What is the Essential Criteria for Great Storytelling?

I was recently at an event where I was giving a talk about the power of storytelling, and specifically how to lead through storytelling. When the event had finished there was an opportunity for small talk over coffee and I found myself in conversation with someone who was so far up the corporate ladder that she had a view over the whole arena.

“I was intrigued by your presentation,” she told me. “The problem for me is that you make it sound so easy.” Before I could reply that it may have seemed that way but I am often reminded of the metaphor of the graceful swan peddling furiously, she cast an eye around the room, as if to check that nobody was listening, and then lowered her voice. “My daughter tells me I’m a terrible storyteller.” She gave a little pause and then added with a smile. “That’s tough to hear from a seven-year-old.”

For the next twenty minutes over coffee I was engaged in a somewhat surreal conversation about storytelling at bedtime and how that relates to the world of high-finance.

Just as some people are great at telling jokes (although have you noticed how few jokes are told these days as all that creative energy goes into digital memes?), some people are great at telling stories. I am not purporting to be one of the great storytellers, but I have gained enough experience over the years to be able to do a decent job. Inevitably I find that the more often I tell a story, the better it gets – tweaked and honed with each telling, based on the reaction of other people and my own sense of ease with the way it’s being told (ie getting rid of those clunky bits and smoothing off the edges).

Before I go on, the story I began with is fictitious, but those three paragraphs encapsulate some of the essential criteria which make a story so engaging, so I’m going to use the example to illustrate some essential storytelling criteria:

Every story should have a clear message, which in the case of my fictional anecdote is about the ‘power of storytelling’, even if it is delivered in a round-about way. The first couple of sentences sets up the story, providing signposts as to who was there, the reason why and what they were doing.   

Disclosing something unknown (“My daughter tells me I’m a terrible storyteller”) is a narrative device which we used for thousands of years before anyone had ever heard of clickbait, often in the form of gossip. It gives the sense that we are privy to information that is unique, and hits many buttons inside our brains to grab and hold our attention.

The story is identifiable and relevant for several reasons – from the conference setting to the small talk over coffee to one of those circumstances when someone very powerful is in the mix with ‘normal’ people. Then of course there is the brutal honesty of a child who is unimpressed by wealth or status. The interaction between child and parent (and the confession to a stranger) also fulfils an audience’s need for good communication of empathy and understanding.

 The use of some self-deprecation and humour (the swan metaphor and the “that’s tough to hear from a seven year old” confession) strips the story of any boastful hubris and instead creates character images which are likeable – or least not detestable!  Nobody in an audience, apart from the occasional narcissist, warms to boasting or indeed preaching. Note too the sensitive treatment of the conversation. While there is scope for some easy points to be won that make ‘me’ look good and ‘her’ look bad, using sarcasm and negativity is likely to lose more friends as win them – one of the powers of storytelling is letting the audience draw their own conclusion.

Finally, a good story should encourage conversation. This story works on a number of levels in that respect; being upended by a child’s honesty and powerful people revealing their human vulnerabilities. If your story creates a starting point for a further conversation, then you know that it’s a story worth telling again!

Stories have great power, transcending other forms of communication to reach the parts that are de-sensitised by the constant feed of memes and messages that scream out for our attention with each scroll through the day. Tap into their power. If you have a seven-year-old, a great place to start is by making up a bedtime story…