Storytelling 101: How to Inspire, Influence and Get Results

May 11, 2015

storytelling gold

There is plenty of objective data about good stories (they have structure, character, plot) but not much advice on how to develop your talent for finding storytelling gold. You know it when you see (feel, hear, taste, touch, smell) it. But how do you find it? Can we build some kind of divining rod that leads straight to storytelling gold?

Storytelling gold changes how we feel about facts we can’t change. For instance, Paulo Coehlo’s book The Alchemist demonstrates how a simple fable can deliver the inspirational gold that changes a reader’s point of view and emotional perspective. Obstacles suddenly feel like golden opportunities. Coehlo’s allegory leads readers to think of their personal trials, risks, and dreams. Meaningful symbols speak to the imagination in ways that eclipse literal interpretation. Paulo Coehlo has given this story away for free and still The Alchemist has sold over 150 million copies, continuing on the NY Times bestseller list  for over 25 years. Literary critics could (and did) criticize the structure and style of The Alchemist, but judging by its impact, it is still pure storytelling gold.

Not all stories deliver a 150,000,000:1 return on investment. It takes more than a plot, character, and narrative arc to deliver storytelling gold. Consider the massively successful storyline used in 2012 Australian public service announcement: “Dumb Ways to Die.” I doubt the Melbourne Metro Train team used criteria like: “stories have a beginning, middle, and end” to find this story. It is far more subjective than that.  Which is to say that objective thinking isn’t terribly helpful for finding storytelling gold. Particularly when we assume subjective thinking doesn’t make sense and is too …subjective to describe. It may be variable and inconsistent but there are patterns to the logic of emotion and perception. If you want to improve your subjective thinking talents, you can. In fact, it may be your best investment for improving your ability to find storytelling gold.

Stories play out in the imagination – a magic place that does not follow the rules of objective thinking. We aren’t rewarded for “subjective thinking” in school. On the contrary, we are encouraged to blind ourselves to emotional behavior with rational reasons rather than confessing, “I just did/didn’t feel like it.”  For most executives, there is a lot of room to improve how well you understand feelings and contextual reasoning. Try these steps:

  1. Study your own emotions.  Learn how and when you feel happy, sad, anxious, or big-hearted.  You may want to review Brene Brown’s TEDtalk about vulnerability  since this is about participation and control needs distort the view. Identifying your own emotions as subjective preferences develops your ability to see the emotions and subjective point of view of your target audience.
  2. Emotions echo back like sonar when there is resonance.  When you send out an emotional message, it produces emotional responses in return.  Learn to track the patterns you send and receive. When you know what fun means for you, you are more likely to understand what fun is for others. Tell stories that make you feel hopeful in order to learn the stories that build hope in others. Don’t try to inspire others until you know how to inspire yourself. You have to know gold to find gold.
  3. Learn storytelling from the inside out by telling personal stories  that feel meaningful to you and track the emotional reactions of listeners. Your brain is wired to record patterns at a subconscious level of the themes and points of view that stimulate strong emotions.  Some people call it “tuning in” or “listening to your heart.” I call it subjective thinking to validate that it is as important as objective thinking but distinctly different. I didn’t invent this approach. I began to think this way after reading CP Snow’s 1959 speech Two Cultures. Other concepts that describe the same dynamics include fast thinking, right brain, or the yin of yin and yang. Snow described the distinction as art vs. science. Call it what you want. No matter how you distinguish these two kinds of knowing, both are participative sports and practice is the path to skill.
  4. Storytelling is – by definition – emotion based anecdotal reasoning. So keep objective thinking for the times you must set aside emotions and anecdotal evidence. However, when it comes to storytelling, train yourself to spend an equal amount of time examining how senses, emotions, and experiences interpret a message, person, product, or company as right/wrong, good/bad, dangerous/safe, valuable/ irrelevant, or any of the human conflicts we resolve with narratives.  If you want to find storytelling gold. that’s where you will find it.


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Balancing logic with emotion promotes creative thinking, elevating your story telling capabilities. Learn more ways to build your emotional intelligence through these AMA tools and resources.

About The Author

For more storytelling advice, check out the second edition of Annette’s book Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins (AMACOM, 2015). Annette Simmons is also the author of Territorial Games Understanding and Ending Turf Wars at Work, Dialogue: Overcome Fear and Distrust at Work, and The Story Factor that was listed as one of “The Best 100 Business Books of All Time" (Penguin, 2008).


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