|I‘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:
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.