The Power of Storytelling for Compelling Communications by Melissa Balmer

Why do you need to learn to create compelling communications? Because we need you. We need your unique voice, your unique story, and your particular passion to make our streets safer, healthier and more economically vibrant. 

Note: This blog is just part of the tools we'll share in our upcoming Storytelling Toolkit Part II: "How to Become a Masterful Storyteller" which will be available at the end of August. Part I of of Toolkit "Why We Need to Elevate the Voice & Impact of Women" is available for download now for free.

How Storytelling Affects the Brain

To be an effective, compelling, charismatic communicator you need to master the art of storytelling. It really is that simple. Only storytelling can change hearts and minds because the human brain is wired for story. Here's how as beautifully organized and illustrated in this infographic created by One Spot:

1. Neural Coupling

When someone is listening to, reading or watching a story the part of the brain activates that allows the listener/reader/watcher to turn the story into their own ideas and experience. This is why so many of us feel the “force” within and are avid fans of the Star Wars series.

2. Mirroring

When people are enjoying a story, not only those listening to, reading or watching the story having similar brain activity to each other, but if the presentation is live, so is the storyteller as well. Storytelling breeds compassion.

3. Dopamine

When the brain encounters an emotionally charged event (i.e. a story) it releases the neurotransmitter of good feeling dopamine which makes it easier and more accurate to remember. Recognize that emotion drives giving, including of our attention spans.

4. Cortex Activity

Watching, listening, reading an emotionally engaging story activates more parts of the brain than when the brain is processing facts alone. An activated brain is an engaged mind, which is exactly what we need if we wan to have millions more join us in growing active, mindful mobility.

Dig deeper:

Anyone Can Become a Masterful Storyteller

Image by Lisa Beth Anderson

Image by Lisa Beth Anderson

Anyone of any age and any background can become a masterful storyteller. Yes introverts can be great storytellers. Let me give you an example. Shown here is Kellie Morris who like me has found a new career in active mindful mobility in mid life.

Kellie is a League Certified Bicycling Instructor. Over the past couple of years she's developed a specialty teaching people to ride who’ve never ridden before - especially middle aged and older women. Kellie is also a self professed introvert and former IT executive who doesn’t naturally enjoy the spotlight. But I didn’t know that when I asked her to star in a photo session to help me get more stories about her, her teaching, and the fact that she and her husband have been able to go completely off their blood pressure medication through a new diet and a car-light lifestyle that incorporates bike riding into their everyday lives, into the media. What I knew was that Kellie was fun and engaging and always had interesting insights and we had a fantastic young photographer Lisa Beth Anderson willing to work with us who makes everyone look great.

I thought Kellie would a perfect spokeswoman for the media. I had no idea she didn't feel like she was someone others would want to learn more about and found blogging challenging.I had no idea she dreaded being professionally photographed. When I asked she said yes! And then panicked at home on her own. But she decided to feel her fear and jump anyway. She decided to trust that Lisa and I had her best interests at heart. Kellie's written a great blog piece about her journey to that decision called "It's Time to Shine" that I encourage you to read if you're at all on the fence about stepping into the spotlight yourself.

The photo session was quite a success. We came away with several really excellent images of Kellie that have been shared far and wide, including in Momentum Magazine, and by the League of American Bicyclists Women Bike program. And we've been able to regularly place stories about Kellie and her work in local and regional media.

Remember everyone matters.

If your organization needs to be better at sharing its story don’t place the burden on just one person. Not only your colleagues, but your board, and your network of supporters can all become masterful story tellers. But you’ll need to create a safe storytelling culture to allow people to feel comfortable doing so.

And here’s the most powerful source of storytellers that are often overlooked – those who have been helped by the work you do. They too can become part of your storytelling culture.

The Elements of Great Stories

Great Stories Have a Purpose

They have a mission to entertain and to teach, not just teach or show how smart the storyteller is.

Great Stories Follow a Classic Narrative Arc

They have a beginning, middle and an end. In our work one of the best classic narrative arcs is often "the hero’s" journey.

Great Stories are Relate-able

They offer the reader/watcher/listener a chance to see themselves in your story. Children all over the world (and many adults as well) know what I mean if I say I wish I’d been able to go to school at Hogwarts school of wizardry.

Great Stories Create “Aha” Moments & Opportunities for Change

Great stories give the reader/watcher/listener the opportunity to see both themselves and their world in new ways and inspire us to make a positive change. Remember, Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech began with a story, not data, not a plan.

Great Stories Quiet the Minds of Our Audience

Robert McKee is one of the world’s best-known and most respected screenwriting lecturers. He now trains people all over the world, in all types of organizations, to be great storytellers. He is very clear about why the basic way professionals in most fields share information - conventional rhetoric accompanied by a Power Point presentation to build your case - doesn't really work to truly connect with, engage and persuade your audience: 

1) The people you're trying to persuade have their own experiences and expertise. While you’re trying to persuade them, they're arguing with you in their heads.

2) If you do succeed in persuading them, you’ve done so only on an intellectual basis. That’s not good enough, because people are not inspired to act by reason alone. Remember emotion drives giving. Dopamine helps us remember. Only stories, not facts alone, can do that.

Food for Thought: Great stories can work on any communications platform from live presentations to email newsletters, and yes even phone pitches.

Dig deeper:

The 6 Key Steps to Becoming a Masterful Storyteller

1) Find the Heart of Your Story. Find Your Why.

Emotion not only drives giving, it trumps logic. If you want people to remember what you’re sharing, and especially if you want to change hearts and minds, you need to find both your own personally engaging stories that illustrate why the work you’re doing is so important, and the work of your organization as a whole.

Simon Sinek recommends you always start with why. Why should we listen to Simon? He's given the most popular TEDx talk of all time "How Great Leaders Inspire Action" with over 26 million views. He's now an demand author, lecturer and thought leader on how crucial starting with why is.

The power of your story, and your organization’s story, is in your struggle and your overcoming. That's what makes your story inspiring and relate-able to the broadest audience. Best selling author Carmine Gallo of The Storyteller's Secret has written a great piece in Forbes I highly recommend on this: "Why Stories of Struggle Bring Out the Best in Others."

My own story is one of struggling with a chronic pain and fatigue condition. It took my then friend and colleague (now my partner) Charlie six months to convince me I really could ride a bike again and enjoy the experience. I had forgotten that the bike is a strength maximizer. I knew I could still ride, but I didn't think I could actually go anywhere. Finally in December of 2009 Charlie invited me to ride a vintage cruiser with the Cyclone Coaster riding club in the annual Belmont Shore Christmas parade. It's a short parade route. I decided to give it a try and have been happily and regularly riding a bike ever since.

2) Map Your Story to the Narrative Arc

Also called "Freytag's Pyramid" for the 19th century novelist who studied classic stories that have captivating us for so long, this is a series of five episodes or sections that give your the framework of compelling stories:

  • Exposition
  • Rising Action
  • Climax
  • Falling Action
  • Resolution

3) Frame Your Stories for Impact

Sometimes it’s best not to start at the very beginning. Sometimes it’s best to start at the heart of the challenge and work backward for drama. TED's Chris Andersen shares more on framing in his piece for the Harvard Business Review "How to Give Killer Presentations."

4) Blend Your Data with Stories

Data and statistics are absolutely crucial to show credibility and proof, but they need to be blended with stories that specifically illustrate them to be memorable and compelling. Avoid using data alone without a story to humanize it.

Did you know it's been ten years since Al Gore released his groundbreaking "An Inconvenient Truth" campaign? The creative team behind that was Durate. In this must read blog Nancy Durate spells out for you exactly why your report is not a presentation, and how storytelling blended with your data will make your presentation sing.

5) End with a Clear Call to Action

What to you want your audience to do because of reader, watching, listening to you? What next steps would you like them to take? Make sure your invitation is clear.

6) Approach is as Important as Content

This is such a crucial aspect of being a masterful storyteller we're going to dig even deeper here. How you tell your stories is as important as what's in them.

This is Amy Cuddy. Her TED Talk “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are” is one of the most popular talks to date with over 35 million views. A social psychologist, she has gone on to share her research on body language in her best selling book “Presence.” This is where I picked up the concept that “approach is as Important as content.”

Shorter is Sweeter

Most of us get caught up in wanting to prove how smart we are. Remember your audience, especially if you're giving a talk at a conference or summit with packed full days. Even super smart active, mindful mobility professionals can get overwhelmed with too much information. There’s a very good reason why TED Talks are formatted between 8 and 18 minutes maximum – that’s what research has prove our attention span can last for.

Less is more. When giving a live presentation on a report share highlights (always illustrated with story!) and then handout the report, or share a link, at the end for those who want to learn more.

Visual Allure is Essential

Your Powerpoint is like the music that accompanies a solo. It's there to make you look good - it isn't the presentation, you are. Make sure to use one template or format for your Powerpoint all the way through. No it's not ok to cobble together different presentations.

Be careful with clipart that automatically shouts you haven’t been paying attention to the digital design revolution that’s been going on across the world. The same goes with photos that aren’t crisp, clear and emotionally engaging and have emotional resonance for what you’re talking about.  For just dollars an image you can purchase striking graphics, icons and photographs if you don’t have the resources for a graphic designer and original photography. See the end of this blog for resources.

Use Descriptive Evocative Memorable Language

Think of your communications as passionate love letters. Repeat key words and phrases but make sure they trip easily off your tongue and look/sound compelling and appealing on the page.

Practice Makes Perfect – Even with Your Presence

We can get so wrapped up in writing and learning a presentation that we completely forget that our own personal presence is also crucial. The tone of our voice, the way we enunciate, our posture, our energy and yes, the way we dress all adds to or subtracts from a live presentation.

The TED Global team works for 6-8 months with a speaker before setting them loose on the big TED stage. Best selling author and televangelist Joel Osteen practices each sermon or speech for 6 hours. Something I’ve noticed about many of us working in active mindful mobility is that we’re chronically overbooked and we often wait until the last minute to finish preparing for a live talk. In the past I’ve been as guilty as anyone else. If you're as interested as I am in becoming not just a panelist, but a keynote speaker, let's make a pact to give ourselves the time to flourish.

No, you might not have 6-8 months to work on a talk. I get it. But what amount of time do you need to raise your game to the next level, and then the next? What amount of time do you need to practice to have the worlds flow easily like a conversation?

For the women reading this: We are still far from equity at our professional conferences and summits as far as having women as keynotes. In order to rectify this I hate to say it but we have to dazzle. We have to be better. It's unfair but true.

Dig Deeper: