The Heart of a Good Story: from Information to Meaning

When you reach for the newspaper or your favorite newsfeed, do you feel overwhelmed with data, facts and figures, and have trouble making sense of the information out there? I do. For me it’s like swimming in lukewarm chicken soup hoping for a noodle of something to hang onto to tell me where I am. In our modern minute-by-minute explosion of facts, how do we get from information to meaning?

Good story telling has its place not only at parties with friends, it is a tremendously useful skill for leaders. Sharing a story- one that resonates with others and makes them wonder who they are going to tell it to next- is a compelling way to connect with people. And as Jim Kouzes reflects * “Stories are a powerful tool for teaching people about what’s important and what’s not, what works and what doesn’t, what is and what could be. Through stories, leaders pass on lessons about shared values and get others to work together.” In a nutshell, stories accomplish what charts, graphs and reports cannot.

Like many others I know, I wish I were better at story telling. My endings always seem kinda weak, I’m not sure where I’m going, and I rarely get the response from others that I’d like. Do I meander, do I have a point, is my point even important? How, I wonder, can I improve my storytelling?

Here are some ideas I have come across in my quest to better persuade and inspire others with what I have to say.

1. Begin the process by thinking about the message (should be brief) that you want people to connect with. Once you have the message clear and simple, then work on how to illustrate it.

2. Use your own experience. The best stories reveal vulnerabilities that show the story teller as human, authentic and accessible. This helps to create the very important personal connection.

3. Start keeping a log or journal of important points and messages you want to deliver to your team. And jot down stories from your past, especially those gripping ones about hardship, conflict, loss, overcoming barriers, that could be used to make your message come to life.

4. Make sure your audience understands the context for your story. If you’re not sure who will be the audience, look for the common denominator level in your story that most people can relate to. Does it make sense for a high school senior at her first job as well as a corporate CEO?

5. Don’t be the hero in your story . . . be in it, but make sure it’s not ABOUT you.

6. Keep the story simple with the idea that less is more. Provide just enough detail to enhance important parts, especially to help listeners connect with the emotion and the imagery, to feel like they are right there with you. If it doesn’t move the story along, get rid of it.

7. Once the story is created, practice telling it, especially the beginning and the ending. Where will your brief message come in? Is it stated or not? Is it important at the beginning AND the end? Write it down.

Stu was a quiet man who spoke when he needed to, but just like EF Hutton, when he spoke, everybody listened. In his presence you had the feeling that he was always thinking, always “on”, and aware of his impact on others.

Our nonprofit organization faced a financial crisis, one that was totally unexpected, and HUGE. In just 24 hours we were shocked to discover that we needed twice as much money as we had laboriously raised to get us through the next fiscal year. We were so tired of the stress of wondering if we would make it. To learn that we were NOT done really took the wind out of our sails. We sat there stunned. I was one of 8 members of the Finance Committee, and we didn’t have a contingency plan. Stu was the Chairperson.

Stu had called this special meeting. He refrained from calling it an emergency. And in that meeting he laid out his ideas, looking for our feedback and commitment. In addition to more typical actions, he wanted us to team up, then visit the “big givers” personally, and ask them for money. . . a specific amount to be exact. Whoa, I said to myself, you want me to do what? Those dollar amounts are really big!

We reviewed the list of people to target, identified what they had already given, then made an educated guess about what we could ask for without being laughed out of their homes. I was still feeling quite sweaty-palmed about this until Stu said, “Here are some rough talking points, I know they can be improved. But to help everyone feel more comfortable with this critically important role, why don’t we take 15 minutes to practice. Let me show you what I’m thinking.” And then he proceeded to role play the ‘ask’ with a member of the committee. He stumbled a little, others tried out their ideas. But he was out in front, the first.

I learned several things about leadership that day, but for me the biggest was that a good leader does everything he can to help his people succeed. My teammate and I were able to make the case for our appeal, and to do it authentically. And the Finance Committee met its goal. I will always remember that meeting, and Stu’s fine example.

What’s YOUR story?


* Duncan, RD. (1/23/2013) “Jim Kouzes: Why You Should Hone Your Storytelling Sills.” Interview. Blogpost of Duncan Worldwide. Accessed 10/15/17.