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“The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place,” George Bernard Shaw.
Colleen Stewart shared her favoured storytelling structure during her talk with UpSkill Community, and we want to let all UpSkillers learn from it as well.
Using the structure she shares will allow you to better build the stakes and hold your audience’s attention, whether it is for two minutes, or an hour.
The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place, says George Bernard Shaw. In this episode I share the number one tool for ensuring effective communication in your business and your life.
Welcome to upSkill Talks brought to you by McGraw Hill. I’m your host, Michel Shah lead UpSkiller at UpSkill Community. UpSkill Talks is a podcast for leaders, leaders who are actively seeking innovative and creative ways to interact lead themselves and others. In every episode, through real life stories and enlightening conversations, we will explore the challenge. And opportunities real leaders face in today’s everchanging workplace. We will present you with real strategies for you to leverage your soft skills and produce transformative results. Thank you for joining me on this journey. Let us begin.
The dictionary defines communication as “a process by which information is exchanged between individuals using a common system.” I want you to listen as Colleen Stewart, the author of “The Story Compass,” walks through the mechanics of a story and demonstrates how stories are a common system of communication that you can effectively leverage on social media, the workplace and anywhere you go, to make sure you get your point across.
I’m going to show you a simple structure for a 92nd to two-minute story. Full disclosure, I didn’t invent this. Human beings did. You can write using the structure I’m just about to show you. You can write a really good social media post in four sentences.
Follow this structure every time and you’ll nail it. So this is not a structure I invented. This is a structure human beings invent. And this was first drawn in the 1800s by a German playwright Gustaf Freytag. This is a simplified version of Freytag’s pyramid, but this is a classic story structure that we’ve learned.
We learned this back in grade school. We’ve been listening to since whoever read us books first opened a board book and read us one. And it’s the structure human beings have used since the dawn of time to impart and share information. And the reason we came up with this was because we weren’t writing things down.
There had to be a way for us to remember the information that was going to keep us alive. You know, how are we going to hunt and find food? How are we going to keep our children alive? How were we going to find shelter? How are we going to manage changing weather patterns, animal patterns, all of this stuff.
We had to remember it. And that information would constantly change. So this is the structure human beings came up with to craft information that was memorable. So the story opens with a setting, and the setting establishes who the hero is. And when in time this story happens, if that’s appropriate, if that’s the type of story you’re telling.
In fact, best opening line of a story ever. We all know it. “Once upon a time.” I can tell you’re saying, and I don’t even need your mics on. Once upon a time, right? And you don’t have to say once upon a time. Although it’s fun if you do as well, but just by saying, you know, “a number of years ago” or “last winter” or “three months ago,” right?
It keeps you in a specific moment of time. You as a storyteller will stay focused. But it also signals to your audience that you are telling a story. And this is important because your audience does two things, whether they realize it or not. When they know they are listening to a story, number one, they relax because they know, for a beginning, a middle, and an end they don’t have to do anything. It’s all on you. Remember, they’re 40% delighted already, . cause they don’t have to do anything.
And secondly, they pay attention. and they pay attention because they believe stories are most important pieces of information they will hear that day because they are tied to our survival.
So something gets this story moving and in classic literature we would say it’s the inciting incident. But what gets our story moving is our hero is after a particular goal. So this is all kind of established in our setting, but this part of the story is really important.
This is where we start to care. This is rising action and this is where we talk about the conflict, the challenge. The problems that our hero is facing or is up against and trying to meet this goal.
So I just call this the challenge section in a short 92nd to two-minute story. Start with your setting. Talk about the challenge. Now the important key thing here is to be quite vivid and descriptive about it because we get a little bit of a distress signal when we hear about the challenge, when it’s really clear and we can’t help ourselves.
It’s like the story is actually happening to us. And we know this because we all go to movies and we all watch Netflix.Next episode, next episode, next episode, right? Because we’re on the emotional journey. But what happens here if this is really vivid, Your audience or your listener gets a hit of cortisol, and that is the chemical in their brain that helps ’em pay attention. It’s their distress signal.
Sometimes in business we like to talk about challenges, but we actually phrase them as solutions. So let’s say that I’m in my basement and it’s really dark, all the lights suddenly went out. So I might say, “I have a real challenge here, Catherine. I need the lights on.”
Well, I need the lights on, isn’t actually my challenge. That is the solution that I would like to see happen, but it actually doesn’t describe my challenge to Catherine. If I was really going to describe my challenge to Catherine, I would say, “Catherine, the lights just went out. I can’t get outta here without banging into the furniture. I’m probably going to trip over something and I have a cat running around my feet. I can’t see where he is now.” She’s getting a mental picture of what I’m dealing with, right? And you, and, and she can relate to that and she’ll have a little emotional reaction, to that situation. Now we start to really care about the next section of our story, which is the solution.
And this is where if the story is about, , a client or a customer or a partner or someone, who was impact, you know who your hero is. Maybe this is where your business or your idea shows up to save the day. This is where the superhero does show up. But this is a really important ordering in the story because when we get to the solution, we actually get a hit of oxytocin, oxytocin is one of your naturally occurring happy drugs. It’s your love drug, your compassion drug, your empathy drug. It’s your trust drug. We have an amazing ability of a storytelling in 90 seconds to two minutes to generating trust. A lot of trust in just one story. But that ordering is really important. So sometimes we’ll say in our business communications, you know, we came up with this solution and here’s the solution. Oh, and we did that because, and then we try to go backwards to the challenge. , doesn’t have the same impact. And then we wanna talk, the last step of our story is we wanna talk about the outcome. And again, this is where the hero does meet their goal, because they have eliminated the conflict. appy day, it was cold. There was like sleet in the air, and I put the laundry on and Julian goes outside to play and finally figure out, oh my God, this kid is scared. He’s afraid of the machine. Now notice he saves himself. Like he left the rest of us in the house, but you know, he’s out the door saving himself.
Anyway, so I get the washing machine repair man over, and I figured this is a good time to bring Julian downstairs, put his mind at ease. And the guy has pieces all over the floor. And I bring Julian down and I say to the washing machine, repair, man, “Sir, it sounds like this machine is going to blow up, but will it actually blow up?” And he said no. And then he goes into detailed description of every single piece on the floor, and then he talks about how each piece fits together. And then he talks about how it operates in the machine.
Now let me ask you, do you think that detailed explanation did anything to put Julian’s mind at ease? No. So outside of work, we are his older brother. This is how we talk, right? We say, “Hey, that machine sounds like it’s gonna blow up.” But the minute we step through the doors of the office, even metaphorically in this space, we are the washing machine repairmen. We think our audience needs to know every single little piece and how every single little piece works together, and we give them way too much information and this is how we lose. And the thing is that we don’t really change as we get older. We’re still those five-year-old kids, just hoping somebody makes us feel something so we can remember it and we can use it to make a better decision.
And that’s ultimately what we want to do with our business communications. But to do it well, we first have to understand what a story actually is. What is it that you’re doing at the coffee shop already? Or in the pub or around the dinner table? That is absolutely a real story. And my, my son has been in the house during these sessions and he always comes down after and he’s like, “Mom, can you stop telling that story about me?”
So when you’re preparing any piece of communication, whether it’s a presentation or you know, you’re going into a meeting and you have to present a certain idea or concept and you wanna make sure you pitch it properly, a story is a great way to illustrate it. You wanna think about three building blocks of every story.
First, this is how to start, and the first building block is, every story has a hero. And this is not a superhero that has a cape on and flies down from the sky to save the day. This is an ordinary hero. You know, a furry told little Hobbit named Frodo who has a second breakfast and enjoys his pipe in the Shire. You know, it’s just an every day ordinary person. But if you can stay focused on a central character in your story, it helps. It prevents you from going off on tangents and putting in too much information that you don’t need in into your message. So that is your first building block.
You need to decide who is this story actually about? And if it’s a presentation, who is the presentation actually about? And here’s a hint. If it’s a presentation, it’s about your audience. They don’t care about you, you don’t, you don’t really care about Perfect Pitch. If I had opened up this talk and saying, well, let me give you a history of perfect Pitch Consulting Group. It all began in 2012. I mean, you don’t care. You care about what am I going to get out of this and how am I gonna use it? Right? So you need you, you need the presentation to be about you, and that’s your first building block.
Now, to move the story forward, the hero needs a goal. What are they trying to achieve when they walk in the door to have a conversation with you or to attend your presentation or your pitch? What is it that they want to achieve? What are they hoping to? That is what’s going to move our story forward. So with our little furry-toed hobbit, when we go to see the movie and we sit down with our buckets of popcorn, we learn that Frodo has to throw a ring into a pit of fire.
But let’s say the next 10 minutes of the movie was Frodo walking through a sunny field. Then he goes into this peaceful forest and the birds are chirping and he strolls through the forest, and then he very easily steps across the creek and all of a sudden there’s a pit of fire there and he throws the ring in and he brushes off his hands and says, “Well, that was easy.” I think I’ll go home now. Make it in time for second breakfast.
Is everybody enjoying that movie? Boring. There’s no drama in it. What are we craving? We’re expecting something, right? Where is the drama gonna going to come from? Do you think? You’re absolutely right. It’s missing. It’s the piece. A challenge.
And so what I’ll say the last building block is, and this is the one, this is the one that is missing in my 10 years experience doing this. This is the block that’s missing from business communications. We don’t talk about the conflict for a couple of reasons. We either assume that our audience already knows it, so why would we talk about? They must know what problem we’re trying to solve. So we don’t need to talk about it, or we’re not clear on it ourselves, or we just don’t wanna talk about the dark spots in our presentation. We’re too anxious to get to the good things. “Well, I have a business and this is what it does,” or, “I have this job and this is what I can do for you.”
But the problem is that’s boring. We don’t care yet because until we know what the conflict is, we’re not overly interested. When you think about conflict, it’s two forces banging up against each other. That’s what it is. So, you know, if I was opening a presentation about storytelling, I could say every single one of you, you are my hero. You want to deliver pitches and presentations that not only engage your audience, but are memorable and help them make a better decision with you afterwards. That’s your goal.
The problem is the very thing that you think makes for a great presentation — more information — is actually making for a poor presentation. So we are going to talk about ways to solve that conflict.
If we can identify that there is, you know, there’s some other force that’s pushing on that, then we get even more specific and more vivid in what that issue actually is. So it’s a way of thinking about conflict to keep the story interesting. Now I’m gonna come back to these building blocks, because I want to show you now the structure of a story. I wanna read what Catherine wrote though. Right? So we, we might think we’re being competitive or maybe, you know, even to take this idea a little further.
Like maybe, maybe we’re not implementing quickly enough because we want to make sure we get it just right and we go after the competition, you know, in just the right way. However, meanwhile they’re killing us, right? So as we take all this time to perfect and make sure it’s exactly right, our competition is actually killing us. So, let’s go back to these blocks. I wanna show you a basic story structure.
Thank you very much for the clear walkthrough Colleen. Great information. Now if you follow the steps outlined here you will be on your way to much more effective communication. Let me sum up some of the ideas for you.
You’ve learned the structure of a story. You now understand why stories are so important for how we listen, learn communicate and connect.
It’s important for how we design our own stories, following a familiar structure.
Remember, you need to know the goal. Make sure to identify your hero. Make sure to signal the beginning of the story. Time stamp it if relevant. Set the scene. What’s the setting, where is this story taking place?
Think about what’s going to be the inciting incident. What’s the trigger event? Consider rising action. Take time to dig deep and outline the problem. The issue. What are you going to solve later. But start by clarifying the problem.
Then take the audience on a journey. Engage their emotions. Ensure they fully understand the problem and are engaged with the problem, by providing specific details. Let them feel it, let them experience the problem.
Only then do you present the solution. Showcase the hero who comes along and saves the day. Whether that’s your product. Whether it’s a person, or a service.
Then that solution will have meaning because they understand the problem. You’ll get interest. You’ll get favourable ideas for your product.
And a special tip, you may need to highlight the relevance of the story you have chosen. Why did you choose this particular story? Why is is relevant? That may be an interview, an interview, change-management situation, a product, a service offering. Whatever that situation is, remember to use the story arc. Get it right once, customize and re-use as needed.
Remember, storytelling is key to our survival and certainly for our business success, personally and professionally.
Thank you for listening to this episode of UpSkill Talks brought to you by McGraw Hill. We bring you new episodes every Monday. Please take a moment to subscribe, leave a five star rating and a written review at apple podcast. Or follow us on. By Google podcast or wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts, don’t forget to share UpSkill talks with other leaders like yourself. So they too may gain the skills and insights to produce amazing results. Please go to UpSkillCommunity.com to review show notes and learn how you can join a community of leaders from across the globe. Collaborating to lead in a more meaningful and impactful way. I’m your host, Michel Shah. And again, thank you for joining me on this episode of UpSkill Talks.
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