Rob Biesenbach

An Easy Formula for Unlocking the Power of Stories

By: Rob Biesenbach | June 6, 2013 | 

The Power of Storytelling As communicators, we are constantly reminded of the power of stories, and urged to incorporate more storytelling in our work.

I find people are either totally intimidated by the notion of telling a story or they’re overly confident, passing off mere “happenings” as full-fledged stories.

So allow me to demystify and clarify the storytelling process so you can learn to find, shape, and tell better stories.

What is a Story?

I took writing classes at Chicago’s famed Second City training center, birthplace of many comedy legends – from John Belushi to Tina Fey – and incubator for everyday schmoes like me.

They taught us a very simple structure: A story is a character in pursuit of a goal in the face of a challenge or obstacle. How that character resolves that challenge is what keeps us interested.

Now there are certainly other elements to stories, but these are the three building blocks. (Beside, three is just easier to remember. At a recent speech I gave someone said he was taught eight ingredients for storytelling – he couldn’t recall any of them.)

Why is Story Structure So Important?

All our lives we’re immersed in stories. Americans spend $10 billion a year going to the movies, $15 million on video games, and 35 hours a week watching TV. Storytelling structure is ingrained in our consciousness. In fact, our brains are hardwired for stories.

As a result, we naturally respond to their familiar rhythms and patterns. Defy this structure, and you risk confusing your audience and diminishing the affect.

Look to Hollywood

Let’s see how this structure plays out. In the hit show How I Met Your Mother, our character is Ted and his goal is to meet the woman of his dreams. He faces a variety of obstacles, from bad choices to unrealistic expectations. As they say in the business, hijinks ensue.

Or one of my favorite movies, The Fugitive. Our character is Dr. Richard Kimble, who’s wrongly accused of killing his wife. His goal is to find the real killer. The obstacle is the federal marshal sworn to bring him to justice. Can the wily physician outsmart the authorities? Stay tuned!

Practice looking for this structure when watching your favorite shows. The more you do it, the easier it will be to inject into your writing.

Drilling for Stories

Gini Dietrich wrote recently about harvesting stories. I use a different analogy, but the point is the same.

I believe everyone has a vast reserve of untold stories just waiting to be tapped. Sometimes those reserves are close to the surface, and other times you have to drill deep.

Say your company has an internal initiative to promote teamwork or quality. That’s your goal. Think about the obstacles that get in the way of employees’ achieving the goal – outdated technology, faulty processes, etc. Then go look for characters – everyday heroes within the organization who have a great story to tell about overcoming those hurdles.

Or you can look among your customers for stories. What are their goals and challenges? Maybe your product is the hero, maybe it’s one of your people or maybe it’s the customer herself.

The key is to find great characters – people who are relatable and articulate. That’s something you can’t program or plan for. You just have to go out and dig until you find the right one.

Priming the Pump With Emotion

And when you’re interviewing potential subjects, you’ll want to prime the pump. Tap into those emotions that make stories so powerful. Don’t just talk about what they do, find out why they do it. Are they proud of their work? Why? What makes them jump out of bed in the morning? How does their job fit into the big picture?

Don’t be afraid to get personal. Ask about their heroes, their passions, their family, or children. The point is to get your storytellers to relax, open up, and speak from the heart.

Estela and the Candy Factory

That’s how I had a breakthrough with a real-life character named Estela. She was responsible for inspecting packages of gum at a candy factory. I asked her how she maintains quality (the goal) in the face of her everyday routine on the production line (the challenge).

She showed me her processes and checklists and it was impressive, but it didn’t grab me. So I asked about her kids and she lit up. “They call me the Candy Lady,” she beamed. She pointed to a code on one of the packages that tells you when and where the product was made.

Here’s the kicker: Her kids can read the code. So whenever they go to the store, they run to the candy aisle, turn over the packages and say, “This is mommy’s gum! My mommy made this gum.”

The bottom line: It’s good enough for your family because Estela is there every day making sure it’s good enough for hers.

Unleash the Power of Stories

Now that’s a story. It has a character we can relate to (a mom). It carries emotional weight. And it elevates an everyday issue such as quality from mere datapoints to the kind of universal values that connect us all – safety, family, and love.

In the end, nobody cares about programs and processes – they care about people and their struggles. Great stories with strong characters will always go further than facts and figures alone. And that’s the power of stories.

About Rob Biesenbach

Rob Biesenbach is a veteran speechwriter, public speaker, actor and author of the new book, 11 Deadly Presentation Sins: A Path to Redemption for Public Speakers. He is fighting to end dull ordinary communications in our time, making the world’s boardrooms and conference rooms safer for audiences.

  • You cannot be serious about the 35 hours of TV a week. Who are these people? How do they have the time? I’m lucky if I watch *one* hour a week. That’s ridiculous. It lends to so many of our society’s issues. Grrrr.I love the Candy Lady story. What a great way to get people to talk about what they do every day in a very cool and interesting way. You’re right…it is hard for some people, but what you’ve outlined here seems very doable.
    On a different note: What’s it like to take classes at Second City? It’s always scared the crap out of me because I’m afraid I’d have to be funny.

    • ginidietrich What do you watch for that one hour?

      • EdenSpodek ginidietrich The Young and the Restless.

        • belllindsay EdenSpodek Is that show still on the air?

        • ginidietrich EdenSpodek Why you asking me???? *averts eyes*

        • ginidietrich belllindsay No clue.

      • EdenSpodek Usually Law & Order because it puts me to sleep!

        • ginidietrich EdenSpodek I was hoping you’d say Mad Men!

        • RobBiesenbach ginidietrich Me too!

    • ginidietrich Ha! You had me worried that maybe I made that 35 hour stat up, I’ve been saying it so long. Fortunately it’s backed by date, from none other than Nielsen;
      Gini, you have to understand that not everyone has your big city go-go lifestyle, with your soirees and yacht races and such. (Did I get that right?
      Second City classes are amazing and I recommend them to anyone. And for people who aren’t in Chicago, check around the theater scene or with a local college. Improv classes teach you tons of lessons about listening, teamwork, being constructive. Tina Fey talks about it in her book. 
      And yes, it’s scary. But they teach not to TRY to be funny, which takes the pressure off. Just listen, be alert and in the moment, and respond honestly. The best comedy is based in truth.

      • RobBiesenbach I can’t get over that. That’s nearly a full-time job! No wonder people complain about not being able to get work done. I used to get really mad at my parents for not letting us watch television (I suck at pop culture), but now I’m very, very grateful.

        • ginidietrich That’s what I say when I’m speaking. “It’s like a full-time job — and in this economy, unfortunately, it’s a lot of people’s full-time job” Thank you, ladies and germs, try the veal!

      • RobBiesenbach ginidietrich Yeppers, that figure is indeed correct. Pretty scary, isn’t it? But those people are obviously not self-employed, or they’d be watching our 1 hr a week tee hee.

        • spinchick RobBiesenbach ginidietrich The takeaway is that we here are clearly not “average” — we are … EXTRAORDINARY!

        • RobBiesenbach Love it. 🙂

    • ginidietrich I could *easily* watch 35 hours of TV a week. It’s only 5 hours a day…!

      • belllindsay “It’s only five hours a day.” WHAT?!?! You don’t have five hours a day to watch TV.

        • ginidietrich belllindsay I think there’s WATCH and there’s “watch.” I leave the TV on like some people listen to music. I prefer shows I’ve seen a hundred times so I can tune it out and just dip in occasionally when they get to a good part, eg, “And you want to be my latex salesman …”

        • ginidietrich RobBiesenbach I said I could, I didn’t say I DO!

        • belllindsay ginidietrich RobBiesenbach Does watching YouTube count?

  • Nailed it.
    I’ve probably left this comment in various forms over the course of me visiting Spin Sucks, but I’d like to +1 your post. Especially the part about looking inward to finding the best stories your company can tell.
    We can relate more to them than we can the executives. And, often, they have better stories.

    • bradmarley Yeah, I’ve had great luck finding stories among people on the front lines. It gets away from the talking points and boilerplate and puts things in human terms people can relate to.

  • When did you decide to make the move from questions about process to questions about Estela’s family @RobBisenbach? Sometimes it’s harder to tap into people’s passions than others.

    • Some are harder than others. On the same project I asked a maintenance guy what he loves about his job and he looked at me like I was insane. So I had to pull back for him and ask about the satisfaction he gets when the machines are running right, and about whether he feels his co-workers are counting on him.
      For Estela, I didn’t think she’d be a tough nut to crack. She was already very good-natured and outgoing. So after the process discussion, when I asked about her family, I didn’t have a strategy in mind. I think I said something like, “Your kids must think you’ve got a really cool job.” And that launched the whole thing. She was awesome. 
      And then that caused me to realize that that’s a good strategy for getting people to open up.

  • Rob. Rob Rob Rob Rob Rob. STORY!!!! Man, it’s so important – and sometimes I just don’t get why it’s so hard for some people. Though I suppose they would say the same thing about me and my math difficulty. I love this post so much I want to marry it. Another valuable interviewing skill (cause let’s face it, to get a really great story you must be a great interviewer) is to NEVER EVER ask a “yes/no” question of your subject. Trust me, it’s harder than it sounds, as you well know. Once your subject has answered yes or no to your questions – no matter how much you pry – in most cases you’ve lost your window of opportunity.

    • belllindsay I now pronounce you Post and Wife. (Though I am not a certified Internet preacher — just on boats.)
      I’m glad you liked it, and that’s a great suggestion. Some people are really tough to get through to and will gladly give one-word answers if you let them. I suppose another tip is to work with someone who knows the potential pool of subjects and can help identify those who are more talkative and articulate. (Which we did in this case.)

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  • So true, Rob. Our program provides health insurance to uninsured children. For a several-year-long period, our contact center was in a different state. When we rebid, we required the contact center to locate itself here in Florida. It was the first time that people who had benefited from our program (i.e., their children had been enrolled in it) were contact center representatives. They understood the untold stories behind each caller in a way that people who had never experienced it could not, despite all the training in the world.

    • biggreenpen Wow, that’s a great story in itself! And it speaks to another critical ingredient that’s implied in my post, but not explicit: empathy. A great story will put you in the shoes and mind and heart of your character. Of course, with your call center, the people have already walked miles in those shoes. Very cool.

  • susancellura

    Excellent post, Rob. Nice to meet you – online! I have been educating my teammates on story telling. It’s interesting, though, when I use the word “story”, they struggle. I think they literally associate it with a book story. Yet ironically, isn’t that exactly what we want to do so employees and external audiences will find us interesting?  🙂

    • susancellura Yes! Books — or movies or TV shows, definitely. That’s why I think simplifying things as much as possible is a good idea. There are so many approaches — a hero’s journey, for instance. Others say you should have a beginning, middle and end, which makes sense, of course, but what goes in those parts? That’s why I think this model is useful. You can certainly grow beyond it, but it’s a solid starting point.

  • Wow, thank you for sharing the Estela story — what a great illustration!  As David Ogilvy said, “there are no dull products, only dull writers.”  The compelling stories are there!

    • dwaynealicie Thanks! When we got this story, I thought, “Wow, that was lucky!” But that sells the process short. A writing teacher of mine always said, “Craft liberates genius.” That is, great ideas (and stories) don’t just come to you out of the blue. They’re the result of working through the steps of the process. We talked to a lot of people that day, but not everything turned into gold.

      • RobBiesenbach dwaynealicie Brilliant note about craft and genius!  Writing that down and pinning it in front of me now.

  • PTheWyse

    This is a great post. People relate to stories. Stories have been with us since the beginning of time. The key to successful stories is structure and leaving the audience wanting more. 
    This quote really stood out. “A story is a character in pursuit of a goal in the face of a challenge or obstacle. How that character resolves that challenge is what keeps us interested.”

    • PTheWyse Thank you. “Leaving the audience wanting more” is a whole other “story,” as it were, and something I struggle with. I think all writers/communicators do.

      • PTheWyse

        RobBiesenbach thank you for this excellent post Rob. I will definitely be around here more often.

  • I’m Texan, so I love stories…the Taller the Tall Tale, the better 😉

    • dbvickery I’ve got a little Texas in me. The whole family was born there but me (army brat), so lived a few years in Austin and San Antonio as a kid. I still say “pin” when I mean “tin” when I mean “ten.”

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