Storytelling is Everything: a brief 'why' and 'how-to' guide
Updated: Jul 13, 2020
I'm going to make a big claim: human civilization is composed of stories. Stories made it, stories sustain it, and stories will change it. So if you want to be effective in society--as a proprietor, a politician, an educator, a service-provider, an entertainer, an economist, a biologist--you have to be a storyteller.
Protagonists and crises, plot twists and satisfying conclusions, obstacles and themes are everywhere. Just try talking about the mortgage crisis without characters emerging: the optimistic homeowners, the too-big-to-fail banks, the eager short sellers. Try talking about an infection in the body without the narrative of attack and defense. Try selling anything to anyone without telling a story. In theory, you might be able to do it, but if you want people to listen, tell a story.
So what makes for an effective story? There are plenty of formulas out there (exposition-inciting incident-rising action-climax-falling action-resolution-denouement, anyone?), but an effective story will be tailored to your audience and your objective as a storyteller. Any one of these elements may serve your storytelling needs:
Characters: central figures in the story (usually, these are people, but you can build a story around a city, an invention, a river, etc.)
The Goal: the ideal endpoint for your characters--something they want, need, or were destined for
The Stakes: what do the characters stand to lose or gain in the pursuit of this goal? what have they already invested?
Conflict: the puzzles, difficulties, or opposition faced by the characters in their quest to reach the endpoint
Structure: the order in which the plot unfolds
Style: the manner in which the story is told
And more! But this is a good starting point from which to tell your story.
Writing a grant for an after-school sports league? Paint your organization as a central character that has been protecting children and advocating for families all along. Let me see you wrestling with the problems of inadequate childcare in the community and screen-addled youth. Leave me with a vision of children building friendships, healthy bodies, and collaborative skills.
Giving a speech opposing road-widening in a business district? Introduce me to your sweet little downtown with foot traffic and outdoor seating. Paint me a new picture of dangerous intersections, pollution, and traffic noise.
Whatever your writing task, frame it as a story. Invite the audience into it; let them see themselves reflected there. If you're going to have a hand in writing the story of your organization, your academic field, or your community, you need to know what you're doing.