In “Unleash the Power of Storytelling” by Rob Biesenbach, the author delves into the intricacies of storytelling and how it can enhance our communication skills. He dissects the core elements of a compelling narrative to demonstrate how stories can captivate and persuade audiences, whether you’re presenting an idea, interviewing for a job, selling a product, or advocating for a social cause.
Biesenbach, drawing from his experience as a speechwriter and actor, reveals the parallels between effective storytelling and acting techniques. This book outlines how these shared methods can be harnessed to your advantage.
This summary will explore the essential components of a story and why narratives hold the power to inspire, convince, and prompt action. Additionally, it will discuss tailoring your story to your audience and message. Furthermore, we’ll compare Biesenbach’s insights with other popular storytelling theories and place them in the context of research on the impact of stories.
While Biesenbach primarily focuses on verbal storytelling, many of his strategies are applicable to written narratives. We will also analyze how his advice aligns with the guidance provided by seasoned writers.
Understanding the Anatomy of a Story
Stories are an integral part of our daily lives, but rarely do we pause to ponder their essence. A story, as defined by Rob Biesenbach, derives its power from its fundamental structure, delivery, and its profound impact on listeners, even at a neural level. In this section, we explore the critical elements that Biesenbach identifies as the key to a story’s ability to captivate and persuade its audience.
Crucial Story Components
Biesenbach’s definition of a story centers around a character striving for a goal while encountering obstacles along the way. A narrative lacking these core elements – character, goal, and obstacle – fails to qualify as a story and won’t resonate with audiences as a true story does. We expect these elements in stories because they form the foundation of our storytelling expectations.
The character’s journey, marked by their efforts in the face of obstacles, propels the narrative forward. A relatable character, one who shares values or circumstances with the audience, renders an abstract brand, mission, or message more tangible. Every story necessitates a character who embodies the message, humanizing it for the listeners.
For instance, the knitwear brand babaà, famous for its cardigans spotted on “organic moms” across Instagram, weaves a story about crafting sweaters with local materials and artisans. By naming the shepherds caring for its sheep and the knitters in its factory, these individuals become characters in the story. This approach fosters a sense of relatability because we can comprehend working in a family-run workshop or preserving a traditional craft, even if we haven’t experienced it ourselves.
The Transformational Power of Characters
Biesenbach’s definition of a story may challenge conventional notions that focus on plotlines or sequences of events. However, he’s not alone in emphasizing characters over plotlines when delineating what defines a story. In “Wired for Story,” Lisa Cron offers her own perspective: “A story is about how events affect someone striving for a challenging goal and how they evolve as a result.”
Cron contends that while we tend to perceive stories as being about events, their essence lies in the character’s responses to these events. In fact, she asserts that external story events, such as the obstacles discussed by Biesenbach, only matter to the extent that they propel the character into an internal struggle. Within this struggle, the character realizes that something significant is at stake, in line with Biesenbach’s concept of a character-driven goal, and they must take action.
In essence, you ask your audience to follow the character’s actions and thoughts, intending to change not only what they do but also what they think. Cron posits that the primary purpose of a story is to alter how the audience perceives things. Once you reshape their perspective, your audience becomes more amenable to changing their behavior.
Crafting an Engaging Story
To create an engaging story, consider the fundamental components: a character, a goal, and an obstacle. However, these alone don’t guarantee a captivating narrative, as Rob Biesenbach outlines several additional characteristics that enhance a story’s appeal.
1. Emotional Resonance A compelling story should evoke emotions in the listener. Emotionally charged narratives are not only more captivating in the moment but also more memorable over time. Research supports the idea that emotional memories are stronger and longer-lasting. This is why stories that engage our emotions, such as those that make us feel happiness for a character’s success, remain vivid in our recollection.
2. Universally Relatable Themes A good story incorporates themes that resonate with a broad audience, establishing common ground. Even if listeners haven’t experienced the exact situation described, they should connect with the story’s themes. For example, novelist Emma Straub’s story of opening a bookstore, Books Are Magic, taps into themes of community and belonging, making it relatable to a wider audience.
3. Personal Perspective In addition to reflecting the audience, a powerful story offers insight into the storyteller’s perspective. It humanizes the narrator, revealing how they view the world, what makes them unique, and what makes them memorable. Your point of view shapes the story, allowing listeners to understand your worldview. For instance, a childhood story about accidentally causing a neighborhood blackout can illuminate your interest in electrical engineering or your aversion to electrical work, depending on your perspective.
4. Values Connection A strong story transcends its specific details to convey a broader message, often aligned with shared values. Listeners who feel a part of the story due to shared values will remember it. For instance, a narrative about a community coming together to replant a vegetable garden washed out in a storm appeals to those who value collaboration, resilience, and mutual aid.
Biesenbach emphasizes that stories often fall short because they lack one of these essential characteristics. Several common pitfalls include:
- Stories without a relatable character fail to connect with the audience on a personal level.
- Lack of conflict diminishes the audience’s engagement.
- Low stakes result in disinterest, as the listener doesn’t see the significance of the character’s journey.
- Absence of clear cause-and-effect relationships makes the narrative feel coincidental.
- Stories devoid of an emotional core fail to elicit a strong emotional response.
Troubleshooting a narrative can often be traced back to the distinction between the situation and the story. The situation represents the context or plot, while the story embodies the emotional experience and insights that drive the storyteller to explain the plot. A well-crafted story successfully integrates both elements, ensuring a relatable character, strong conflict, high stakes, clear causality, and an emotional core. Mistakes in storytelling can often be categorized as issues related to the situation, the story, or the relationship between them. Addressing these elements is key to crafting an engaging story.
Mastering Story Structure
Rob Biesenbach argues that a story isn’t just a sequence of events with a beginning, middle, and end. He emphasizes that a well-structured story must include specific elements at each phase to engage the audience effectively. Here’s a breakdown:
- Beginning: This phase sets the scene, introduces the character, and presents an event that propels the character into action toward their goal.
- Middle: The middle of the story showcases the character’s struggle to overcome obstacles on the path to their goal.
- End: A resolution is provided, where the character either achieves their goal or doesn’t. A story lacking resolution may leave the audience puzzled and unsatisfied.
Reimagining Story Structure
Recent psychological research supports Biesenbach’s view. Researchers analyzed various narratives and identified three common processes that transcend traditional “beginning, middle, and end” structure:
- Staging: This typically happens at the story’s start, establishing the background, characters, relationships, time, and place.
- Plot Progression: Starting at the beginning, it leads to the climax, advancing the narrative while illustrating how the character responds to events.
- Narrative Tension: This element is present throughout the story, highlighting the character’s struggles to overcome obstacles and evolve.
These processes are crucial for all stories, making it more helpful to think in terms of staging, plot progression, and narrative tension than relying solely on the conventional structure.
The Impact of Storytelling
Biesenbach emphasizes the power of storytelling, which extends beyond mere entertainment. Stories can change minds, evoke emotions, and persuade action, largely due to their ability to affect us emotionally, physiologically, and intellectually.
Nature and Nurture in Story Engagement
Biesenbach suggests that stories influence us due to “nature” and “nurture.” “Nature” pertains to how our brains are naturally wired to respond to stories, releasing oxytocin, enhancing empathy, and engaging regions linked to personal experiences. “Nurture” refers to our early exposure to story structures, which shape our expectations for narratives.
Balancing Nature and Nurture
The interaction between nature and nurture affects our story expectations, emphasizing cultural and societal norms as influential factors. Different cultures may have distinct storytelling expectations, impacting the way stories are crafted to address cultural norms.
Emotions Over Facts
Stories have a unique power to engage emotions, often surpassing the impact of facts. Emotional stories can effectively drive people to take action, and this emotional core is vital. Biesenbach highlights a case where a lack of emotion impeded decision-making.
The Ethical Use of Storytelling
The influence of storytelling can be abused when stories are manipulated for sensationalism or to exploit an audience’s fears and vanity. Biesenbach encourages ethical storytelling, reminding us to be critical consumers of stories, especially when they elicit extreme emotional responses.
The Science of Story Engagement
Our brains are inherently wired for storytelling, engaging various cognitive and emotional processes. Stories capture our attention, help process new information, and influence decisions. Emotional stories are particularly effective in motivating action.
While stories are potent tools for persuasion, ethical considerations are essential. Stories should inform and inspire rather than manipulate. Critical thinking and fact-checking are crucial when consuming stories shared by others.
Understanding the Power of Story Engagement
Storytelling engages our cognitive and emotional faculties, making us aware of how narratives influence our perceptions, emotions, and decisions. By being discerning consumers of stories, we can harness the power of storytelling effectively and responsibly.
Crafting and Telling Engaging Stories
In “How to Create and Tell a Great Story,” Biesenbach dives into the art of storytelling, breaking it down into a two-part process that anyone can learn. Here’s a concise summary of his key points:
Creating a Story From Scratch
- Begin by gathering a collection of stories that align with your values and expertise.
- Keep an eye out for stories in your daily life and in various forms of media.
- Interview people for their stories or explore your own past for relevant anecdotes.
Considering Your Audience
- Understand your audience’s needs and expectations.
- Identify what you want your audience to do after hearing your story and any potential challenges.
- Connect your story to your audience’s values and experiences.
Choosing Character, Goal, Obstacles, and Resolution
- Select a relatable character that aligns with your audience’s perspective.
- Craft a story structure with a clear beginning, inciting incident, turning point, conflict, and resolution.
- Ensure that your character undergoes growth or change throughout the story.
Structuring and Focusing Your Story
- Utilize a simple story structure, such as Freytag’s Pyramid, to create conflict and engage your audience.
Using Emotion to Hook Your Audience
- Identify the emotional core of your story.
- Focus on the “why” behind your message and appeal to shared values.
- Highlight emotionally resonant lessons from leaders, historical figures, or personal experiences.
Editing Your Story
- Include only essential details that support your message.
- Maintain a clear cause-and-effect narrative with a single turning point.
- Use detail judiciously to enhance the story’s impact.
Delivering Your Story
- Practice your story in advance to improve delivery.
- Tell your story like a performance, varying your voice, expressions, and gestures.
- Choose your language carefully, using sensory words, metaphors, and comparisons.
Crafting Stories for Specific Situations
In a Presentation
- Start and end your presentation with a story that reinforces your message.
- Include stories throughout your presentation, varying the types of information you present.
In a Company Origin Story
- Create a compelling origin story that humanizes your organization.
- Focus on one value proposition that resonates with your audience.
Your Own Story
- Craft your personal narrative with a clear five-part structure.
- Reflect on your core values, character traits, and skills to find your implicit narrative.
A Toast or Eulogy
- Use specific anecdotes to illustrate character traits in a eulogy.
- When giving a toast, focus on sharing a personal story that relates to the occasion.
Biesenbach’s advice emphasizes the power of storytelling in various contexts, offering a structured approach to creating and delivering engaging narratives.