I’ve always been fascinated with stories. It’s one of the reasons why in high school I jettisoned physics, chemistry, and maths in favour of literature and history. The decision has served me well in my media and communications career.
I realised early on, to quote the poet Muriel Rukeyser, that “the universe is made up of stories, not atoms.”
The truth is, stories are not loaded with hard data but rather with something more powerful: emotional data. That’s why we remember good stories long after we first hear them.
Jesus was a master storyteller. At the age of 12, he theologically confounded the teachers in the Temple. But it was his capacity to tell stories that deeply stirred the souls of those who followed him. He wove familiar elements that his audience could relate to into his stories – pastures, hills, farmers, sheep, oil and lamps, coins, bandits and highway robbers, etc.
In workshops, seminars, or conferences on public speaking or communication, my advice is always simple. “Don’t complicate your presentation. Tell stories. Your audience will thank and remember you for it.”
Whether in journalism, public speaking, or business presentations, the most effective speakers tell stories. What sets them apart is an innate understanding of the needs of their audiences. They know how to connect on an emotional and sensory level, rather than a cerebral one. How do they do it? Stories.
Sports legend and entrepreneur Magic Johnson, the world’s richest man Jeff Bezos, Virgin Atlantic Founder Richard Branson, and Kenyan Pan-Africanist lawyer Patrick Lumumba, distinguish themselves by their amazing storytelling abilities. They connect on a powerful and emotional level when they speak.
Why are stories important and so powerful?
Simply because oral tradition has been a part of our DNA for millennia. We are addicted to stories, especially in a digital world of social media dominated by Instagram, Twitter, WhatsApp and Facebook. And because stories help bring issues into sharp focus.
Stories are also important because every single one of us is looking for answers. We connect with appropriate and authentic stories that help us build bonds and bridges. Stories help us recognise that our own experiences are not necessarily unique. Stories help us understand that we are not alone as we navigate this journey called life.
Good stories should always have three key elements:
• Honesty, authenticity, and vulnerability: Audiences can tell a fake from a mile away. Your unique life experiences have prepared you well. Tell your stories.
• Inspiration: Life is tough. Your speech or presentation should be a lift and not a burden. Give your audience something to believe in. Inspire them to want to change their world one life at a time.
• Clear Lesson: Before you deliver your speech or presentation, ask yourself, “what is the key takeaway? What’s the lesson I want my audience to leave with? Is it clear and easily understood? Is my logic sequential? Does the story fit the circumstance and needs of the audience? Does it resonate?
As Plato once said, “those who tell stories rule society.” Stories make us laugh. They make us cry. They help change the way we think, perceive and act. They enlighten and provide new insights. They teach values and pass on ancient wisdom. Revolutions have changed nations on account of the narrative-changing power of stories.
Most importantly, stories transcend the mind and speak deeply to the heart. Your authentic story is your power.
Dr Victor Oladokun is director of communication and external relations at the African Development Bank.
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