When is a story more than a story?

Can a story ever be more than a story?
That’s what I’ve been exploring with an intrepid group of writers in my “Anchor Your Ideas” challenge this week.
They’ve spent most of the week gathering stories—and they’ve found some good ones. On day 4, I started asking them to use those stories to make a larger point. That can be a challenging pivot to make, but it’s essential.
Learn this skill and it turns you from someone who tells stories into someone whose stories get listened to—someone whose stories get remembered. Someone whose stories drive people to action.

A story that’s more than the sum of its parts

I asked my writers to dig up some interesting stories about a place they live or would like to live, and one of them came up with a new (to me) story about one of my favorite places on earth: the Fenway section of Boston, home of Fenway Park (and namesake of my trusty Canine Assistant).

story
My own Fenway
Apparently during World War II the fine citizens of Boston turned part of the Fenway into a Victory Garden—a garden that’s still tended today.
Now, that’s a fine story on its own—but widen the lens a bit and think about what ELSE it could be about. Cooperation in wartime—if you were writing about a business, you could draw a parallel to teamwork. Or you might go at it from the angle of making the most of scarce resources. That could be a great theme for a blog.
 
Let’s think about the cooperation angle for a minute. How many pieces have you read about “teamwork”? Only about a million, right? But how many have you read that start with a story about a victory garden next to a baseball stadium? That unique angle makes whatever you have to say more memorable. You’re not just lecturing your readers about why they should work together; you’re showing them a story about people who worked together and achieved great things as a result.
 
This is not the easiest pivot to make—from taking a story at face value to seeing a story as a metaphor for something larger. It takes practice. But once my writers learn it, they’ll have a skill they can use the rest of their lives.
If you’d like to discover how to make a story worth far more than the sum of its parts, join me on March 17th. We’ll run through the whole “Anchor Your Ideas” program in one fabulously entertaining day—my own version of March Madness. Register here—it’s free. And the skill you’ll hone is priceless.

“The simplest questions are the best”

How does movie producer Brian Grazer—he’s “in the feelings business,” remember—get to the heart of an idea?

In his book, A Curious Mind, he offers three questions. As you might have guessed from the title of this post, they’re simple questions. And I agree with Grazer: the simpler the question, the better.

“What kind of movie is Grinch?”

Obviously we’re adapting this question. Most companies are not in the business of making movies—especially not movies about the beloved children’s book How the Grinch Stole Christmas. But every time you stand in front of an audience to speak, every time you sit down at your keyboard to write, you’ve got to be clear about what kind of message you want to deliver. Is it celebratory? Somber? Informative? Inspirational? Your answer to the “what kind of” question will shape your theme.

“What story are we telling?”

Make no mistake about it: Everything is a story. Stories are the basic units of how we make sense of the world.

If you don’t present your thoughts as a story, your listeners will shape them into one. And their story may be very different than yours. I suspect that’s not what you want.

“What feeling are we trying to convey, especially when the audience is going to arrive with their own set of feelings about the story?”

I almost truncated that last question to “What feeling are we trying to convey?” After all, people aren’t going to enter your business meeting with an attachment to your story that stretches back to when they were a sleepy tot in footie PJs. (Probably.) But don’t assume they’re completely blank slates, either. No one is.

Say you’re rebranding and as part of that you’re going to change your logo. You’ll have people who hate the existing logo, so they’ll be happy. You have people who love the existing logo so much they’ve had it tattooed on their arms. Happy? Not so much. And people will have the same reactions to the new logo—some will love it, some will hate it, some may see it as eating up a good chunk of earnings that could have gone into their bonus check. Even people who just joined your organization that very day will walk in with their own feelings—maybe the old logo was what drew their attention to your company in the first place.

The point is, no one is a blank slate—about anything. But if you go in knowing that, your speech is not just going to be a celebratory “Ta-da! here’s our new logo!” Instead you’ll make it a persuasive “Who we are today is [insert adjectives of your choice]. This new logo is the visual representation of that.”

Three simple questions to help you shape a powerful message.

And if you’re interested in learning more about storytelling, I’d be happy to send you my free e-book, What’s the Story?

Write as if it’s going to be read

Someone famously said there are two things no one should see being made: laws and sausages.

I would add a third item to that list—corporate reports: year-end round-ups, annual reports, board reports. Writing expected to embody an enterprise-wide viewpoint can generally be counted on to say too much about everything and not nearly enough about something—any one thing that sums up the organization’s purpose or goal. These mega-reports are never written as much as they are extruded like the aforementioned sausages—information mashed together without an overarching message and expelled into the required format.

As an expert advisor to nonprofits, my friend Joan Garry has read (or struggled to read) her fair share of these things. She summed up her advice in this blog post. Joan advises carefully crafting the Executive Director’s report as if it’s the only part of the tome that will be read.

And if you want to keep your readers turning the pages after they finish the ED’s report, I suggest you open each subsequent section with a story that captures the real-world impact of the organization’s work. Nonprofits probably have an easier time finding stories that tug at the heartstrings, but every organization can find compelling stories of people who went above and beyond, grateful clients, lives positively impacted.

Tell those stories and your readers will stick around to the very last page.