Last year I outlined 10 fatal storytelling mistakes — common ways we undermine the power of our stories — and now I’m back with five more. They all center around one big theme: simplicity, simplicity, simplicity. Storytelling does not have to be that difficult.
But we tend to make it hard on ourselves. Here are some common obstacles we put in our own way, and how to overcome them.
1. We Make it Too Complicated
Look online and you’ll find no shortage of storytelling methodologies — a 10-part process, a 15-step formula, etc. A participant in one of my workshops said he went to a seminar that taught eight ingredients for storytelling. He said he couldn’t remember any of them.
I prefer to keep it simple, with a three-part structure: a story is a character in pursuit of a goal in the face of some challenge or obstacle. How the character resolves that challenge drives the narrative.
This structure is similar to one that was taught to me at Chicago’s famed Second City training center.
Now there are undoubtedly other elements to story — a turning point, climax, denouement, and more — but character, goal, and challenge are the three legs of the stool. Start with them.
2. We Put Too Much Pressure on Ourselves
TED Talks have spoiled us. We watch these master storytellers reduce their audiences to tears or send them into fits of laughter and think that our stories have to pack the same emotional punch.
But keep in mind that what you’re seeing on the TED stage is the best of the best. Tens of thousands of people compete for just a few coveted spots.
So give yourself a break. Not every story has to be a home run. Singles and doubles are often what win the game.
Look to the simple moments in life — ones that provoke a nod, a smile, an acknowledgment of a shared experience or a universal truth:
- You got stuck in traffic;
- Your baby or pet kept you up all night;
- On the way to the big job interview you dumped an entire venti coffee on your suit.
These are the kinds of everyday events people relate to and that can help you form an important connection with your audience.
3. We Suffer From Hero Worship
Storytellers and audiences are naturally drawn to “larger than life” protagonists — historical figures, sports heroes, characters from literature and film. Resist this temptation.
While these stories may create a momentary buzz, I find they don’t have much staying power. Nelson Mandela was an extraordinary person. His tenacity, courage and conviction are an inspiration. But will his story help us figure out how to recover from a disappointing quarter?
The most effective characters are those who are similar in situation and circumstance to your intended audience. So if you’re communicating to employees, a story about another employee is more likely to resonate. Talking to customers? Tell them about another customer in their niche.
Keep it simple by seeking out everyday heroes for your stories.
4. Our Stories are Unoriginal
The other problem with telling stories about major figures like Abe Lincoln or Mahatma Gandhi or Steve Jobs is that audiences have likely heard most of these tales before. Even worse: those stories could be wrong.
For years, “experts” have regaled audiences with the story of the Chevy Nova which, according to (urban) legend, flopped in Latin America because the name means “no go” in Spanish.
It turns out the story is itself a non-starter. While “nova” may literally mean “no go,” no native Spanish speaker would interpret it that way.
Tall tales like this one abound on corporate stages and in executive communications. But for the record, Lincoln did not hastily scribble the Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope during the train ride from Washington. And the Great Wall of China is not the “only man-made object visible from space.”
Sorry to burst your bubble. But please resist passing on these threadbare tales.
The richest source of stories is your everyday life. Keep your antennae up in meetings, on the train, at the gym — everywhere you go — and you’ll find no shortage of relevant stories.
5. We Fear Getting Personal
Some of the best stories are the ones drawn from our own personal experience. But some leaders I work with are reluctant to open up. They worry that others won’t care about their lives — or worse, that they’ll come across as self-indulgent or egotistical.
But there’s a big difference between a story that’s all “me, me, me” and one that is relatable, attuned to your audience’s needs, and offers takeaways they can use.
Plus, a personal story gives people a glimpse of who you are and what you stand for. And because it’s yours alone, it’s practically guaranteed to be original!
So mine your personal experience for stories. Ask yourself questions like:
- What’s the best lesson you learned from a parent, friend, or mentor?
- What has been your greatest disappointment or triumph?
- What do you love about your job?
- What frustrates you or makes you proud?
- What did you want to be when you were growing up?
When it’s done right, a personal story can help you create a genuine connection with your audience. And people are much more likely to believe you if they believe in you.
Remember: Keep it Simple
As you work on crafting your stories — either your own or on behalf of your leaders or clients — remember to keep it simple. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself and don’t overcomplicate things.
A great story can help us break down walls, build trust and influence people to act. But the first step is to get out of our own way by overcoming these common storytelling mistakes.
Want a Practical Guide to Better Storytelling?
If you want to become a more effective storyteller, my latest book offers a step-by-step guide to using stories to advance your career, build your business and get more of what you want out of life. Check out Unleash the Power of Storytelling, available now in ebook, paperback and audiobook, on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iBooks and iTunes.
A version of this post ran earlier in PRSA’s Strategies and Tactics