Tuesday, May 07, 2013
Judging by the number of books published in the last six months on the topic of storytelling in business, it's clear there's a hunger for how to tell a clear and resonant story that moves others to not only embrace new ideas, but act on them.
I decided to see if I could find something direct from a world class storyteller, something that might provide a user-friendly framework for thinking about how to craft a compelling story, and something that might not need an entire book to explain. In other words, I wanted a simple storytelling crib sheet.
I found it. And from a most unlikely source: Kurt Vonnegut. Yes, the Kurt Vonnegut, of the masterpiece Slaughterhouse-Five (and many others) fame.
Most people don't know that Vonnegut actually began his professional writing career at General Electric, writing press releases in their public relations department during the late 1940s. The late forties and early fifties were the heyday of short stories, as the country was still largely television-free. After a few of his stories were published in Collier's, Vonnegut quit G.E., moved to Cape Cod, and devoted himself to writing.
In the introduction of his book Bagombo Snuff Box, a collection of twenty-three short fiction stories, Vonnegut sets out eight rules under the heading of "Creative Writing 101":
Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for. In other words, have a hero.
Every character should want something, even if it is a glass of water.
Every sentence must do one of two things: reveal character or advance the action.
Start as close to the end as possible.
Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
Write to please just one person. If you open a window...to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
Give your readers such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
Storytelling in business often takes a form other than written, such as a presentation or a speech. But with a few simple word changes ("audience" instead of "reader," or "hero" instead of "character," or "speak" instead of "write,") it should be easy enough to apply these rules to any storytelling attempt.
These rules are easy enough to understand. We all need someone or something—a hero—to root for, but we want the storyteller to keep it real, so we can connect with the story, invest ourselves in it. If we can't see parts of ourselves reflected in the hero's journey, and as a result care about what happens in the end, the story will fall flat. It's tough to relate to perfect or flawless heroes—heroes that too easily succeed aren't real, aren’'t likable, and don'’t resonate.
And with ever-shrinking attention spans, a good storyteller must make every written or spoken line count to keep things moving, or we'll lose interest. The best way to follow Vonnegut's suggestion is to simply put every line you write or speak on trial for it’s life: “is this a nice-to-have or need-to-have?”
When in doubt, cut it out.