5 Secrets of Captivating Stories


credit: Salisbury University publications

Notice what happens the next time you tell a group that you want to tell them a story. People will perk up, get comfortable, and prepare to listen. Storytelling is a powerful way to connect, communicate, and convince. Annette Simmons (The Story Factor) sums it up: “Other methods of influence—persuasion, bribery, or charismatic appeals—are push strategies. Story is a pull strategy. If your story is good enough, people—of their own free will—come to the conclusion they can trust you and the message you bring.”

Communicating facts can trap listeners into supporting one idea or another. If an explanation runs counter to their beliefs and understanding, they don’t hear the message. Facts don’t have the power to change people’s minds, but stories do. This is because in story, there is room for non-linearity, room for messages to seep in, and room for both sides to be true. As Stephen Denning says in The Springboard, people listen to stories with little effort. Once digested, a good story can replay itself and continue to have impact long after its telling.

Stories generally have a specific structure (a beginning, middle, and end), but storytelling involves elements of style that are more difficult to list and number. When developing a story, a good place to start is with prompts. Here are a few from Jeremey Donovan (“How to Deliver a TED Talk”): “If you could go back in time and give yourself one lesson, what would it be? “What was a defining moment that changed the course of your life? “What early weakness led you to find your passion?” Simmons suggests looking for stories in everyday life: any event that creates emotion or is memorable can become a story.

Here are 5 key elements of captivating stories:

1. Keep the specifics out and the details in: The details of the story are important. They set the scene, invite the listener in, and allow for emotion to seep through. The specifics are not important. It doesn’t matter that 55% of the invertebrates in your story were impacted, but rather what they looked like, how they smelled, and what the day was like. Like maps, stories communicate complexities with simple, incomplete views of reality.

2. Make your story positive: Science, critical thinking, and scientists are often seen as negative. Action is never born of frustration, depression, or ignorance. Hope, joy, and fulfillment motivate. Keep it positive.

3. Make your stories come to life: Remember that body language matters. You want to re-experience your story as you tell it. You want your listener to see, hear, smell, feel, and taste the elements of your narrative. Nancy Duarte (HBR Guide to Persuasive Presentations) states that you want to create conflict by emphasizing the contrast between what is and what could be. Remember that even the most compelling stories lose their power if they’re not told well. Practice your delivery.

4. Embrace silence: Silence can amplify the sensory and emotional aspects of your story. Don’t be afraid to pause to make a point or use silence to enhance your words.

5. Connect with your audience: Tone is important because it overrides or reinforces every message your gestures, body, and words relay. Tone cannot be faked. You must respect your audience and believe that they have an essential role in your message. Only then can you connect with them through humor, emotion, and passion. Audience members will almost never contact you weeks later about a presentation to say that they loved point 2, but you will find that they want to tell you how and why your story resonated.

In his fabulous TED talk the filmmaker Andrew Stanton says, “There isn’t anyone that you can’t learn to love once you have heard their story.” This likeability element is essential to getting your audience on board with your message, especially if you want to motivate change. Likeability can also break through the negativity of critical thinking. Science, and the advancement of scientific knowledge, is inherently negative. Think about it… hypotheses are wrong until proved otherwise, new ideas are spurred by recognition that prior knowledge was incomplete. As Randy Olson (Don’t Be Such a Scientist) observes, critical thinking is admired within academia but can be “horrifying” elsewhere in a world that thrives on positivity and affirmation. Stories help bridge this rift between scientists and the rest of the world. Stories make us care.

In my next post, I’ll talk about how I used these tips to overcome my fear of storytelling and to embrace the secret sauce of science communication. What helps you tell captivating stories? Leave a comment.

Jill Caviglia-Harris, a 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is a professor of economics at Salisbury University. Follow her on Twitter (@JCavigliaHarris) and read more about her work on deforestation and poverty.

2 thoughts on “5 Secrets of Captivating Stories

  1. Jill, these are great tips. Thank you. I particularly like the idea of keeping the details but leaving out the specifics. The details do captivate us, suck us in, and help us to remember.

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