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Steve Jobs and the Power of Storytelling

Quick, think of a good story you’ve heard in the last few months, or even years – any story (short story, childhood bedtime story, a narrative joke, story in a presentation, etc). Now think of a couple of good statistics you’ve heard in the last few weeks.

Which one came easiest?

Nine times out of 10, it’s the story. Stories stick in your head, sometimes for years.

There’s a lot of attention around corporate content now. Relevant content. Compelling content. Engaging content … and tons of posts on techniques - how to spin the content, how to write powerful headlines and so on.

But less attention is given to storytelling. That’s weird since social media is the perfect opportunity. Bloggers are our modern day storytellers. They’re not marketers, as many like to think, but humans with emotions, history, baggage – and specific views of the world. In other words, they are all walking stories, ready to be told.

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Stories are more powerful today than ever. Why?

  • We are drowning in information. Good stories can cut through the noise.
  • Personal stories  feel “real” vs abstract concepts, statistics, or logical arguments
  • Stories capture people on an emotional level, creating a deeper, intimate bond.
  • Stories are memorable. People forget facts but remember stories.

In the book, A Whole New Mind, author Daniel Pink (in a full chapter) captures the essence of stories: “Stories “are important cognitive events, for they encapsulate, into one compact package, information, knowledge, context and emotion.” 

Some elements of a good story include:

  • A clear beginning and end
  • Clear message
  • It’s authenticSteve Jobs and the Power of Storytelling image jobs 300x240
  • It’s relevant
  • Engaging (often with drama or tension)

Strong stories have a natural flow, and never leave the audience wondering where it’s going (“What’s the point to that”?)  It helps if they have a bit of mystique or what Copyblogger calls“Fascination and Meaning.”

Stories have been around forever, and there are several structures. For a real understanding of story, read Joseph Campbell’s book: The Hero with a Thousand Faces.” As he explains (and Pink discusses), all myths-across all cultures-contain the same basic recipe, based on “the hero’s journey.” (This is one of the most popular structures, standing the test of time). It has three parts: Departure, Initiation and Return. Homer’s Odyssey, the story of Buddha, Huckleberry Finn – they all follow this model.

II can’t think of a better modern day example of this than Apple’s Steve Jobs, who was fired from Apple, then returned to save the company and transform it into a media powerhouse. His Stanford commencement speech is an example of a great story using the hero’s journey model.

It has all of the right elements, starting with an engaging life story – how he was born to a young, unwed college graduate, adopted by working class parents, etc. Later, talks about bouncing around an expensive private college he can’t afford, sleeping on his friends’ dorm room floors, finally dropping out.

The first story talks about how his one class in calligraphy wound up helping him create the first typefaces in the original MacIntosh.

… you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever …

His next two stories were even more powerful, talking about love and loss, and facing death.

One message was he’d have “never been successful if I hadn’t been fired by Apple” the first time around.

He goes on to talk about his emotional battle and facing cancer and death, and how that transformed his thinking. Now every day counts.

This speech is authentic, gritty, and relevant for a college audience about to set forth into the world. His message was simple and powerful:

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition…

You don’t have to turn every corporate blog or speech into a personal, life changing endeavor on this level. What I’m suggesting is you at least start injecting more of a human voice, using your own personal stories to provide context and perspective. With blogs, the approach could be a simple as: A) I faced a big challenge/dilemma. B) I overcame it through these x steps. C) Resolution, results and ending (optional call to action).

Look at what Om Malik (GigaOm) did in a recent blog about the difficulty of change in corporate America (Change is Good, but it’s Also Really Hard.) He weaves in a little of his own journey through change with corporate examples, like Google, Nokia and, yes, Apple. Companies, like people, have a certain cultures, habits, DNA that is hard to change. The story is personal, engaging, authentic- and rich with useful information.  For a more detailed analysis, see Valeria Maltoni’s “Content Analysis: Where is the Story,” presentation.

So think through how you can collect and tell stories through your speeches, blogs and other social media efforts. Play journalist as you go through your normal daily activities and keep a notebook. Stay on the lookout for stories, anywhere, anytime. If you’re working with corporate bloggers, coach them on storytelling techniques and/or conduct brainstorming meetings or workshops-these can be a source of rich ideas. Your message is that “it’s ok” to be a storyteller, since so much of our training in the corporate world is to focus on the facts and process.

None of this is really new. Technologies and platforms will come and go, but human nature changes slowly if at all.

“Scratch the surface in a typical boardroom and we’re all just cavemen with briefcases, hungry for a wise person to tell us stories.” — Alan Kay

Comments on this Article: 3

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  1. Nice insights, Mark. I think many businesspeople are afraid people will view them as “soft” if they use stories or share personal experiences. I think it’s just the opposite. The truly confident communicator shares who he/she is as well as what they know.

  2. Albegor says:

    Nice article!
    No wonder storytelling was easier at cavemen times… there weren’t any digital devices to support (or hinder) them: just speech and body language. :)
    Storytelling is a very effective methodology to present contents, but gets difficult to achieve proportionally to the complexity of the device you’re working on.

  3. Mark Ivey says:

    Dave/Albegor- thanks for the feedback, and sorry for delay here (getting back from few days off).
    You really can tell a “confident communicator” by the way they share stories, and I agree it gets more difficult to achieve as we introduce more complex devices…and programs (Powerpoint was just the beginning, but think about how many presenters hide behind slides vs telling stories and really connecting with their audiences)

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