Tell me a story

Sarah as a baby, sitting on a sofa with her Mum reading a book to her
Me and my Mum reading a book in the mid-70s

I’ve written before on this blog (in August 2012) about the power of story-telling. From the time we are born, stories have the ability to capture our imagination and transport us to whole new worlds with brand new possibilities. And who doesn’t need some new perspectives and new ideas from time to time?!

However, to paraphrase George Orwell in that fantastic story ‘Animal Farm’, not all stories are created equal. Sometimes when people say ‘Let me tell you a story’, what they really mean is ‘Let me tell you a really boring anecdote about the time I misread the bus timetable’. Unfortunately, the only inspiration the listener is likely to draw from this is how to avoid the teller in the future. But told well, a story will stay with the listener for a long time after they have heard it and will continue to motivate and inspire them too.

I was recently at an event with a fantastic piece of story-telling. It had the potential to be very dry or very worthy, both sure-fire ways to put people off. But because of the way in which the story was told, it became a very engaging experience and the messages have stayed with me. So what was it that worked so well?

  • Parts of the story were acted out in front of the audience – this meant there were different voices, different faces and movement in the story. More appealing than a person standing still reading some text aloud. The movement also meant that we could literally see the story unfolding in front of us.
  • The story was told in sections, rather than all at once – this meant we were not overloaded in one go and had time to process each part before we moved on to the next one.
  • The audience had certain things that we had to shout out or do at defined points in the story – for example, when we heard the word ‘pyramid’ we had to turn to the person next to us and make a pyramid shape in the air with our arms. This meant that we had to listen carefully to what was being said so that we heard our cue and it also created a shared experience with the people around us. Plus there was plenty of energy in the room from all the movement and laughter!
  • The story was told in very simple language – easy for everyone to understand, whether you were a regular part of the group who had heard the story before or a visitor hearing it for the first time.
  • Finally, after the performance of the story, the main, underlying messages were repeated and actions assigned to them – reinforcing what we had heard and giving us an ‘aide memoire’ to hold the messages in our memories.

These are all elements that anyone telling a story can bring in. How can you include them in your stories to motivate and inspire your audience?

For the charities and universities that I work with, who are aiming to change the world, motivation is just what they need to be inspiring in others and they have powerful stories of the difference they are making to real people’s lives. I’m surprised by how many of them forget to use those stories internally, to inspire their employees, colleagues, volunteers and members, as well as their supporters and fundraisers. If you’re part of an organisation that has wonderful, inspiring stories, I urge you to share them with everyone and use some of the elements I’ve mentioned above to make them stick.

Until next time


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