Last night I led a workshop with a group of independent consultants, so keen that they abandoned the sultry evening breeze for a stuffy library auditorium to sharpen their skill at telling stories that sell.

Storytelling is all the rage in content marketing circles. Yet too often these so-called stories can be unmasked as chronologies, commercials or conversations.

So I covered four storytelling structures, that will help them write about how they created happy endings for clients and attract more.

Here are the four main tips I shared:

  1. Cast yourself as the mentor
  2. Apply a simple structure
  3. Grab your audience quickly
  4. Use personal anecdotes to support your point

Picture1Don’t play the hero

What resonated most was casting themselves as the mentor, or Yoda, instead of the hero.

This works because you want the audience to identify with the hero. That way, you pull them in emotionally and prompt them to think that maybe your magic will work for them too.

By playing Yoda, you also maintain the aura of expertise without coming across as arrogant, a turn-off for people who need help. They’ll feel much better if they can identify with a nice person who is also losing sleep because she’s behind in her taxes, can’t keep up with her orders or has angered someone.

I came across this idea when I was reading about the story structure of Joseph Campbell. After studying stories from ancient myths to Star Wars, he identified the archetypes and 22 steps followed in every hero’s journey.

As Joseph wrote: ““The latest incarnation of Oedipus, the continued romance of Beauty and the Beast, stand this afternoon on the corner of 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue.”

To simplify, the 22 steps can be boiled down to three: (1) the hero departs the familiar (2) the hero overcomes trials, which reveal his character, and (3) the hero faces more trials, which lead to his return.

Key to overcoming these trials is the mentor he meets on his journey. That’s the consultant or anyone who runs a business or builds a career off their expertise.

Sure, it’s nice to feel like the hero, galloping in on your stallion to the save the day. But it’s nicer to attract the kinds of people you can help.

Show, don’t tell

My other two takeaways from the hero’s journey are the need to reveal your hero’s character through action, not description, and the need for trials and tribulations to drive the plot.

I know this should make sense to anyone who has listened to a bedtime story or watched a movie. But many organizations I’ve written stories for think strings of adjectives will be believed. Or they want to avoid conflict or admitting weakness.

But if you want to tell a gripping, credible story, you need character-revealing action and plot-driving problems.

Simple story structures

Stories can often ramble, a huge problem as our attention spans shrink. So in addition to the three parts of the hero’s journey, I outlined the Pixar story structure. Check back with this to make sure your story stays on track:

  • Once upon a time…
  • Every day…
  • Until one day…
  • Because of this…
  • And because of that…
  • Until finally….

Grab your audience quickly

Also valuable to attract people with short attention spans is the Law and Order story structure, which you can observe in not only its many spinoffs, but also almost every story-per-episode television crime drama. I talk more about this in my book and learning series Write Like You Talk Only Better.

These shows have to hook the audience before the first commercial. So they quickly introduce you to a victim you like or can identify with. Then you watch him die.

Although consultants are unlikely to kill any characters in their stories, this proven formula underscores why they need to develop relatable characters then jump to the turning point of their plot.

If you kick off your presentation with a story that takes too long to boil, your audience will shift their attention to their smart phones. Like prime time television viewers, they will change channels.

The moral, or selling point, of the story

To give the consultants an example of someone who uses stories to sell, I pointed to Michael Katz of Blue Penguin Development,who sends me a lovely story every Friday. Unlike the sagas of Homer or George Lucas, Michael relates simple personal anecdotes. Like Aesop’s fables, they always have a point, often a few, sometimes relating directly to the book or course he’s selling.

He consistently follows the structure: I’m like you, conflict, resolution and lessons.

Although he emails me the script in newsletter format, I listen to the podcast. With other experts I prefer to read because it’s faster than listening. But because stories are best spoken around a campfire and Michael’s voice entices, I’m all ears.

I’m disappointed when Michael produces a talking-head video instead of the podcast. Watching him talk adds nothing to, even detracts from, the story. Michael is good on camera, but not great, which anyone who has grown up on television and movies has come to expect.

If you’re going to tell a visual story, you need Star Wars-quality video, which only the richest experts can afford, or at least a screen personality that draws in the audience, which only the most charismatic talking head can pull off. Better still, star your hero, the client you helped, not you. But only if she has the compelling presence of a reality-show star.

You can tell your story in written words, pictures audio, video or any combination. Instead of following the crowd, stick to what works best for you,  your story and the people you want to attract.

So that adds up to five ways to tell stories that sell

  1. Cast yourself as the mentor
  2. Apply a simple structure
  3. Grab your audience quickly
  4. Use personal anecdotes that support your point
  5. Stick to the storytelling medium that works best for you, your story and the people you want to attract.

Do you have any to add?

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Yoda, I am — or 5 ways to tell stories that sell

One thought on “Yoda, I am — or 5 ways to tell stories that sell

  • February 13, 2014 at 4:22 pm
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