Storytelling: What Data Can’t Talk About


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Everyone is told to tell stories. In sales and marketing area, we are told that to have people listen to us and remember what we say, frame it in a story.  But it doesn’t seem that a lot of people ever get any training in stories or how to construct good stories.

I asked next weeks podcast guest Annette Simmons, founder of Group Process Consulting, that question. If Annette name sounds familiar don’t be surprised. She wrote the book, The Story Factor (2nd Revised Edition), and a hidden gem,Territorial Games. The Story Factor became a classic when 800-CEO-READ named it in their book as one of The 100 Best Business Books of All Time (Penguin, 2009).

Now let’s get to her answer:

Annette: There’s a reason for that. It’s kind of the same thing that happens when a writer wants to learn how to be a fiction writer. A lot of what people say about storytelling is technically accurate. Like stories have a beginning, middle, and end. Stories have tension and conflict. But I tell you that and does that help you make yourself a better storyteller?

Joe: No, not at all.

Annette: No. So there’s things that are accurate, but the way I think about it is you could get a PhD in Faulkner and how he wrote wonderful stories but it doesn’t make you Faulkner.

Joe: So what’s the secret? Is there a secret?

Annette: Let me say first that I think that the surging popularity of storytelling is because our society had to have some kind of language to talk about what facts and data can’t talk about. I think initially they talk about emotional intelligence but that got too technical. Leadership was all about traits, but you know, you’re supposed to be flexible or consistent, which one is it? So with storytelling, it’s about turning your attention to the subjective rather than the objective. When I teach storytelling what I teach initially doesn’t have anything to do with about how to tell stories but it has everything to do with how to see stories when they’re right in front of you because when you start to analyze something with rational thinking stories disappear.

Stories operate on a different logic than rational logic. For one thing stories are nonlinear so that a tiny, tiny detail can make a huge difference. It’s the same as if you say one wrong thing, you could screw up for the next decade. Understanding that dynamic, understanding that ambiguity, and paradox are inherent in stories, because they are inherent in the human experience. Actually user experience design has done some great work. I’m just writing about that right now and helping us understand storytelling. It doesn’t have to do with plot and characters – more about details that reveal a meaning. Meaning is highly variable, which is another thing about storytelling, another way to say ambiguity. Once you begin to understand that storytelling is going to conflict directly with a couple of assumptions and rational logic – for instance one plus one equals two, like one detail is as good as another, well it’s not – and the idea that you have to be clear and focused.

Storytelling is not clear and focused because you’re pulling out details that could be interpreted in several different ways. But the only way you can get someone to participate, i.e. called listening to story, is to leave room for them to make their interpretations. Storytelling at heart is about helping other people come to their own conclusions because they value theirs more than they value yours.

Story Dialoguing your Sales Pitch

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Joseph Dager
Business901 is a firm specializing in bringing the continuous improvement process to the sales and marketing arena. He has authored the books the Lean Marketing House, Marketing with A3 and Marketing with PDCA. The Business901 Blog and Podcast includes many leading edge thinkers and has been featured numerous times for its contributions to the Bloomberg's Business Week Exchange.


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