The craft of weaving powerful stories

I always say, “Every story has a design”. This signifies that there is a craft behind every narrative that is being told to us.

In this article I will talk about 5 key characteristics, which make a story powerful by reflecting on some famous narratives that have been told to us since long and have had a huge impact on our lives.

Even the epic stories have to retold basis generations

An interesting aspect about impactful narratives is that, even the same story does not remain the same for different type of audience. It is in-fact crafted to fit the purpose of the audience, to whom the story is being told.

Let’s try to understand this through an example …

I keep getting requests from various organizations to deliver talks on Design Thinking and Business Storytelling. The duration of these short introductory talks range from 15 mins to 90 mins and the audience set is also very different.

Recently I got a call from a friend who is the CHRO of a large technology firm. She said “Our organization is transforming from a services company to a product company. This requires a big mindset and cultural shift. We need our people to start thinking of deep tech products, which requires a change in their mindset. They need to think innovatively.”

I asked her more about the audience profile, she said “Across various roles in the organization, pre sales, technology, sales, account managers, testers etc. and the session had to be delivered virtually. This added to the complexity of the situation and left me wondering, with such a diverse audience, what is the story that I should be telling about Design Thinking that connects to everyone.

After some struggle and reflections, it clicked …. The common denominators for all the 150+ people coming from different backgrounds and different roles were …

· All of them are humans and humans have emotions

· They might be looking out for the answer “How can Design Thinking help them?”.

· How is Design Thinking different from what I already know of?

Perfect, I had an idea ….

· What if, I can make them experience it (they will be able to interpret, how is it useful)

· What if, I can include some deep human impact stories in it (they will be able to connect at an emotional level)

· What if, I can show some unique tools that DT brings, which makes it unique

And I started building the overall story …

Even after having delivered hundreds of talks across various organizations and platforms, I still go through this process of trying to understand the audience and how to make every talk relevant and relatable for my audience.

The true test of a great story is, if it talks to the audience’s heart — Ajay Aggarwal

Context makes great stories meaningful

A story that is not meaningful to audience’s life is not a story at all — Ajay Aggarwal

This quote signifies the importance of contextualizing stories to the audiences’ life and situation. Let’s try to understand this with an example.

Have you ever attended a talk/ presentation that you were not able to relate to, irrespective to the importance of the subject in your life? You could not figure out what is the person talking about and how is it relevant to you? Precisely, this happens because the storyteller is not able to contextualize the story to your situation.

In 2020 I got invited to an international conference of senior marketers for a 60 min talk on “Design Thinking for New Age Marketers”

The challenge for me here was, how do we contextualise DT for marketers from various industries and countries, so that they could relate to it and can think about using it in day-to-day life.

The big story idea!!

· Connect to the marketers through application stories around the 4Ps (product, price, place, promotion)

· Make the marketers experience Design Thinking through a marketing related simulation

· Craft an experience by engaging the 5 senses of the audience

The contextualizing of the story, created a lasting impact. Where in the audience could relate to each element of how Design Thinking can add value to the life of new age marketers and can truly craft what the marketing guru, Mr. Philip Kotler calls ‘H2H Marketing’.

Great stories make the audience feel the emotions

The third element of a great story is, that it is humane. It has the power to make people feel empathetic about the situation and make them imagine themselves to be a part of the story. Personalization is an important tool that I practice i.e. make the story personal and emotional. Never keep stories generic, it loses meaning.

Let’s try to understand this through this poem that I had written and narrated at an event some time back.

The story of a silly dreamer

I narrated this poem in an event where the audience were budding entrepreneurs who had to be motivated to dream big and use their strengths to achieve their dreams. By personalizing the story I could make the entrepreneurs relate to the situation of the young boy and how he focused on his strengths to move towards achieving his dreams. Thus delivering a powerful message, of “Entrepreneurship is all about focusing on strengths, even when the constraints are very high”

When this was narrated to the entrepreneurs, it created magic. They could all see themselves in the boy and relate to how they are using their strengths rather than cribbing about their weaknesses.

I have tried a few ways to do this:

The self story approach — Narrate stories that are centered on you personally and bringing the audience situation into the story. This helps the audience to relate to you and builds empathy and trust.

The Avtaar story approach — Create an Avtaar of the audience and name it. Make the Avtaar the hero of your story and the audience will relate to your story.

The idol story approach — Narrate a story that is centered towards the idol of the larger audience set. This helps you piggy back on the acceptance of idol and make the audience relate to your story.

A story’s single most powerful idea that gives the audience a direction

The fourth critical element of a great story is that, the underlying thoughts and protagonist’s journey gives subtle cues to the listener, which reduces anxieties and make it easier for people to take decisions.

Imagine you being a part of a presentation that has left you even more confused and anxious around what should you next. It can be for your child’s admission, an investment decision, a car that you need to buy etc. Great stories help you reduce this confusion and thus create a more relaxed environment.

I have tried different ways to make stories action oriented:

· The purpose building approach — Give the audience a sense of purpose that is much beyond their day to day life. Eg. I recently inspired a set of people towards CSR by making them imagine ‘Imagine you walking on a street, and there is a small child who comes and hold your hand and says … “Thank You!! for helping me live a better life” and it worked wonders.

· The next steps approach — Try to end your stories with helping the audience note the next steps they need to take

· The hero action approach — Make the hero in your story take the desired action, and you will see that the audience will have a clear direction on what action do they need to take

The reasoning approach — Build up enough amount of reasoning (that connects to your audience’s situation) in your story for the audience to have every reason to take the desired action. This can be done by highlighting gains from doing something and losses by not doing something.

Ideas divide !! Stories unite !!

The fifth element of a great story is that, it motivates the audience to participate in the story. Let’s try to understand this through an example.

I am sure you would have seen stand-up comedy shows or open mics. An interesting thing you would have observed is the comedian often interacts with the audience, or he creates spaces between his/ her jokes for the audience to laugh and react. Sometime he might get into live interactive jokes, where in they evoke the joke live from an audience situation.

I have experimented with several ways to make the audience participate in the story …

· The personalization method — Address the audience with their 1st names OR get some of the audience names in the story you are narrating

· The physical experience method — Make the audience go through some physical experience (close your eyes and imagine, take a walk, share the stage)

· The live interaction method — Get someone from the audience to interact and participate in any activity

· The silent space method — Create spaces of silence for the audience to participate, as humans we love to fill blank spaces.

· The humor method — Make the environment safe a relaxed for the audience to feel free to participate

These are some hacks that I use, there can be many more.

Remember the ultimate purpose of making the audience participate is, to help make MY STORY …. OUR STORY.

Practicing Design Thinking & Story telling ... helping organizations imbibe design ... True believer of "EVERY DESIGN HAS A STORY"