Make your stories personal, focused and compelling


Rob Biesenbach’s session “Unleash the power of storytelling: Build trust, win hearts, change minds”

By Amy Miller

“Daddy, tell me one more story …”

“Man, it’s the story of my life …”

“What’s that guy’s story?”

“We have to put more storytelling in our content.”

Does the notion of storytelling convey ideas of innocence? Cynicism? Corporate-speak?

Even if the word “storytelling” is overused—and misused—it’s undeniable that authentic, focused, personal stories are one of the best ways to inspire people. During an energetic breakout session at the 2016 IABC World Conference, author, actor and business communicator Rob Biesenbach shared practical tips, ideas and—of course—stories his audience will remember.

Why stories?

“No other form of communication is as effective at breaking down walls, influencing people and moving them to act,” said Biesenbach. “Stories affect us physiologically and emotionally. We identify with the protagonist’s struggle. And intellectually, we put ourselves in their story and consider, ‘What would I do?’”

He cited recent research that found:

  • Hearing a story stimulates the same part of the brain that’s affected when we experience an actual event.
  • 63% of people remember stories and 5% remember statistics (a fact may be hard for many of us to remember…).

Biesenbach listed several ways stories make a difference: They tap into emotion. They put a face on issues. Stories connect us and humanize us. They also bring us out of the mundane and remind us of universal values.

No, a real story!

We can convey an experience without really telling a story. Said Biesenbach, “A quote from Steve Jobs is not a story. A customer testimonial in and of itself is not a story. Certainly a fact sheet is not a story.” So what makes up a story?

Participants in the session mentioned plot, character, narrative, protagonist, antagonist, cadence, drama, climax, resolution and more. Biesenbach agreed those elements can be essential. He also recommended adopting a straightforward storybuilding method.

While many approaches work well, he shared an approach that goes back to his days at the Chicago Second City Training Center, where he learned about sketch comedy. “The more I studied and performed, the more I realized acting and business had a lot of parallels,” said Biesenbach. “If you want to learn to tell great stories, what better model than the world of performance?”

Character, goal, challenge

Whether you are developing a story for internal or external audiences, just three elements can get you started: a character, a goal and a challenge your audience can relate to. Think of your audience, find a character who has overcome the challenge your audience faces. And make that person your protagonist

How the character overcomes obstacles in pursuit of the goal provides dramatic interest. Perhaps you can add a moral lesson or ironic twist. Your story has a goal; remain focused so your audience stays with you. And of course, real stories are the best.

For example, developing a story about a candy factory worker who inspects wrapped chewing gum for quality could start with the person’s name, awareness of the goal (quality) and a basic understanding of the work process—even some obstacles like pressure, boredom or fatigue. But the process is not the story. Talking to the worker can bring the story to life.

Biesenbach had just that experience when he asked a particular worker he was interviewing about her children. Her kids like the fact that she works in a candy factory. There’s a code on each wrapper indicating where and during which shift that candy was completed. Her children know that code and can go to the store and take joy in finding the specific candy that Mommy made.

That is what humanizes the story and touches the audience. How does the worker overcome obstacles and maintain her focus? She thinks of her children … and connects their importance to her customers.

Stay focused: The Fugitive

The audience considered other examples of characters with goals and challenges—from Romeo and Juliet to I Love Lucy to Breaking Bad.

And then there was The Fugitive. To demonstrate the importance of succinctness and focus, Biesenbach gave two members cards to read in a famous dialogue between Dr. Richard Kimble and Deputy U.S. Marshall Samuel Gerard:

Kimble: I didn’t kill my wife.

Gerard: I don’t care.

That was it. The context and the acting took care of the rest. No need to explain why Gerard didn’t care, the details of his job or irrelevant processes.

“This was a great example of focus in the actual scene,” said Biesenbach. “Less is more.” Similarly, when we write and tell stories, we should fine tune them several times until they are strong and powerful.

Further reading

Biesenbach shared this example from an engagement he had with Deloitte on storytelling to promote your brand can take courage and trust.

You can also find more tips on his blog.

“Always be looking for stories,” said Biesenbach. “Keep a story bank—at least a mental one. And don’t be afraid to get personal. The more connected we are to a story, the more connected we are to our audience.”



About the author

Amy Miller is a senior customer communication specialist for LexisNexis Group, global provider of the Lexis® and Nexis® research services. Based in Ohio, she writes and edits promotional and how-to content for product literature, white papers, customer case studies, advertising and web. Miller has worked in the fields of business process improvement, insurance, health care, and technical, legal and news publishing. An IABC member since 2000, she is incoming chair for the Heritage Region.