If you want to tell great stories, start by reading them more often.
Messaging can make or break a business. In our modern, content-saturated lives, it’s no longer enough for a value proposition to simply be clear. It must also be compelling. And nothing is more compelling than a great story.
Stories stick with us. This is backed by science; stories drill deeper into our brains, especially when they have strong emotions associated with them, according to research published in a 2017 issue of Frontiers of Psychology, a leading medical journal. Dozens of other studies corroborate this. Learn how to tell a good story, and your audience will stick around.
When Bill Gates first met Warren Buffett in 1991, he asked the famed investor for a book recommendation to break the ice. Buffett’s pick was a collection of stories. “I’ll lend you my copy,” Buffett replied. Gates still has Buffett’s copy to this day.
What’s the book? It’s “Business Adventures: Twelve Classic Tales from the World of Wall Street”, a collection of stories by John Brooks.
The Power of Story
In Business Adventures, a collection of articles originally published in The New Yorker throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Brooks shares with us true stories about the inner workings of household-name companies like General Electric and American Express.
One story is about the Ford Edsel, a legendary blunder that, by 1960, had cost the company $350 million — $3.5 billion in today’s dollars. Another story, about the sudden, stratospheric rise of Xerox from 1959 to 1967 — and what they missed along the way — has pretty much the perfect headline: “Xerox Xerox Xerox Xerox.”
One of Business Adventures’ parables. Source: The New Yorker
Honestly, the Business Outcomes Are a Little Boring
And I say that as a business journalist, and someone who loves writing about commerce. By taking humdrum topics and infusing them with character-driven narratives, Brooks brings these cautionary tales to life.
Example: facts and figures about soybean oil can only thrill us for so long. A case of soybean oil fraud so massive it crashed the markets? Eh, livens things up a bit. A character-driven narrative of the executives’ behavior and motivations throughout the rise and fall of a massive financial scam? Now we’re talking.
“His writing turns eye-glazing topics (eg, price-fixing scandals in the electronics market) into rollicking narratives,” Gates says in his blog post, which was originally published as an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal in 2014. Gates’ enthusiasm actually led to a resurrection and reprinting of the book, which had been out of print, and an audiobook was released later that year.
How to Develop a Knack for Stories
Stories make your message sticky. And if you’re an aspiring business owner or personal brand, you need your message to stick like glue in order to break through the online noise. Here are some quick storytelling tips you can implement now.
- Develop an eye for anecdotes. An anecdote is any short story that illustrates a point. They can be short or long, cautionary or casual. Often, an anecdote lands a point more deeply and succinctly than a technical explanation.
- Study form. Story is powerful, but to do it at scale, you need some structure. We follow a recipe when baking cookies for the first time, then start adding extra toppings later. Articles, speeches, and business copywriting can work in a similar way.
- Read the news. Or… books! Remember those? Often, the fastest way to pick up a knack for storytelling is to start reading stories more intentionally. As you absorb, see if you can identify what it is about a story that pulls you in. This casual analysis can help you replicate the feeling for your own audience later.
Business Adventures’ resurgence proves that good stories are durable. When you infuse your core message with stories about the human condition, you’ll be positioned well in an ever-changing world. ◆
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