May 12, 2015
Whether he knew it or not, my grandfather was a master storyteller. He was born on a small farm outside idyllic Faaborg, Denmark and immigrated to America when he was a mere 14 years old. He traveled around the country as a young man, and finally joined the army during WWI so he could have U.S. citizenship.
Growing up, he wooed my family with stories of his life. Planting a chestnut tree the day before he left his Danish boyhood home. Coming through Ellis Island and getting separated from the aunts he traveled with. Working on a ranch under the big skies of Montana as a strapping young man. And meeting my grandmother at a neighbor’s barn dance when she was only 15.
Like a hero from classic tales, my grandfather faced challenges, overcame obstacles, fell in love and experienced loss. Along the way, he taught me to pay attention to invisible storylines that reveal themselves over time.
What’s interesting is that it’s these same elements of storytelling that capture and enrapture audiences of companies with which I work today:
- Structure: All stories should have a clear beginning, middle and end. My grandfather always knew where he was taking me when he told a story. For B2B companies, this is just as critical. You can’t tell an effective story unless you clearly know where you’re starting (and why), where you plan to end up and the route you’ll take along the way. If you don’t, you’re meandering and, worst of all, wasting your audiences’ time and valuable attention span.
- Flow: A good story moves listeners through the set-up of what’s going on for context, actions that the characters will take, a clear outcome and a point of the story. For me growing up, it was learning about movement. What kept things going that keeps people interested? The characters are real, what do they do and why? It’s the same for a brand. You have to create a flow in a way that gives your audience context for the flow of your story. You know way more than your readers; don’t force them to take great leaps. They’ll lose interest and you’ll lose a customer.
- Tension: This is the energy that draws people into the story. It’s developed through conflict, suspense or expectations. My grandfather talked about making it through the inspection at Ellis Island and walking through the gates of a new country and not speaking a word of English, and then not being able to find his aunts. In your case, what’s the tension that you can create for your audience between where they are today and where they need to aspire to be down the road?
- Characters: These key pieces of a story project a variety of elements to the listener. Some of these include their personal values, showing their intelligence, or provoking emotions, such as trust, passion or outrage. B2B marketers take note: your story should not star you as the leading character. It’s always your customer who’s the hero of your story.
- Tone: This impacts and influences the audience. For me, I could tell by my grandfather’s voice what he was trying to convey when he eased into a story. For you, are you sincere, trustworthy and credible? Or are you looking to instill anxiety, worry and uncertainty? The tone of your story makes all the difference in who will pay attention, when and for how long.
- Mood: By focusing on mood, the storyteller can guide the emotions that they want to create. For the most party, my grandfather always wanted to entertain us and teach us what was most important in life. He knew that if he made us laugh, we’d always come back for more. How about you? Are you looking to inspire your audience? Motivate them? Get them to change? Know what mood you want to generate before you get too far down the road with story creation.
Understanding how storytelling can payoff can be a challenge. But if I’ve learned anything from those who’ve successfully gone before me, whether it’s my family lineage or marketers who I greatly respect, it’s that it takes effort, attention and dedication to tell a remarkable story.
About Carla Johnson
Carla Johnson is a world-renowned storyteller, an entertaining speaker, and a prolific author.
Over the last two decades, Carla has helped architects and actuaries, executives and volunteers, innovators and visionaries leverage the art of storytelling to inspire action. Her work with Fortune 500 brands has served as the foundation for many of her books.
In her latest project, Fast Forward Files, she contributes to a larger collection of thoughts by some of the world’s greatest minds - Shazam co-founder Dhiraj Mukherjee, activist and entrepreneur Heather Mills and behavioral designer, technologist and mental-health champion Peter Trainor. Consistently named one of the top influencers in B2B, digital and content marketing, Carla regularly challenges conventional thinking.
Today, she travels the world teaching anyone (and everyone) how to cultivate idea-driven teams that breed unstoppable creativity and game-changing innovation.