How to tell a story to your kids or your customers

Jun 27, 2017 | Better Writing

Stories are magical. We’ve been using them to tell each other about interesting things and teach important lessons since we first crawled out of caves. If you want to communicate effectively, stories are your best medium.

There’s an awful lot that’s been written about great storytelling, but it really turns out to be pretty simple. George Lucas used a standard story outline called “The Hero’s Journey” to create “Star Wars.” You can follow his example.

You can use standard outlines that will guide your storytelling.

That’s great, if you’re writing. But what about if it’s time to put your kids to bed or you’re having lunch with a customer? Then you need a format that’s easy to remember and will give you a great story. Fortunately, there’s one that you’re already familiar with, that follows the basic outline of most models, and is easy to remember.

It’s not a fairytale, but you can use the structure

Most of us remember fairytales from childhood. They’ve captivated children for generations. And, good news, they give you a simple structure that’s easy to remember and use with your kids or your customers.

Your story’s got to have a hero. If you’re telling your child a story, you can give the hero the same name as your child. If you’re telling the story to more than one child, let them pick the name of the hero. If you’re telling the story to your customer, make the hero another customer very much like them.

The first thing to do is to let the person you’re with know that you’re about to tell a story. In the fairytales, that’s usually “Once upon a time.” But you can also use, “Let me tell you a story” or “This ain’t no lie.”

Once you’ve alerted the other person to the fact that you’re telling a story, you must do what the story researchers call “Exposition.” That’s where you talk about the normal world. Think “every day” and tell what things were like before the action started.

Next you want to get right into the story proper. In the fairytales, that’s done with a phrase like “Then one day.” You can use that phrase or anything else that alerts your kids or customers that exciting part of the story is about to begin.

In the next phase of storytelling, you tell what happened and what the hero did. Essentially, you’re saying over and over “This happened, and because of that, we did this.” You can repeat this as necessary.

This is the heart of the story, and it should move quickly enough to keep even a toddler interested. If you’re talking to a customer, just tell the story with just enough detail and steps to get to the main point. If you’re telling a bedtime story to your child, you may want to string things out for a while.

Now it’s time to bring the story to an end. In the fairytales, this usually happens with a transitional phrase like “Finally.” That works for business stories, too.

There’s one more step. In the fairytales, it’s where the handsome prince and the beautiful princess get married and live happily ever after, or the hero emerges from the enchanted wood with the sword he plucked from a stone. In a business story, this is the part where you show the customer how your product or service helps them “live happily ever after.” We call that the benefit.

The Easy-to-Remember Outline

Once upon a time …
Every day …
One day …
Because of that, the hero did (repeat as often as necessary).
Finally …
And everything was wonderful.

Storytelling Structure Resources

There are several formal story structures that use a similar format. Here’s a list of some that I’ve used.

The Hero’s Journey

Jack Hart’s “Narrative Arc.”

“The Freytag Pyramid.”

Nigel Watts’ “Eight-Point Story Arc.”

Try them out. Find one that works for you. Then master it. Use the fairytale structure when you need to tell a story on the fly.

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