Use great stories to persuade

When we want meaningful emotional experience, we go to the storyteller.
— Robert McKee

Tell more stories to persuade. If you have attended our 'Persuading for Results' workshop, you will have experienced the power of stories. At the end of day one we ask participants to come to day 2 ready to tell a story about themselves.

Typically, participants look uncomfortably at me and ask, "Why do we need to tell stories?" With a smile, I usually tell them after everyone has told their story, they will know. The next day, we listen to many different stories. Without any specific directions, normal people tell special stories: stories that make us laugh and stories that make us want to cry. Some of the stories are so memorable that everyone who hears them will remember them for years and remember their message for years.

Everyone who does this story exercise suddenly realises the power of stories. Stories evoke emotions. Emotions are a perfect complement to our logic-filled powerpoint slides. As Doug Stevenson says, "Emotions are the highway to the brain". Learn to use stories and you will learn to be a more effective persuader, you will get what you want more often.

After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.
— Philip Pulman

Over the summer holidays I read two very different books that convinced me again of the power of stories.

The first a book called ‘Into the Woods: how stories work and why we tell them’, written by John Yorke. In the UK, John has worked as head of drama at Channel 4 and controller of BBC drama. He has worked on popular long-running series such as Hustle, Spooks and Casualty. His career began on the popular series Eastenders in its first year when it won a BAFTA award and worked with it for 16 years. In short, he has spent his life getting people to listen and watch stories, creating story lines that have been watched by more than 20 million people. He has been telling stories that make money and been telling stories that have lasted for years.

His book is filled with examples from TV and films, there are many examples from films because they are well known and easily accessible. Films like: ‘Raiders Of the Lost Ark’, ‘Apocolypse Now’, ‘ET’, ‘The Godfather’, ‘When Harry Met Sally ‘and ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’.

So what can we learn? Well the starting point seems obvious, what’s a story, “Once upon a time, in such and such a place, something happened.” But that won’t give us an interesting story. Aaron Sorkin, writer of the best-selling US series ‘The West Wing’ says this: ”Somebody’s got to want something, something’s got to be standing in their way of getting it.”

Our lesson from this is our stories need to have a character, usually a manager like the one we are trying to persuade. This character needs to want something and something needs to be in their way. For example, the account manager who want to retain their biggest account. But the biggest account wants a lower price and the account manager knows their prices are at least 15% more expensive than their closest competitor. Customers will listen to stories like that.

A second lesson is to tell stories with scenes. Imagine you are a film director, you don’t have to tell all the details. You show a scene, something happens and then you can cut to another scene at a different place and a different time. You don’t have to tell the audience everything. They can join the dots themselves and encouraging them to join the dots between two scenes draws them into the story. 

The more you leave out. The more you highlight what you leave in.
— Henry Green

So, with the account manager story we might have one scene in the account manager’s office where he briefed you. Then cut to working on the tender with the company team, Saturday morning, coffee and doughnuts. Some of the team arguing to cut the price by 15%. Cut to another scene where the account manager argues with the CEO, until the CEO agrees not to cut the price. Just when it seems the price is settled, the day before the tender is due, a general manager who has not been involved insists that the company must cut prices by 15% to get the work. But the CEO agrees not to cut prices. Then the long wait after the tender is submitted.

After 230 pages and many examples including Shakespeare, John Yorke explains the best stories are a conflict between two opposites. In the best stories: the conflict is resolved and the opposites come together and are changed. This taps into our deep seated human need to order things in the world. Also, our deep seated need to change our world.  So, from stories we learn and change.

In the account manager story, the final scene is the phone ringing. The customer’s voice says: “It’s yours for another three years”.

The second book I read was ‘Storycraft’: the complete guide to writing narrative non-fiction. Written by Jack Hart, who has helped write many stories including four that won Pulitzer prizes. A Pulitzer Prize is an award for an achievement in American journalism, literature, or music. Each year there are only thirteen awards. So, to win four awards and in three different categories—explanatory journalism, feature writing and breaking news—shows there is something special about that writing, that communication: that story telling. Apart from the accolades of the Pulitzer, other stories won national awards and just to show how powerful stories are the topics included: religion, business, music, crime and sports. 

Similarly to the first book, Jack encourages you to think in scenes and to look for a few crucial details in a scene. Also similar, is his definition of a story:

A story begins when someone wants something struggles to overcome barriers to getting it, and moves through a series of actions—the story structure—to overcome the barriers.

One of the practical tips from Hart is to list plot points. Quoting the famous script writing guru, Robert McKee, he says a plot point is anything that sends the story spinning off in a new direction. Next time you want to tell a story to persuade, try listing the plot points: those events that send the story in a new direction. To tell the story only add a few other essential details. After you have your plot points, write down a list of scenes. Add only those essential details from each scene.

Do this and you will find you have a shorter story, a more compelling story and a more persuasive story.

Why not make a resolution to tell more stories to persuade?