The Simple Truth About Storytelling

Published in Online Spin, November 23rd, 2018

The man on stage was careful not to alienate his audience. They were farmers, after all, not marketers, and he had to tread lightly to help them see the importance of communicating what they had to offer. “Some people get turned off by the idea of storytelling,” he said. “But storytelling is just truth-telling. We don’t need to make up stories. We just need to tell the truth.”

You had to listen closely to hear the slight exhale of relief. You could imagine them thinking, Really? We don’t need to be hucksterish salespeople? We can just tell the truth?

I was standing at the back of the room, and it was all I could do to keep from blurting out, “No!”

No, you cannot allow yourself to get turned off by the idea of storytelling.

No, you cannot just “tell the truth.”

But also, no, storytelling is not just “making up stories.”

Let’s take a step back. Think about a super-important experience that has happened in your life -- something that has shaped who you are as a person. Now imagine sharing that experience with me. How would you do it? Obviously, you would tell me the story. The experience is the truth—the story is how it gets communicated.

The story is the rocket; the content is its payload. That content can be true or false, ugly or beautiful, useful or detrimental… but if the rocket doesn’t work, the content isn’t going anywhere.

Storytelling is how we share ideas. The better we are at storytelling, the better we are at sharing ideas.

Of course, human nature being what it is, an effective fake story will beat an ineffective true story, every time.

What makes a story effective?

The answer is simple: an effective story makes you feel.

An effective story is shocking, or surprising, or delightful, or heartbreaking. An effective story leaves you angry, or triumphant, or excited.

The stronger the feeling, the more memorable the story.

But just because a story is memorable doesn’t mean people will share it. If you want people to share your story, it has to be both memorable and simple.

If a story isn’t simple, people will be shy about sharing it. And if they do share it, they’ll be more likely to get it wrong.

An effective, memorable, simple story will spread like wildfire—regardless of whether it is true.

And so, the holy grail here should be obvious: your story must be effective, memorable, simple, and true.

This is the case whether you are telling a story to market your product, connect with your family, educate your children, or simply share your ideas.

The sooner those farmers can get their heads around it, the better.

Kaila Colbin