Good storytelling is more science than art

At 12:30 on a Friday afternoon, the last entrepreneur stood up at the business plan competition and started her slide deck. Eyes began to glaze. Stomachs growled. But as the presenter unfolded a suspenseful story, the audience’s attention was riveted. Heads nodded. Laughter rippled. The half hour sailed by.

The presenter seemed to be born with this gift. Surely she didn’t need to practice presenting or tell her story or struggle to come up with ideas!

Many entrepreneurs consider storytelling to be the mysterious domain of a chosen few. Yet storytelling clearly produces measurable results. Cognitive psychology tells us that information is up to 20 per cent more memorable when delivered as story. Neuroscientists have shown that listeners’ brains start to mirror the storyteller’s.

While natural ability helps, crafting good stories is a repeatable and reliable process. So let me walk you through my method that will lead to better stories, regardless of whether you consider yourself a 'born storyteller'. For information and templates that will help you tell better stories for business success, look into my book Let the Story Do the Work.

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Three principal elements of stories

Good storytellers transport their audiences, making them feel what the characters feel. For audiences to bond with characters in this way, there has to be "some sort of stressor, some sort of arousal response in the brain," says Paul Zak, director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University. To save the intense resources this neurological arousal response requires from us, our brain will only "give attention to something when it matters," Zak explains in The Atlantic.

Zak says the stories that grip us most are stories in which tension increases incrementally as the hero faces a stressful challenge that demands the audience’s total attention.

This means - good news! - there’s a tool for creating absorbing plots. That tool is the three-act story, which looks like this:

Act 1: Scene / Hook

Act 2: Journey / Setback / New Challenge / Climax

Act 3: Resolution / Take-away

Read: The eight essentials of small business storytelling

The three acts of The Sound of Music

Think of the familiar plotline of The Sound of Music.

Act I: First you see Maria singing in the gorgeous scenery of the Alps. She realises she’s late for prayers at the abbey. As the scene quickly shifts to her talk with the Reverend Mother, the hook becomes apparent: Maria thought it was God’s will for her to spend the rest of her life as a nun, but the convent leaders don’t think Maria’s cut out for it. What will happen to her? What is her calling?

Act II: Maria takes a job with the Von Trapp family. She’s on a journey entirely based on the hook: figuring out where she belongs. After numerous setbacks ranging from naughty kids to love triangles to the Nazi occupation of Austria, Maria eventually discovers her true calling.

Act III: The Von Trapps escape the Nazis. Love triumphs, defeating evil. This conclusion gives the audience a sense of resolution.

Embrace Life - always wear your seat belt

The three acts of an "Embrace Life" commercial

Of course, you don’t typically have three hours to unfold a gripping story. The same structure works for 30-second ads, and anything in between. The Sussex Safer Roads Partnership’s "Embrace Life" campaign and P&G’s "Proud Sponsor of Moms" commercial are two short, effective examples.

The Hook

To keep the reader’s attention throughout the three acts, you have to start by promising that the tension is about to increase. You can create this promise in three ways, as illustrated by three of my former clients:

Conflict: "Things started badly on June 21, 2002, with England losing to Brazil in the World Cup, and they had steadily been getting worse; that fateful day ended up with us being finally rescued by the Navy."

First, the fact that only one soccer team can win creates conflict. Second, there’s conflict related to personal safety - what happened to the narrator that the Navy needed to be called in? Conflict doesn’t always need to be epic. Often, a conflict between two people’s ideas is enough.

Contrast: "I was born and raised in New York City. I consider myself a New Yorker before I call myself an American. Yet, several years ago, my job brought me to a small desert village in Sudan."

The contrast between bustling New York City and an isolated Sudanese village makes us curious: "How will the author adjust?"

Contradiction: "On my second day at a new job, Chris, a software developer, was explaining the company’s technology. In the middle of our conversation, he received an instant message. He quickly got up and told me, ‘It’s time for a cupcake run!’"

The abrupt, out-of-the-norm announcement about the need for a cupcake run contradicts the audience’s expectations of how the narrator’s day is going to go - so we want to know more!

The sense of an ending

Stories don’t have to end happily ever after. Open endings work well when you want to engage your audience in discussion or reflection. Endings where everything resolves are best when you want to be sure you’re communicating a clear message.

Stories can be applied to a variety of modern communication settings: interviewing, presenting, pitching, selling and more. Telling good ones involves a reliable and repeatable process for hooking the readers’ attention.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.

Esther Choy is the President and Chief Story Facilitator of the business communication training and consulting firm Leadership Story Lab. Her book, Let the Story Do the Work (published by AMACOM), is now available for pre-order on Amazon.

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