In a world becoming increasingly polarised between us vs them, right vs wrong, etc., we’ve lost sight of what connects us to each other. Our stories create the common ground that allow us to connect with each other.
It’s easy to have our attention diverted by the stories of division and difference peddled by various news platforms 24/7. These stories blind us to seeing what is so important and so very simple. We have far more in common with each other than divides us.
Where do we put our focus?
What can we do to make that change? We can shift our focus away from staring at how wide the divide is between us. Instead we can look for the stories that create the common ground ground we all share; the common ground that is right in front of our noses if we took the time to look.
While this might seem an impossible task right now as the fractures between us seem to grow wider and deeper every day. It’s actually not that difficult once we choose our starting point.
We can begin by focusing on the stories we tell, the stories we listen to, the stories we share and re-share, the stories we decide to own, ignore or discard. What are those stories about? Are they stories that celebrate our common humanity – the common ground we all share? Or, are they stories that pitch us against each other and highlight our differences and disagreements?
Stories are the common ground
The writer Kate Forsyth nails how stories can make or unmake us, can build bridges or widen the divide between us:
“Stories are the common ground that allow people to connect, despite all our defences and all our differences.”
What if we started to REALLY listen to the other’s stories and talk TO each other – the essence of real dialogue? We could discover a simple, obvious truth. We all nurture the same fundamental desires – for love, security, fulfilment, healthy + wellbeing, happiness, …
What if we first identified the common ground we share and then work on narrowing the gaps on how we want to reach our shared human desires. These are the experiences that make the stories we tell each other?
Stories are key to effective business communication. They engage us emotionally, facilitate better understanding, create meaning and build personal, trustworthy connections. Simple stories amplify all these benefits.
Simplicity: A Navigation Tool in a Complex World
How do simple stories help us communicate more effectively in an increasingly complex and confusing world?
Simplicity is our best navigation tool for many reasons:
- On a practical level, ‘simple’ is user-friendly, i.e. it’s shorter; quicker; it’s easier to remember, understand, evaluate and use
- It’s the outcome of a process that distils complexity into its essentials – without stripping it of substance to create a simplistic, dumbed-down version
- It helps us easily recognise new ideas, systems, products, brands in an increasingly overwhelming and confusing marketplace
Simple Stories Simplify Communication
Simple stories are not just shorter stories. They clarify and refine complex ideas and data, making it easier for an audience to engage with what is being communicated and eventually act on it. The great physicist, Albert Einstein, gave us advice on how to do just that: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”
We are complex human beings who live in an increasingly complex world, so our task is to make complexity simple, not simplistic! Simplistic is a when we dilute the substance of our message to the point that it can be consumed without reflection or question.
Editing, organising and sharpening our ideas are part of a skills-set we can develop and then improve with practice. The benefits of investing time and effort to learn these skills are huge. By making complex material ‘user-friendly’, i.e. simpler, you create immediate access to it, which in turn makes it more relatable, relevant and applicable.
That’s a huge part of my job. When clients present me with a 3/4-page document, I help them create a 2/3-sentence back-story, or a brand stories or a personal profile statement. The work is first of all finding the pattern in all the detail: it’s the pattern that connects it all together. Then creating the simple story to illustrate that pattern.
How to Tell Simple Stories
I. The Story Structure
The structure needs to be simple if you want your story to be simple. That’s easier said than done when most storytelling courses and workshops present beginners with needlessly complex diagrams and structures, while at the same time assuring us we’re all natural-born storytellers!
The story structure is the container for what happens: the details of who, what, when, why, how. The structure creates a pattern that helps us grasp and remember those details. The simplest structure and easiest one to use is created around a linear, temporal pattern:
Before – Turning Point – After
II. The Storytelling Structure
Once we have our story structure we then need a structure to tell that story. The same rule also applies here: the simpler the storytelling structure, the easier it is to communicate the story and the easier it is to receive it.
The most natural and effective structure to communicate information is the one we use every day – conversation, or dialogue. Dialogue is about reciprocal exchange, response and interaction, as opposed to the monologue, which is a one-way form of communication.
Another characteristic of telling simple stories is using simple language. That means getting rid of the jargon and the buzzwords because they act as a barrier to real connection. Replace them with personal, straightforward, simple language that supports and promotes human-to-human connection. Use the same language you would use in a conversation with a good friend.
The Benefits for Business of Making it Simple
How does keeping it simple actually translate into better outcomes for businesses?
The simplicity-index surveys show that simplicity pays. The top brands globally and nationally all share the common feature of offering their customers a simple experience that is communicated as simply as possible. Here’s how Ben Osborn from Siegel+Gale puts it:
“Our research shows us that 55% of consumers are willing to reward brands that make their lives simpler – and penalise those that do not. Simplicity is an important metric for the communications industry because empathy is the cornerstone of the contract between creators and consumers.”
If simplicity pays, how do we recognise it in how other brands communicate and then implement it in our own communication? Start by asking yourself this question:
Do I consciously choose to communicate in a way that is simple, honest, transparent and personal for my audience?
Isn’t it time to simplify?Learn More
Do we talk to get a reaction or a response from others?
Our intention defines the quality of the exchange and it’s outcome – whether the audience reacts or responds to us. That difference can be explained in terms of whether our communication is a ‘monologue’ or a ‘dialogue’.
Even when the trendy communication props are in place, it isn’t difficult to spot the self-serving monologues – often masquerading as interactive dialogues. You’ll get an insight into how the ping-pong game of monologue is played out by watching two politicians talking, or the typical political interview – each side is simply delivering their respective sound bites and not engaged with the other’s arguments.
To help you spot the difference when you talk between getting a reaction or a response from others, here are a few guidelines.
Some typical characteristics of a ‘monologue’:
- talking AT someone
- a closed form of communication, i.e. one-way messages & viewpoints
- curated comments and explanations that push a specific agenda, i.e. create a REACTION
- no ‘real’ attempt to listen to & reflect on what the other is saying
- impersonal language filled with jargon, sound-bits and buzzwords
Being in a ‘dialogue’ with someone is about a deeper, richer and more textured form of exchange.
Some typical characteristics of a ‘dialogue’:
- two-way exchange
- talking/engaging WITH someone
- an open exchange of active listening & deep reflection that can lead to a shift in opinions – on both sides
- exchange is the result of mutual RESPONSE, i.e. actively responding to what the other is saying rather than waiting for the opportunity to speak
- direct, personal language that is jargon-free
Here’s a short quote by Andy Sivell that will help you understand the profound difference between getting a reaction (monologue) and a response (dialogue) these two forms of communicating:
“Two monologues do not make a dialogue“Learn More
Has story become a means to deceive and mislead; a manipulation tactic at odds with ethical marketing?
I’ve been drawn into three different conversations in as many days about the ‘end of storytelling’ for business. The arguments made were that all storytellers are ‘liars’, that storytelling is a polished decoy, that it has been ‘ruined’ for business by ‘unconventional’ politicians who don’t even try to conceal the political agenda behind their ‘fake’ stories.
I agreed with every argument – to a point. Here’s why.
I’ve had my own ‘dark night of the soul’ since leaving academia to work as a storytelling consultant for business. I’d spent my final years in academia researching the relationship between storytelling and trauma and knew I’d have to ‘shift gear’ for the business world.
Nothing could have prepared me for the way the market had emptied storytelling of its primary purpose in service to profit. Instead of creating meaning in a world gone awry & helping us understand each other better, story is used as emotional bait, a sophisticated selling tactic, peddled by endless books, articles & cheat-sheets that told us ‘Story Sells’, ‘Tell to Sell’, etc.
Story had become the Trojan Horse of marketing.
Just like in the original Greek myth, story is used as a ploy to win a war, in our case, to breach our defences against the onslaught of selling. Story is the poisonous apple that lured Snow White with its shiny red skin to dismiss the danger. Story is the puppet cleverly manipulated by the invisible hands of the puppeteer.
So, why do I do what I do?
The uncertainty and trauma caused by ‘corona’ has given us the perfect opportunity to restart, realign & reimagine. We’re witnessing first hand how human relationship is an invaluable tool to create a different model of ‘normal’.
If story has become a manipulative tactic, then simple, honest storytelling has a huge role to play in helping us build our business around trust, credibility & community as we search for a sustainable way out of the current crisis.
My on-going mission to revive authentic storytelling as an integral part of meaningful, honest business communication is gaining in relevance. My work is to help you and other businesses become part of this revival.Learn More