How to Unlock the Power of Storytelling

Stories, not facts, have a longer shelf life.

Posted Nov 01, 2020

By Tarek Issa with Joe Navarro

As a writer and public speaker, I am always humbled when I can sit back and enjoy a good book and the mastery of storytelling. One of my favorite experts is Tarek Issa, who has not only mastered the art of storytelling but also coaches executives and public speakers on how to best craft a story.

“There is an art form” to telling a story, Tarek reminds me, “but there is also a greater purpose­­—people remember stories long, long after you give them facts.” A fact we might remember for a day or two, but a story, that can have a long shelf life, whether it is the story of David and Goliath or one of the Aesop fables. Many people can give us facts and statistics, but it is the storyteller we most admire, as the most popular TED talks will attest.

Telling a story is the most powerful way to convey a message and make it stick. You can use storytelling to build rapport, pitch a product, entertain, influence, unite (or divide), persuade (or dissuade), and so on. It all depends on the speaker or author’s goal.

I asked Tarek to give me an example of how he does this. He provided this story to demonstrate how he does it.

“In 2009, Kevin Systrom had a full-time job but was learning to code at night, developing an experimental photo-sharing app in the process. One co-founder and two investors later, Systrom had $500k in funding … and a tiny problem: The app had only 100 users, and wasn’t gaining any new ones. Systrom was stuck and nearing burnout.

During a casual conversation, his wife confessed that she wouldn’t use the app either. Her reason? She thought her photos weren't good enough. 'What if,' he thought, 'the app had filters to make anyone’s pictures look beautiful?' Immediately, they added filter tools and the app became Instagram. In 2010, Instagram launched and received 25,000 downloads in one day! Today, over 1 billion people use it worldwide.

Analyzing the Story—A Look Under the Hood

Stories can have many lessons, so what lessons can we draw from this story? 

  • Entrepreneurship is rewarding
  • Perseverance is a key trait
  • Thinking outside the box is crucial
  • Starting a business is hard
  • People care a lot about their looks
  • Kevin Systrom is a hero
  • His wife is a hero
  • Life partners help each other out
  • We don’t always see what others can see, etc.

In this case, the primary lesson is clearly that entrepreneurship is tough but rewarding. Sure, I could have said it just like that, plain and simple: Entrepreneurship is tough but rewarding.

The only problem? Besides sounding self-evident and cliché, the message wouldn’t have had any impact whatsoever. So, instead of just giving the end lesson, I chose to make you live it through the story of Instagram, which also makes it all the more relatable.

It’s true that, in certain situations, it’s more convenient to say things plainly and simply. But when the goal is to make a powerful statement, a story will beat a plain message every single time.

Back to Instagram’s story—let’s consider the target audience by asking, which audience would be ideal for this story?

  • Entrepreneurs emerge as an obvious target audience as they have likely experienced a similar (read: relatable) story
  • Anyone who has always dreamed of starting their own company, since the story is inspiring and gives them a sneak peek of what could be lying ahead
  • Anyone who has a managerial or leadership role with frequent challenges and roadblocks
  • An employee who is bored on the job or feels they’ve reached a plateau
  • Someone facing a lack of motivation and could benefit from picturing hope following hardship
  • Anyone curious about Instagram, technology, apps, or social media in general

So, what’s your story? The truth is, you are defined by more than one story, and there are infinite ways to tell each one of your stories. You get to choose which story to tell and how to tell it in any given situation.

Knowing the facts about Instagram, I chose to tell the story in a specific way for this blog post, based on said facts. It’s unlikely to find the story elsewhere told in the exact same way.

Most resources on storytelling will say that a good story has a hero, a challenge, a beginning, an ending, and so on. For many, that is easier said than done. With that in mind, I teach this basic yet practical approach. Granted, it won’t turn someone into a storytelling expert overnight, but it’s a good start.

1. Start With the Audience and Lesson

  • Who’s your audience?
  • What lesson or message would you like them to remember?

2. Look for a Relevant Milestone or Event

This could be:

  • The way you obtained a great job or promotion
  • A major project you won or delivered when the odds were against you
  • A time when you convinced someone of doing something differently and that worked out in their best interest
  • Someone you know who did something inspiring

3. Choose Your Story Wisely

Pick the story that is best suited for the situation and adapt it to the audience. For example:

  • If your team is struggling with a project, it might be good to tell them how you were once working on a project that was falling apart but ended up succeeding thanks to teamwork, perseverance, and outside-the-box thinking
  • If you’re trying to pitch a new idea or product that is deemed risky or “too innovative," you might want to look for a story where innovation actually saved the day. This could be from your own experience or someone else’s, like a friend, another company, etc.
  • If you’re asking for a promotion, you might want to avoid stating that you “deserve it because you worked hard” and let them feel it by telling a story instead. You can do so by highlighting a specific situation or project where your actions were decisive, and how incentivizing you further will unlock even more motivation and greatly benefit the company

4. Length Matters

  • The story above is roughly a 30-second read (here’s the 60-second version of the same story). Adapt the length of your story according to the audience, the medium (written, spoken), and your goal. Brief is usually better.
  • Over the last two decades, I have found that we have shorter attention spans, and the quicker we tell a story, the more eager the audience will be to listen. Drag it out and people will tune you out.

5. Details Also Matter

  • The style of the delivery, the choice of words (as Joe Navarro says, 'Not all words have the same weight'), the knowledge and depth of the audience, the surprise or gradual unveiling effect, the context in which you are giving the presentation, your body language, and so on.
  • Write your story and test it out ahead of time. Winston Churchill rehearsed almost all his sayings ahead of time before he unleashed his words to the general public. Then, work on your delivery."

While storytelling is a field of its own, these tips from Tarek Issa are a great kickstart to your storytelling journey. What’s your great story that is waiting to be told?

*Copyright © 2020 Tarek Issa. For similar how-to guides on influence and communication, click here.

Copyright © 2020, Joe Navarro. Joe Navarro, M.A. is the author of The Dictionary of Body Language, What Every BODY Is Saying, Louder Than Words, and Dangerous Personalities