What’s a Story?

Nicolas Boillot
Nicolas Boillot



storySearch online or ask friends and colleagues, “What’s a story?” and each friend, each source, will give you a different answer.

Novelist Jim C. Hines says he was taught that a story shows us “interesting people in interesting places solving interesting problems in interesting ways.” He goes on to ask, “What qualifies as interesting, anyway?” and, “How can you tell if your stuff will be interesting to others?”

Great past and contemporary storytellers will refer to Shakespeare as the master of all storytellers, yet after in-depth study, none of them can devise any sort of recipe for telling a great story based on Shakespeare’s work.

Some Shakespearean scholars claim that he relied on surprise and incongruity for much of his storytelling and that those elements keep us hooked as his plots unfold. Surprise and incongruity: What am I supposed to do with that?

Roughly 400 years after Shakespeare, Robert McKee, consultant to the film industry and mentor to screenwriters, novelists and playwrights, says, “story happens when there’s a gap between expectation and result.” That’s a little more helpful than “surprise and incongruity.”

Story Happens When There's a Gap Between Expectation and Result.

Let’s dig deeper.

Suppose you run into an old friend at a business meeting and you say, “Hey, have I got a story for you!” She perks up, and you start off:

I went to work late yesterday evening to finish up a project, and my business partner was already in his office. I could tell by the light under the door. Wow, I thought, hes not usually in that late. I knocked on the door, he told me to come in, and then he had this situation going on which made me want to help him right away...

Very quickly, you notice that your old friend has that sleepy look in her eye that you recognize from somewhere. Oh, that’s it: the same look you two-year-old gets when you read “Goodnight Moon.”

Try again:

I went to work late yesterday evening and my business partner was in his office. I knocked on the door, walked in, and noticed that things werent right. I had some suspicion about this because hes not usually in his office. He was actually lying on the floor...

She perks up. What? Lying on the floor? Try once more:

I went to work late last night and found my business partner lying on the floor naked with scratch marks all over his body. I heard a noise and looked up to see an orangutan in the corner, glaring at me while chewing one of its fingernails...

Your colleague interrupts you. “Whoa...” she says, “Slow down. I want to hear it from the beginning...So you’re walking into the office and...Did you even notice anything on your way in?”

You didn’t even have to get loud or intense.

The widening gap between expectation and result and/or the surprise and incongruity that Shakespeare relies on absorbs us into the story. And when it happens right away, the audience is pulled in immediately.

At this point you might be thinking: That makes sense. But my company doesnt have stories about naked business partners mauled by orangutans!

But You Have Stories, and Many of Them Are Compelling.

Your stories are told and repeated every day:

  • By directors to management
  • By management to employees
  • By salespeople to customers
  • By customers to prospects

Some people might not even think of them as stories, but you have them in droves, and they survive and propagate with or without your assistance. Unfortunately, they’re most often forgotten, wasted or poorly used.

Leverage: Making More From What You've Got.

Remember your first experience of leverage. Maybe you had

to move a rock and someone showed you how you could put your weight on one end of a stick, use a log or a boulder as a fulcrum, and move a heavy object on the other end. You didn’t have to change your weight or your strength. You didn’t have to buy any additional equipment. But suddenly you could leverage your own weight to move something much bigger.

Stories are like that. You’ve got them, and you’ve already paid for them. They can do the heavy lifting for you and your business. The question is how to make the most of them — leverage them — to move your audiences the way you want.

You Absorb Other Businesses' Stories Every Day.

From billboards to the Internet, businesses compete to inform, interact, transact and create strong relationships with prospects and customers. L.L.Bean rose to fame through its ironclad satisfaction guarantee:

Guaranteed to last. Our products are guaranteed to give 100 percent satisfaction in every way. Return anything purchased from us at anytime if it proves otherwise. We do not want you to have anything from L.L.Bean that is not completely satisfactory.

When I was in college, students boasted about returning an item they had abused over several months or years and getting a new one for free. Such stories spread quickly. I believe L.L.Bean banked on the fact that most people who heard these stories had one reaction: That persons abusing the system. But what an amazing company to have such a return policy!

The return policy doesn’t make the story interesting – it’s

the story about someone abusing the system that captured attention. Did L.L.Bean executives plan on such stories becoming the catalyst to its phenomenal growth and longevity? Maybe they knew that some bargain hunters and system abusers would be the first to spread tales about the return policy. If so, they must also have known that such tales would reach and influence millions of shoppers who would be more scrupulous about their returns.

Outside Business, We Recognize Stories Everywhere.

Great stories live in movies, theaters, magazine pages, YouTube, books, company websites and, most of all, in our minds.

Great stories stick out and stick around. We retell them. We reread them. We watch them repeated. We share them over and over again. In fact, we like them so much that we rely on other people to point out, youve told me that one already. To which we answer, “I know. But Joe hasn’t heard it – I’ll tell it again.” Sometimes we even say, “I know, but I like telling it.”

No Matter What They Say, You Can Learn to Tell a Good Story.

From the gossip we pick up around the office to the soap operas we watch on TV (and yes, “Mad Men” is a soap opera), we crave good stories, and we love to hear them and repeat them as often as we’re allowed.

Believe it or not, good storytellers have a method to their madness. Doesn’t this make sense? After all, people go to school to learn engineering, medicine, computer science and languages. Some people have aptitudes for all these subjects the way some people are natural storytellers, but even those with existing skills can learn to do better with training and practice. Just because someone was good at dissecting in school doesn’t mean you want her to perform your surgery before she’s gone to medical school!

Even the best natural storytellers benefit from years of practice. Think about that as “on-the-job learning.” But most of us have to learn how to tell a good story starting from the basics. Because we weren’t natural storytellers, we didn’t gravitate to practicing on the job for years. And over time, our confidence suffered.

Don’t worry. If you can learn to make a widget or provide a service, you can certainly learn to tell a story — particularly if that story will help you sell more widgets or services!

Most important: make the story compelling and memorable.

Compelling and Memorable

Most people talk about stories and describe them as good, great, cool, fun, etc. Qualifiers like these are completely subjective. And while almost everything qualifies as “subjective” to some degree, using the words compelling and memorable is more helpful to helping us understand what makes a story valuable for your business.

Compelling: This means that the story grabs your attention. You are compelled to listen, read, and watch. I'm not naïve enough to think that many business stories will provide edge-of-your-seat gripping intensity. But compelling, yes. Even captivating. The right business stories grab the audience’s attention just like the right salesperson hooks a prospect.

Memorable: As business owners and employees, we attribute special meaning to some of our stories. They color the fabric of our time together, the ups and downs of our business life, the solidarity of being “in it together.” They often provide reasons for getting up each day and going to work – reasons we repeat to friends and loved ones on a regular basis.

And then there are customers. In a fiercely competitive landscape, it’s tough to get a new customer. Keeping that customer happy is even tougher. What we call brand loyalty involves getting customers to remember compelling stories about our business and their interactions with it.

In addition, we all know that one of the best ways to market ourselves is when other people market for us – in other words, word of mouth marketing. If our audiences remember the great stories about our business, they will much more easily share them with their friends. In a time when the networked world makes sharing easier than ever, it pays to have plenty of good stories to share.

This is a modified excerpt from “I Killed a Rabid Fox with a Croquet Mallet: Making Your Business Stories Compelling and Memorable” now available on Amazon.

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