New Research: Plot Development Matters in Story

WooHoo! When Karen Dietz and I were writing Business Storytelling for Dummies, we searched high and low for the latest and greatest research on story use in business to incorporate into the book. Well, here’s a new piece of research by Keith Quesenberry and Michael Coolsen at Johns Hopkins cited in “The Irresistible Power of Storytelling as a Strategic Business Tool” by Harrison Monarth.

It seems these two researchers looked at 108 Superbowl commercials and found that the structure of the content in the ad — plot development — matters. So much so that they were able to predict that the Anheuser-Busch “Puppy Love” spot would be the most popular spot in 2014. Yes! Structure matters. This means that telling a story off-the-cuff will likely not gain you the impact you desire. You need to spend time ensuring that the structure unfolds the story properly.

Karen and I summarized the story structures we presented in the Dummies book in a bonus article called “11 Structures for Business Storytelling.” We agree with Monharth that you first need to understand the most core of structures which he highlights in his article.

There were a couple other items that captured my attention in this article. Here’s the comment I provided to Monarth about them.

Harrison,

As the author of three books on business storytelling, the latest being Business Storytelling for Dummies written with Karen Dietz, PhD (Wiley, Dec 2013), I am grateful for your article. As we wrote this book (which is more the latest and greatest info/tips on storytelling than the basics), we attempted to include the most recent research – the Quesenberry outcomes are like icing on the cake. It confirms what we’ve written in the chapter on marketing/branding.

There are a couple things I’d like to also mention. First, I believe that touching human emotions is necessary, but not sufficient, to move people to action. Why? We are bombarded daily by emotional stimuli and are in some ways becoming immune to them.

To this end, I believe people need to be touched physically, cognitively, emotionally and spiritually by a story. The spiritual piece isn’t easy to describe. It has two facets – hearing a story that hits at the core of your being – at the soul level. In business, Karen and I also equate this to what we call “the ultimate embodiment of good.” Like that expressed by Mrs. Meyers Clean Day in its short video anecdotes (they fall a shy short of being well constructed stories but demonstrate what we mean).

Second, Kendall Haven’s book, Story Proof, summarizes 350 research studies on story. It’s a great resource.

Finally, strategic storytelling to Karen and me is broader than what you discuss in this piece. We devote an entire chapter in the Dummies book to discussing how to entrench story as a core competency into the DNA of an organization’s internal and external functions. My 2006 book, Wake Me Up When the Data Is Over, covers this subject too. To date, we have found no organization that has taken story to this level of strategic impact. And this is after providing more than 81 ROI examples of the use of story in business in the Wake Me Up book. We still have a long ways to go …

Again, thank you for bringing this new research to the forefront. It is good to hear and learn from it!

Kind regards,
Lori Silverman

What are your reactions to this new research and the HBR blog article? Please share them here.

A Story Trigger Sparks Customer Engagement

Once every couple of months I drive 42 miles, which takes me 53 minutes, to AutoNation in Chandler, AZ to get my 2005 Honda CRV serviced. Now I know you’re probably thinking that this makes no logical sense. That there must be a Honda dealer closer to where I live. And you’re right. There is. But what they don’t have is Nick. He takes care of every need I have when I show up. Over the last few years, we’ve developed a really cool relationship. We’ve chatted about cars and whether it’s prudent to own a home these days and what it’s like to live in the Valley since we’re both transplants.

Today, when I showed up, there were several vehicles ahead of me in line. I was greeted by an older man with gray hair. The married couple in the car in front of me were greeted by a very young man who looked to be about 20. He stood more than six feet tall and was a thin as a toothpick. When this younger man approached his customers, the husband pointed to the man’s name tag and said, “You’re from Japan!” The young man, who I came to learn is Josh, said, “Yes, I grew up in Japan.”

The conversation didn’t stop there. The husband replied, “Wow. That’s amazing. I’ve never met anyone from Japan. Tell me about what your experiences.” (If you’ve been reading my posts, you’ll recognize this as a story prompt.) To which Josh said, “My dad’s in the Army, I grew up as an Army brat. It was …” And on he went with his first short story. Which was followed by a couple more, all prompted by the husband.

The name tag that Josh is wearing with his name and birth location on it is known as a story trigger. Story triggers can be objects, symbols, music, the beginning of a story, an entire story—anything that provokes a story from another person. If you decide to tell a story, even part of it, you need to stop and listen when the other person says something to the effect of, “Oh, oh, oh. I had something similar happen to me …”

Why are triggers important in business? Because when we trigger a story from others, we immediately forge a bond. The person who triggers the story shows willingness to listen and the person who tells the story expresses a level of transparency and vulnerability when telling it. When married together, these acts can initiate a relationship or strengthen an existing one.

So tell me. Where are you currently using triggers in your work? Where are there opportunities for you to use one that you’re not taking advantage of today?

My Take on What MindTools Says About Business Storytelling

Over the weekend, I saw a posting about business storytelling on a LinkedIn group. It references this article on a website called MindTools.com written by James Manktelow and the Mind Tools Team.

I decided to comment on the posting and to write a letter to James and his team. Why? Even though the piece raises some important pointers about the subject of business storytelling, it confuses “types of stories” with “story structure” and misses some critical items.

Here’s what I wrote:

Cathy,

As the author of three books on business storytelling, thank you for raising its importance in this discussion. I’d like to embellish the article content that you referenced to provide some additional resources.

First, there’s only one reason to use storytelling practices in business: to move people to action. That action could be a change in behavior, mindset, or emotional reaction.

The examples given in the article speak to the “push” side of storytelling – sharing stories with others. What we now know today through a variety of research is that the pull side of story is absolutely key too – that is, having the ability to evoke stories from others through story prompts and story triggers, This is especially true in a sales situation: The ability to pull stories from prospects and retell them is critical to being able to move that person/firm to being a customer than telling the story about what your company offers.

The piece you referenced gives some terrific examples of types of stories, as does this chart. In business storytelling, it is important to know about types of stories in addition to story structures. These are different. Here’s a link to a reference on various kinds of story structure.

Great stories, at their most basic structure, usually have three parts: a beginning (the context), action (a story must have conflict or it isn’t a story), and results (the story’s resolution). However, in business, for a story to have impact, it must end with a key point and a call to action. We spend an entire chapter on this in Business Storytelling for Dummies.

With this said, there are times when a great story might need to bring forth an opportunity before the conflict. We also discuss this nuance in the Dummies book. Nancy Duarte speaks to this as well in her book, Resonate.

Thank you again for highlighting this article!
Lori Silverman, author, speaker, consultant

I’d love to hear what you feel needs to be added or clarified on the MindTools piece. Comment away!

Skip Questions in Hiring: The Value of Story Prompts

One of my favorite weekend activities is to read the New York Times. What caught my eye about this interview by Adam Bryant with Dawn Zier, chief executive of Nutrisystem in his Corner Office column, wasn’t her background or management team approach, but her response to Adam’s last question, “How do you hire?” To which she responded, “I often will say, ‘Tell me about a situation where things changed around you and how you dealt with that and adapted.’”

Zier has formatted her inquiry to potential new hires as a story prompt—a statement that evokes narrative in the form of a story. She says that from this single inquiry she can learn the answers to these five items:

  1. Whether the person is self-made.
  2. Have they coasted in life.
  3. How they’ve persevered.
  4. Challenges they’ve had to overcome.
  5. What has shaped them over the years.

What I love about this example is that it demonstrates the true power of evoking stories from others: A single story prompt can replace the need to ask several questions. What she doesn’t say is that the telling of a story can reveal someone’s underlying motivations, personality temperament, emotional well-being, and a host of other qualities and factors that can’t be directly requested in an interview situation.

Questions primarily evoke information sound bites, descriptive statements, or opinions, many of which may be highly practiced (whether it’s a job interview or not). More often then not, you need to probe deeper to get the meaning you seek—a time consuming task. On the other hand, story prompts get people to tell you the story, the very way they experienced it since it’s the brain codifies and stores the situation as story narrative.

How do you construct a story prompt? They have two parts: the front of the statement (for example: Tell me about …) and the back of it (for example: … a situation where things changed around you and how you dealt with that and adapted.) Be careful: If you remove the word, about, all you’ve done is taken a question and made it into a statement. It won’t evoke a story unless the person was planning to tell you one to begin with.

In Business Storytelling for Dummies, we provide several front-end statements akin to “tell me about …” They include:

  • Tell me a story about …
  • Share with me a memory about …
  • Paint the full picture for me about …

Stay away from these phrases to start a story prompt:

  • Describe for me …
  • Help me to understand …
  • Explain to me …

The back end of the statement is as important to phrase correctly as the front end of it. Be specific. Get the person to recall one or two, or at the most, three stories when they hear it. “Tell me about an experience you liked in your last job” isn’t as effective as “Tell me about an experience in your last job that made you say, ‘Wow. I love what I do.’”

To switch it up a bit, you can reverse the front and the back of the story prompt. Using the last example, you could say, “In my experience, everyone has at least one moment in their last job when they say, ‘Wow, I love what I do.’ Tell me about that situation.”

Now it’s your turn. Where could you transform the questions you ask into story prompts to get better and richer responses?

Interview: How to Use Stories Throughout the Change Process

In my December 2013 interview with Emma Murphy of The Change Source, I was able to weave new information and client examples not found in Chapter 16 of Business Storytelling for Dummies into my responses to her questions:

  1. What’s causing more and more organizations to embrace storytelling within their change communications?
  2. How can we get to know key stakeholders better through stories?
  3. How can we use storytelling to influence and motivate employees when trying to implement change?
  4. What should we consider when communicating our vision for change?
  5. Tell us what you mean by creating a “change is possible” story.
  6. Once we start to implement the change how can we capitalize on stories about people who are already embodying the change?
  7. Give us some tips on how to structure the stories we share.

Highlighted in this podcast is content on …

  • How story moves a conversation from sense-making to meaning-making.
  • Why pull approaches (story prompts, for example) are as critical as push approaches to story.
  • How to construct story prompts.
  • How to heighten pain and urgency in stakeholders early on through future story.
  • When to use “ain’t it awful” stories.
  • How both dream stories and future stories can be used to communicate the vision of a change and outline the buckets of work that need to be done to make the change a reality.
  • A type of story a leader can tell to get employees off the fence to embrace a change.

Where else can storytelling approaches be used in a change effort? Tell me about an experience you’ve had where story has made a key difference in a change. Alternatively, tell me about a change where story wasn’t used but you believe it could have made a big difference in the initiative.

LORI SILVERMAN

Lori offers practical, results-driven business storytelling training, keynotes, and consulting. For 26 years, she's also advised enterprises on strategy and organizational change. Listen to Lori speak about the "Power of Story"

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