giftI‘m currently working on several projects that each require a good story. So I spent most of today researching, and thinking about, what makes a story good. At first I had this chart with two branches, one for ‘information value’ and the other for ‘entertainment value’, but it is now in the recycle bin, since while that may be a valid taxonomy of ‘good’ stories, it is so subjective that it is not a particularly useful one. It doesn’t inform you how to go about crafting a good story.

During my brief tenure as moderator of the Association of KnowledgeWork forum last month, we spent some time discussing this issue, guided by Steve Denning, one of the world’s justifiably respected authorities on (at least) effective business story-telling. There was, of course, the usual mention of the importance of knowing your audience, and Steve reminded us that in a business context the purpose of most stories is to persuade, to bring about a change of mind, and that most effective business stories have (a) a sympathetic protagonist, with whom the audience can relate, (b) a problem that clearly must be overcome, and (c) a satisfactory resolution to the problem that the story recounts in a brief and straightforward yet compelling way.

Another issue we dealt with during the forum was the astonishing imprecision of language and communication, the myriad different ways that we think and learn and process information, and the fact that we always tend to wildly overestimate how much learning and communication has actually occurred during a presentation, a conference, or a conversation. In many cases the ‘value’ of such events is therefore intensely personal, and depends more on what each participant thinks was actually accomplished or communicated, than the undoubtedly more modest actual achievement. There is nothing more sobering than objectively debriefing with participants after such an event, and realizing how little was actually understood, and how much was misunderstood. At the same time there is great and earnest desire among audience members that the appropriate communication be received (preferably quickly and with some decent jokes thrown in) — this is, after all, their investment of time. Just watch how one very enthusiastic audience member (unless obviously a plant or a wacko) can get the rest of the audience paying more attention, and how quickly one hostile audience member, walk-out, or nod-off, can sour the whole audience on the presenter’s message. Audiences seem to virtually ‘blow in the wind’ until they collectively make their mind up about the quality, and essential message, of what they are hearing. I have been in movies that I absolutely loathed, but where the audience, by their laughter, applause or rapt attention, actually caused me to doubt or temper my own judgement.

So a story can be effective, and hence a ‘good story’, to the teller, and/or, subject to the above-noted tendency for audience groupthink, to each member of the audience, and for very different reasons. It depends entirely on the expectations of each participant, and how each participant uniquely internalizes what they hear and/or say. Is there, then, any common denominator to good stories that the story-teller can draw upon?

I re-read some of my favourite stories, and concluded that a story is like a gift. There is no perfect gift for everyone, but with some attention to the audience, what their expectations are likely to be, some thought on an appropriate choice, and some appropriate and attractive but not extravagant packaging, every gift-giving, and every story-telling, can be successful and effective, and for largely the same reasons.

Good stories, like good gifts, seem to have one or more of five qualities:

  1. Evocative — they provoke a profound intellectual, emotional, or sensual response.
  2. Transporting — they ‘carry the recipient’ to another place, another time, by imagery or memory or resonance
  3. Persuasive — they cause a fundamental shift in thinking or perception
  4. Memorable — they leave something behind that the recipient will hold for a long time
  5. Useful — they make something the recipient needs to do easier, faster, or more pleasurable

While everyone is different, I think the second quality, transporting, is at once the hardest and most rewarding one to achieve in a story. You never want a great story to end. You just want it to go on and on and never run out, and you are once sad and immensely grateful to the story-teller for the ‘moving’ experience when it does end.

The challenge, of course, is how to imbue these five qualities in a story. That is a challenge I’ll have to leave to brighter minds than mine, or at least for another day until I can think about it more. But if you’re interested, here’s an exercise: Just think about the three or four stories that have affected you most profoundly in your life, and go back and re-read them. Ask yourself which of the above five attributes of these stories made them so valuable to you (and tell me if you think my list is incomplete)! And then see if you can find the magic in the words — what it is, in the choice of words, the order, the situation, the unfolding of events, that could convert these clumsy and abstract syllables into something so remarkable, so enchanting. I think you’ll find that most of the magic comes from inside you, and is the result of the work you do to build the story into something larger than life, something evocative and transporting and persuasive and memorable and even useful.

Which only makes the accomplishment, the wizardy, and the ‘gift’ of the story-teller even more astonishing.

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7 Responses to A STORY IS LIKE A GIFT

  1. Evan says:

    Let me just reiterate a recommendation from an earlier thread: Get _Impro_ and, if possible, _Impro for Storytellers_ by Keith Johnstone, who basically invented improvisational theatre as we know it.They’re both brilliant, but the first one is transcendantly so. It’s one of those life-changing books, that’s about far more than what it’s about, if you know what I mean: It will alter your whole understanding of stories, and of human relationships._Impro for Storytellers_ delves more deeply into the structure of narrative. It’s not as world-shaking, but it’s very very good.At least one of them is probably in a library near you.

  2. Michael says:

    Great post, Dave! You’re simply amazing.

  3. kara says:

    a gift~has golden guilded edgesin the morning sun

  4. shari says:

    A good story is is a gift of the community, one that must be passed onto others. Its value is measured by how it connects and communicates with others, meaning it carries the collective wisdom of the community.

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    Evan: Sounds great — I’ve ordered Impro. Michael, Kara, Shari — thank you for the kind words.

  6. Marcus Barber says:

    Of course the type of stories told can matter as much and more than the way in which the story was told.Places like http://www.spiraldynamics.org expand our understanding of ‘Value Systems’ and why different messages are extracted from the same content. Understanding Value Systems and how they work enables story tellers to engage with their audience in ways often ignored previously.So what makes a story evocative, what persuades and what makes it useful are determined less by the transmitter of content and more by the Value Systems at play in the recipient. For story tellers to be truly great, they’ll need to tap the right systems in the right way.But don’t take my word for it – try it and see for yourself. If it works, great, if it doesn’t, throw it away. But don’t say you weren’t told :-)Marcus

  7. Paris says:

    Hei Dave, thanks for your awsome blog. I might be bit ‘late’ on commenting, but I’ve just discovered your higlhy interesting blog few days ago(on sick leave!) Let’s begin with only on story that profoundly affected me: a book I had to read for french class in secondary school (I was around 13 years old) “The Call of the Wild”(Jack London)1. it was evocative, appealing the most largely shared feelings among animals (including homo sapiens): instinct2. it was transporting into the far North, I could see snow, Douglas trees, and wolves in open wild nature, very very far from my temeprate urban Paris suburb.3. Persuasive? I guess I was young enough for that. I was beginning to think about my own little place in this vast world, and this book suggested that as Buck I might be more attracted by felow wild specimens, than a bit slaved and too civilised humans. All because wild instincts are natural.4. Memorable, it’s one of those few books I really remember with joy from complusing reading in french classes.5. Usefull, of course, it made me think about lots of other things, and I needed it.What’s more? it’s short, conceise, and though the story serves the inner message of the book, it doesn’t distract us too much from it. There aren’t too many protagonists, too many places or times, basically things that are valid for theatre too! So that we can image(ing) it in our head while reading.Another great book which has these features is “Candide” from Voltaire, another very important book to me (read a bit later, 16)

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