind your programs, products, or pursuits. By surfacing them, you not only gain internal clarity on what they are—on why you do what you do in the particular way that you do it—your audience gets more clear on that, too.
Since, ultimately, it’s our beliefs that drive our behavior, surfacing those beliefs allows your audience to see more quickly and clearly where and how they align with you.
I’d say that’s a very happy ending indeed!
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