By Gabriele N. Ward Almon (LLA '19)
As someone who has been working in and around Hollywood for the past few years, I can tell that there is a formula to great storytelling. Whether it’s on a TV show, in a movie theater, or in a conference room - a great story can pull an audience in and take them on a strategically-crafted, ultimately-satisfying emotional journey.
The roots of storytelling are in oral tradition, the recounting of important information from generation to generation. Our brains are quite simply wired to take in and hold onto important information through compelling stories, the more extreme and exciting the better. New research shows us a person listens to a story, their brain waves begin to sync with the storyteller. (Source: NPR)
Why is this important to know? Especially considering that most of us, working on timely issues and pressing problems, are nowhere near movie set or podcast studio. In our work - if we want to be compelling - we must tell strong stories to engage people and persuade them to action. Whether written on paper or recounted orally, every great story requires a level of vulnerability and truth-telling that can feel deeply personal.
Let’s break this down a little more.
Let’s start with you. You, the person reading this right now.
Think about the moment you decided that you decided to pursue the work you’re in now. What was happening that day? Who was around you? If you close your eyes and think back, what could you hear? Was there something you saw? As you think back to that tipping point, what you’re actually uncovering is your origin story - the pivotal moment that led you on a great professional adventure that has no doubt been full of triumph and challenges.
What’s exciting as you begin to consider your origin story in your work is that you can realize that everyone has an origin story too. I believe, if we hold on to this idea, it’ll help us separate volatile issues from the people advocating for them. It’s humanizing in a time where it is too easy to stay surface-level on contentious topics.
Thinking of contentious topics, have you considered why they get us so riled up? Because just like recounting a story, we can imagine the people affected by an issue. If a particular policy, law, or program is enacted, we can imagine a person’s journey as if we were envisioning a movie. It makes our work feel personal. That personal tie keeps us going on the long days, even longer nights, dealing with catty coworkers, and navigating difficult bosses.
As I bring this to a close, here are some considerations for you to explore how to incorporate great storytelling into your work:
Think about moments in your way where you need to persuade or deeply engage an individual or audience. Oftentimes, they can be team meetings.
Start a meeting or persuasive presentation, introduce a true account of a person that has been affected by the topic you’ll be introducing. (You can find these in newspaper articles or a personal anecdote.)
Before you share a story, think: What is the main point I want people to get from this? Cut out anything that doesn’t get your audience to that main point. It’ll help you be concise and impactful.
A big key here is, is if you aren’t talking about yourself, do a gut check to make sure you are honorably sharing someone else’s story and not exploiting it.
When meeting others and advocating on behalf of your organization, always lead with your origin story. It’s an effective way to pull people into your work and help them emotionally engage with your cause.
There’s so much more to dive into with storytelling, but let’s pause here. If you have any questions, please reach out to the SCLN team and consider joining the next Leadership L.A. cohort to hear compelling stories, share your own, and learn more about crafting a powerful, persuasive account yourself.
Remember: A story without a character is just information. (We have plenty of that already.)
Gabriele Almon graduated from Leadership L.A. in 2019. She is the founder of Brain + Bullish, an agency that specializes in consulting entertainment companies on show writing and story arc development for crisis-related topics. If you would like to work with Gabby, you can reach out to her here!