Telling stories allows us to connect with the wider world

Shoba Narayan

November 26, 2013 Updated: November 26, 2013 17:32:00

We live to tell stories. We make sense of life by telling them. We connect to people through stories.

No matter what field you are in – whether it is philanthropy or public policy, engineering or economics, management or manufacturing – stories can connect you with your audience.

They can help you make a point, persuade a group, or propagate an agenda. Stories connect content with emotion. They help you push buttons, inspire people to join a cause, and disseminate information in an effective way.

Telling stories isn’t easy. It involves rhythm, voice, content and connection.

It demands that you use both sides of the brain. It harnesses imagination with knowledge.

It requires that you take the journalistic tenets of “who, what, where, when, how and why,” and mix them up creatively.

Content is necessary but not sufficient. In order to persuade your editor, sales team, boss, architect or any of those people you intersect with, you need to make sure their emotions are touched. That is where storytelling comes in.

Recently I taught a one-day workshop on storytelling for public policy and management students.

There is precedent for this, of course. Several people, including former Columbia Pictures studio chief, Peter Guber, have written or taught courses on storytelling.

Guber’s best-selling book, Tell to Win, talks about how storytelling helped him cut deals and make pictures.

Given that we are gearing up to the college admissions season, it occurred to me that many storytelling techniques can be used to write what is now the Holy Grail of the American university application process: the personal essay.

With that in mind, here are some tips for executives and students.

The best stories are personal. They offer granular details of very specific incidents from the storyteller’s life.

How do you do this? Visualise an incident that you want to write about in your head. It may be your first tennis match or the first time you encountered pain.

What is the first and most striking image that comes to mind? Maybe it was the day your grandmother died.

That is the one to be used.

Try to approach it differently. If you are writing about your violin class, write about the feel of the violin rather than the clichéd sounds that you hear in the rehearsal studio.

If you are writing about a basketball court, write about how the court smells rather than following the usual track of describing what you see.

Memorable details are both telling and original. They involve the five senses.

Stay on message but do so in a poetic way. As you read each sentence, ask yourself a few things: what am I trying to say? Where is this idea going?

Are you trying to persuade your client to accept your brand strategy? Are you a teacher trying to explain values to your students through stories?

This should drive the storytelling. Most college applications include questions about failure: describe an instance in which you failed and talk about how you overcame it?

Rather than describing your failure in generic terms such as “obstacles” and “overcoming challenges”, make it a story. Think about narrative flow.

The words that trigger neural networks have to do with nature, emotions, or universal themes such as love and beauty.

“I resolved to be as patient as a dog waiting for its food” is much more specific an image than “I resolved to be patient.” Observe nature. Make it your friend.

Remember poetry. How do you write poetic lines? By reading out the sentence to get its verbal rhythm. Think of it like music. It has to sound right. Reduce words. At every stage.

Most stories begin with status quo or balance. Then something bad happens.

There is pain, conflict, and finally there is the triumphant resolution of the conflict.

You are telling a story: your story. Use the storytelling techniques of balance, conflict and resolution to make a point in a particular paragraph or for the whole essay.

Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a Memoir

Subscribe to my newsletter