When I talk to folks about the importance of ‘story’ in trying to engage an audience, one of the most common reactions I always get is, “I’d love to – but I don’t have a story to tell. I only have data/statistics/research to work with – there’s no story in there.” Well, believe it or not, stories are easy to tell. In fact, you already know how to do it. That’s because all stories are similar. There is a main character with a want or need who faces unexpected complications with untested personal resources – and ultimately wins or loses in the pursuit of their goal. If you’ve ever read a children’s book , told a joke or watched a beer commercial, you’ve experienced a story within a three-act structure.
The question is how can you apply this three-act paradigm in an institutional or organizational setting? How can you find a ‘hero’ in a spreadsheet full of data, much less the ‘villain’ bent on his or her destruction? You need to keep in mind two things: not all stories need to be ‘epic,’ and not all conflicts need to be mortal. Take the story of the tortoise and the hare for example. In this example the complication [Act I] is the race. The conflict [Act II] is over who wins. The hero is the tortoise, the antagonist is the hare, and the climax is at the finish line [Act III]. The resolution is the moral (or teaching point) of the story: slow and steady wins the race. A story about a really slow race doesn’t sound that it would be engaging, right? But we all know it – and that’s because it’s simple story well told!
Or the shortest example I know of is the old joke: “Take my wife.… Please!” It has a protagonist: the person telling the joke. The first two acts are implied: he married poorly, and it’s been a life of marital strife ever since. The third act, where the conflict is resolved, is a proposition: if I can convince you take my wife off my hands, my problems are over.
I’ve always found that successful communicators are those people who can find a ‘story’ in the numbers or data – not necessarily epic or earth-shattering, but a story that people will be interested in – and then share that story in an accessible manner that creates engagement, builds interest, and builds an emotional link between the storyteller and the audience.