What my 3-year-old taught me about good storytelling

March 2, 2015 / Alice / 1 Comment

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Storytime can be special for parent and child. Except when it’s not. Endless questions. Constant fidgeting. Reading to a three-year-old is a lot like trying to get today’s easily distracted audiences to pay attention to your corporate message.

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Here are 4 key lessons my three-year-old has taught me about telling stories to a discerning  audience:

1. Familiarity and repetition build understanding.

If you’ve ever found yourself reading the same book for the tenth night in a row, you know that three-year-olds like repetition. Part of the reason for it is the comfort of the known—something we all share to some extent. But the bigger reason is iteration. Preschoolers learn through practice. Every reading enables them to pick up new details and develop deeper connections with a story.

Grown-up audiences develop relationships with stories in the same way—through retelling over time. However, most of us have moved beyond the iterative toddler phase. To this end, your story should reinforce key values but be told in new, different and engaging ways. It should be told across every touchpoint with your brand. Make it new, but make it familiar. Tell the world your story, and then tell it again and again.

2. The teller is just as important as the story.

No matter how beloved a story or how emphatically requested, my daughter’s attention is prone to wandering. When that happens, the pressure is on me to deliver something unexpected. A funny accent. A deviation from the plot. Impromptu engagement: “What happens next?” Or when I’m desperate, “Are you paying attention or should I stop reading?”

Your story is only as effective as the channel through which it is delivered. Make sure it’s one your target audience regularly accesses. Leverage the strength of that channel to enrich the story. Measure engagement (in real-time, if possible) and adjust accordingly. Ask for feedback, and be agile and timely in response.

3. Pictures are better than words. 

Pictures are vital to my daughter’s ability to process a story and gather meaning from it. In part, I imagine, it’s because she enjoys that a part of her world is permanently captured on the page in a way she can visit again and again. But just as importantly, it’s because it empowers her with the ability to “read” alongside me. She can point to and describe an image in a way she can’t yet with words on a page.

We, as humans, are visual before we’re verbal. Not only do pictures, infographics, video, animation and environments bring a story to life, but they also connect with audiences on a more emotional and instinctive level than words. Visual storytelling gives your listeners a more natural and direct way in to your story. And given the opportunity, they will share it.

4. Storytelling is not about you.

Reading my daughter a story is rarely a one-way activity. It’s our opportunity to discuss and engage around a topic. She inserts her own thoughts. She asks questions. She is responsible for “reading” certain parts she knows by heart. More importantly, long after the last page is turned, she draws parallels between her life and the characters. The stories she listens to inform her world. They color her imagination. They become the building blocks of her own identity.

Instinctively, my daughter knows your corporate story is not about you. It’s about your audience. If it’s not about your audience, then it’s not effective storytelling. Tell stories that reveal something about who your audience is. Stories that appeal to their values, needs and desires. Only then will your stories become theirs.

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