Everything is Storytelling

I’ve told the story of Robin’s Cafe – how I started it in 3 weeks and eventually sold it on Craigslist – hundreds of times. I love talking about the incredible culture we built behind the counter and the amount of learning I went through to start a restaurant But time and time again, when I mention selling a restaurant on Craigslist, I invariably get a laugh. “Craigslist?” They ask, incredulous.

Over time, I’ve iterated on this story so that I both get to share what I most care about while also setting up this great punchline. And as a result, this story never fails to kick off a great conversation.

As humans, we’re social animals and we live and die by the stories we tell each other. And yet we forget that storytelling—or if you want to sound more sophisticated, “narrative strategy”—is what shapes the work we do, why we do it, and who we work alongside.

In today’s newsletter, I thought I’d share some habits of storytelling that have helped me leverage this skill to foster more meaningful connections with every audience: from the conference stage to the board room, and even with friends and partners.

A good story fosters an emotional connection

We like to tell ourselves that we are highly rational creatures, but ultimately, a lot of our decision-making comes down to our emotions. And nothing is more emotion-laden than our relationships and connections with other humans

I recently read Shoe Dog, by Phil Knight, about the founding story of Nike. One of the world’s most iconic brands, Nike’s marketing focuses on helping people connect, not only with the athletes Nike represents, but also with the athlete inside each of us. Nike accomplishes this by telling great stories in their advertising of athletic challenges and triumphs, instead of just marketing their newest product line. They’ve built a brand association based on connection and inspiration, and the product sales follow. 

A good story matters to both you and your audience

During the COVID pandemic, I moved in with a partner, and within a couple of weeks, they were able to parrot back to me the handful of stories that, apparently, I told over and over in the course of all of my Zoom calls. The stories that come up the most frequently are the stories worth your focus because they speak strongly to you.

In addition, when I am telling a story I pay special attention to the reaction of my audience. My story about Robin’s Cafe gets a predictable chuckle whenever I mention selling the restaurant on Craigslist, and so I’ve used it to break the ice in conversations and have refined the story over time to set up this moment as the punchline. I focus my stories on what is interesting and engaging to my audience, and thus my audience is interested and engaged.

A good story takes practice

We’ve all been there at a holiday dinner table when a relative rambles on and we think, “I wish they would get to the point!” We take for granted that actors rehearse their lines before a performance and athletes run drills before playing games, but storytelling is no different. It’s a refined craft that you can get better at with time, and it especially takes practice to make your story feel natural and organic.

Taking the time to really think about your story can help you hone it in. What are the main milestones of your story, and what details do you include to move seamlessly from beginning, middle, and end? Where are there superfluous details that distract from your main point? What’s the punchline, and how do you want people to respond to it? 

Until next time,

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