How To Design A Compelling Story For Any Audience

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Recently Dave Rochlin, a lecturer in applied innovation at UC Berkeley, Haas School of Business, and executive director of the Haas@Work program, wrote a terrific article, titled “When Innovation Meets the Language of the Corner Office”, that was published in MIT Sloan Management Review. The subject of Rochlin’s article is how “the languages and process of innovation and strategy consulting differ, and what the implications were for innovation leaders in communicating their work and making ‘asks’ at the executive level.” Without giving too much away, the gist of the article is that it’s ultimately the innovators’ job to translate the strategies (or strategic options) to leaders and decision makers in order to get buy-in. When I spoke with Rochlin about this, he mentioned that storytelling should play a part in this communication. But, that he didn’t that the TED-style storytelling that many design-thinking strategists tend to use would work when it comes to getting buy-in from busy, C-level executives who speak the language of “strategy consultants”. I agree.

However, the essence of storytelling is about designing (with a big “D”) the narrative, structure, and flow of the story in order to hold the attention of your audience in order to transport them to a new state, a new way of thinking about the problem, opportunity, or strategy you’re presenting. As Nancy Duarte states, in Design a Better Business, storytelling (with a big “S”) is “the art of communicating your ideas using a persuasive narrative structure. It’s a story that has a beginning, middle, and end, and uses dramatic principles of tension and contrast to move your audience to a different state of thinking, feeling, and acting.” In other words, as an innovator not only must you translate for different audiences. If you’re looking for buy-in, you must use storytelling to do it.

The best part is this: humans (all of us) are born storytellers. Yes, every one of us has the capacity to tell a persuasive story just as we’re all transported (and persuaded) by good stories that are told to us. Of course not everyone can aspire to be the next Hemingway. But there are tricks – and tools – to telling great stories! Stories can be designed. And here, we are talking about a broad category of storytelling, from person-to-person chats, to cool TED-style talks, to sales pitches, and even boardroom presentations. These are all stories.

The Storytelling Canvas

Irrespective of the story being told – or the one you’re telling – as Duarte explains, all stories are structured in a similar way (i.e. three acts): they have a beginning, middle, and an end. Your story will too. But, in order to design the story that will gain buy-in for your idea or perhaps have some other desired affect, you will also need to design it specifically for your audience. TED Talks are designed to wow an audience of millions (at the event and online) of socially engaged, mostly like-minded change makers in less than 19-minutes. Alternatively, a VC pitch must be designed to convince a small group of smart, wary investors who’ve “heard it all” that they should trust you with their money. Oh, and you may only have 90-seconds to convince them.

Storytelling Canvas
Storytelling Canvas

Just as well-designed business models don’t appear out of thin air, well-designed stories also don’t simply happen in a vacuum. You must also take into account what your audience members feel, think, know, want, etc. about the subjects in your story before they hear it. Going into a room of skeptics? Design for that skepticism by giving them something to believe in, like quotes from some of their heroes, or real, quantifiable data. And, of course, you’ll need to link together not just the subject of your presentation, who your audience is, and the three acts. You must also link these to what the desired (and designed for) result will be.

Like the Business Model Canvas, the Storytelling Canvas should be thought of as a system wherein every element – or change therein – affects every other element.

By Justin Lokitz - Author

Justin is an experienced strategy designer and MD of the Business Models Inc. San Francisco office. He leverages his experience across a wide range of industry sectors to help companies design innovative, sustainable business models and strategies for the future.