What qualifies as a “story”?

What qualifies as a “story”?
October 31, 2023 Beth Nyland

We tried not to talk about work. It was Saturday, for crying out loud! But over coffee this weekend, my new friend Jane and I couldn’t help ourselves. We both love what we do. And we’re still getting to know each other. So eventually our stories turned occupational.

I make my living helping businesspeople choose and use the stories and words that will captivate, involve, and persuade a target audience.

Jane is a marketing professional in the field of nursing home care—an unfamiliar world for me. I’ve never set foot in her workplace. But as she told story after story about what happens where she works, I could practically see the facility and its residents.

What struck me was the variety. She and her co-workers provide a wide range of services, because people need all kinds of help.

“We have nursing home care, as well as independent living,” she said. If you search the web for such support, you’ll notice keywords like “independent living,” “active living,” and “senior living.” So many options. To make sense and stir meaningful images in people’s minds, Jane has to fortify those words with added details.

This is what a story can do.

As an accomplished marketer, Jane knows the words “nursing home” alone aren’t likely to inspire a reassuring vision for someone’s best possible future. It takes a story (or many stories) to stoke that kind of imagination.

Stories, she says, have the power to move a person “out of their current world to find another.”

Amen to that. That’s what a story can DO. Stories are excellent containers for meaning and motivation—and incredibly useful when you want to:

  • make complicated information easier to understand
  • shed new light on a tired or familiar topic
  • generate interest in something new

Clearly, stories are an asset—an essential, even—for marketers, sales professionals, leaders, and other change agents.

But what qualifies as a story?

The classic structure of a story is beginning + middle + end.

English  teachers and communication consultants often point to the hero’s journey as the model for effective storytelling. Using terms like “arc” and “narrative” and “plot,”  they describe a progression of events  that starts with an “inciting event,” continues through “rising action,” then hits a tipping point called the “climax” before settling to the “denouement”—a sexy French word for the last part of the story, when things become clear or resolved. The end.

Make no mistake: Jill and I often teach this classic form of storytelling in our Story Mode program. But we find that the world of work needs other forms of story as well. We define “story” this way:

A story is a set of details you select and organize for a purpose.

With this definition as your guide, your options for storytelling abound. For starters, here are 7 useful forms a story can take.

7 story forms you can use to talk and write about your business 

1. Your own experience

Even if you’re not the mastermind or a superuser of your company’s widget, you can credibly share your own experience using the same or a similar product.

Suppose you’re in the business of factory automation, and someone asks you why anyone would opt to remotely maneuver a forklift. Isn’t it better to be hands-on? You’ve never controlled such a machine, remotely or otherwise. But you have used mobile apps to adjust your thermostat, remote-start your car, and observe package deliveries. So you could share how you’ve experienced the convenience and sense of control that come from managing something at a distance.

2. Second-hand stories

On the other hand, you may have no direct experience whatsoever—not with your company’s offering or anything comparable. No problem. If you’re a good listener and observer of other people’s experience, you can share someone else’s story.

“Last week I watched one of our fitting experts take all the measurements to outfit a client in a custom suit. The whole process took less than 15 minutes. The client was impressed by …”

3. Testimonials

Instead of retelling a story in your own words, you can gather quotes from the ones who have been there. Nobody says it better than a customer who has faced—and solved—a real-life problem.

Here’s a shameless testimonial for my services: “Beth is an excellent speaking and writing coach. She tailors her approach according to my needs and is very patient, professional, and passionate. I appreciate her style and creative ideas. She encourages me to step out of my comfort zone and embrace new challenges. I’ve really grown as an effective communicator because of her coaching.”

4. Examples

When you offer a specific example of how or why something works, you help others connect the dots. The goal is for the other person to say, “Oh, I see how that might work for me, too.”

In the case of nursing home care, a few examples may help a potential client find their fit with a facility. “Some of our residents require no assistance at all; they’re here because they love the tight-knit community. Some depend on daily visits to help manage medications and meals. And for those who need more support, our skilled medical team is available for round-the-clock care.”

5. Demonstrations

Every time I visit the Apple Store, I marvel at how deftly their team members can show the potential hidden in each piece of equipment. “You want to illustrate a children’s book, design a building, or start a podcast? Watch this!” I walk out believing I can do all that and more … with my brand-new iPad!

When you can confidently show how a product works—and get reasonably impressive results—your audience will complete that story with their own happy ending.

6. Metaphors

Metaphors deliver whole stories in just a few words. We use them all day long on impulse. “Back to the drawing board.” “Uncharted territory.” “This place is a zoo. “ Phrases like these serve as concise substitutes for long explanations.

“Our financial planning program will pull you up from the slippery slope of uncertainty, onto the solid ground of clarity and confidence.” This colorful comparison paints a positive and emotional picture that’s more engaging than a list of seminar topics.

7. Vision stories

“Just imagine if …”

A story can be made-up and still ring true. So, gaze into your crystal ball and tell a story that predicts the future, helping your audience envision how much better things could be, if only _____________________. (Fill in the blank with whatever you and/or they and/or your product or service can do.)

* * *

Whatever story form you choose, remember to select and organize the details that will serve your purpose—speaking to this audience in this moment to create this result.


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