What is a Story? Here’s What It’s Not

What is a Story?Storytelling has become one of the most overused, misused and abused concepts in business today. People play fast and loose with the definition of story.

So what is a story? The first step in figuring that out what a story is, is understanding what a story is not.

A quote from Winston Churchill is not a story. An anecdote, by definition, is not a story. A customer testimonial may or may not be a story.

Only a story is a story. And only a real story has the power to really move and affect audiences.

So if you promise your audience a story and deliver something short of that, you’ll disappoint them and diminish your impact.

Lately in my presentations I’ve been illustrating the distinction between a story and a non-story with examples relevant to the audience. Here’s how I discussed it recently for an audience in Topeka.

My Kansas Roots

I lived in Kansas for a year when I was in kindergarten. I have very fond memories of that time.

We lived on this cool street that was paved with bricks in a beautiful old house filled with character. It had all this dark wood and plenty of nooks and crannies for my brother, sisters and me to hide and play in.

There was a candy store around the corner where we would buy this taffy that came in big, wide, paper-thin slabs. It was delicious. And there was a great big field behind our backyard where we played.

All in all, it was a wonderful place to grow up.

Was That a Story?

When I asked the audience if this was a story, they shook their heads “no.” They knew intuitively that something was missing.

Like conflict. And a point (or lesson). It’s really just a series of observations.

So then I reframed it for them. I asked how many of them had lived in the area for most, or even all, of their lives. The majority of them raised their hands. Then I told my story.

A Search for Home

I was an army brat. So in the first eight years of my life I lived in seven different homes in three different countries. So for me, a sense of home, of permanence, was an elusive concept.

But there was one place that was special. It was in Leavenworth, Kansas. We were stationed there when I was in kindergarten, and I’ll never forget the first time I saw our new house.

First, the street was paved with brick—it was right out of a fable! And when I looked up and saw the house towering above me, two or three stories high, I was in awe.

We never lived on more than one floor before! Is this all ours?

It had a great big porch, and a formal front room with high ceilings and these dark wood columns. There were all kinds of places for us kids to play and hide out.

I specifically remember there was a landing on the stairway. We would station ourselves there, eavesdrop on what was happening downstairs, and hatch our little schemes.

There was this one game we played where we rode our pillows, like horses, down the wooden steps—bump, bump, bump—crashing into each other and to the bottom and laughing and crying.

My brother and sisters and I were all young, so we hadn’t yet peeled off to other friends and activities. We hung out with each other. We walked to the corner store to buy candy, we played in the big open field out back.

And our Christmas there was very special. All of us in our pajamas under a great big tree, playing with our new toys.

Then We Moved

A year later we picked up and moved to Texas, and two years after that we moved again to Virginia. And two years after that my parents announced they were getting a divorce.

And nothing was ever the same. Family dinners were not a regular thing, holidays and vacations were different.

I never felt truly at home again until after college, when I went out on my own to create my own home.

So when I was invited to speak in Kansas, one of my first thoughts was, “I should look up the old house!” I tried to locate it on Google, and scanned what I thought was the old neighborhood in satellite view.

But ultimately I realized that going back would be a bad idea. Inevitably, it would disappoint. It would be a vacant lot or a house of ill repute. Or perhaps worst of all, it would be exactly like it always was and thus nothing like I remember.

So I decided to just keep it as a memory. A memory of a time and place where my family was all together and happy and truly at home.

Now That’s a Story

This version of the events got a lot better response, obviously. Because it was about something. It all tied together. It had conflict and emotional weight and all the other things we expect of a good story.

So when you’re out there telling your stories, be sure they have the essential elements that give stories their unique power. You can find advice on how to do that in the archives, here and here.

In the meantime, when someone or some business tells you a story that doesn’t quite resonate, there’s a reason why. It’s not a story.

Photo Credit: bangkok_diary via Compfight cc