20 Jan Ask the expert: five books that will help you master storytelling
Modicum’s resident raconteur, Brian R., sat down with presentation consultant Jesse Scinto to learn how to create and deliver great presentations. In this excerpt from our conversation, we focus on storytelling. In our next article, we’ll continue with how to really crush it as a presenter.
Brian Roff: What exactly do you do for Modicum?
Jesse Scinto: I see my task as helping clients develop the story they want to present. You start with a problem—it should be a problem the audience has—and then you develop it. When you develop that problem, it makes the audience a little bit anxious and a little bit excited to hear the solution. Then you position your product or service as the solution.
BR: How do you define what a story is? And what is storytelling?
JS: I think the word “storytelling” gets thrown around quite a bit, especially within agencies and by clients. A story essentially has two parts. The first part is a complication. For example, you have a character who gets into trouble somehow or is not having his or her needs met. That character strives, looks for a solution, tries different things, digs deep, finds courage within and then comes to a resolution. So the two main things that a story has are a complication and a resolution. And it’s as simple as that. I’ve found from my own experience speaking in front of groups that you don’t have to do much to make that story structure work. I mean, if you talk about a problem at the beginning and then a solution at the end, you’d be surprised how much that alone can engage an audience.
BR: Why do you think stories, fundamentally, encourage us to pay attention and care?
JS: There’s this great book called The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall. It’s about how much of how we understand the world is focused around problems. When we dream at night, we’re dreaming about problems. When we see children play, it’s always around problems or troubles that they’re having. That’s a pretty standard way for children to play. Once people start hearing a problem develop, they want to know what’s going to happen. We’ve all had the experience of sitting through a bad movie or a bad TV show just to see what happens. Then, at the end, we may feel it’s a waste of time, but we did it nonetheless. We paid attention for two hours just to find out what happens! So stories hold our attention. But they also help us remember things. Details in stories serve as a type of indexing for the mind. We store much of our knowledge in story form. So when we use storytelling, we’re using a means of persuasion that’s natural for the human mind.
BR: Do you think there is a difference between the kind of storytelling we do at work and the kind we do in our personal lives?
JS: I mean, either way, one of the main benefits of storytelling is audience engagement. The audience will wait for the resolution—they want to hear it. If you pay attention to commercials on TV, it’s almost all storytelling. In a 30 second spot, 25 seconds are spent developing the problem—usually there’s some humor thrown in—and then, in the last frames, you see the logo of the product. So the product or service is positioned as the resolution to the storyline.
BR: If you want to make a sales presentation into a good story—and I’m going to try to oversimplify here—is it as easy as, “Here is the problem you should care about, and this is how we’re going to solve it?”
JS: Absolutely. You want to structure your presentation not according to your own needs but according to the needs of the audience and how they learn. Start with the audience’s problem because that’s what they care about. They often don’t care about your credentials or your company background at the opening of a presentation. In most cases, you’re in the room because they already think your credentials are good enough to be there. If you need to add credentials, you can do that later in the presentation. But that’s one of the biggest mistakes—I’ve seen it in lots of presentations, in pitches for big agencies. Agencies often pitch work by starting with “We’ve been around for 15 years, and we’ve had these clients and these clients.” The audience you’re pitching to doesn’t care about that. What they need to know, first and foremost, is that you understand their problem and that at some point in the next half hour, you’re going to tell them how you can fix it.
BR: If I have a business and want to use these storytelling techniques, where do I start?
JS: There are tons of books about persuasion and selling. Going back 2,000 years, people have been writing about persuasion. Aristotle wrote one of the first and most important books called On Rhetoric. But there’s just tons of stuff out there and tons of research. I think often what happens is that people get exposed to just a narrow sliver of it. I just read this book called To Sell Is Human, which was fine enough as a book. It’s a popular book about sales techniques and persuasion. But often what you get in a popular press book is just a narrow sliver of the possibilities in persuasion. There are so many specific strategies out there for vastly different situations. So I think in terms of choosing a strategy, sometimes you need some help.
BR: How do you get that help?
JS: You call Modicum [he laughs]. But really, you talk to a presentation consultant or communications strategist, someone who has devoted their career to studying these things. At minimum, they can show you some of the alternatives out there.
Want to learn more about storytelling?
Here are five books Jesse recommends to become a better storyteller.
by Jonathan Gottschall
by Annette Simmons and Doug Lipman
by Jon Franklin
by Nancy Duarte
by Chip Heath and Dan Heath
Jesse Scinto is a presentation consultant at Modicum and a communications strategist who works with leading organizations worldwide, including the United Nations. He teaches The Critical Mind and Dynamics of Persuasion at Columbia University’s School of Professional Studies. Previously, Jesse was a professional saxophonist who toured with well-known blues artists.