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When we think of storytelling, we often think of writers and journalists. After all, what use would a stock broker or engineer have for stories?

As it turns out, more than you might think.

Storytelling is one of mankind’s oldest traditions—we’ve got cave drawings dating back over 30,000 years to prove it. Today, storytelling is one of our most important forms of communication. We need it to share our perspective, negotiate, and create empathy.

In other words, we need stories for life and work.

Jonathan Soble, who enjoyed a successful career in journalism before becoming the editorial and communications lead for the World Economic Forum, explains how stories aren’t just for everyone—they can be told by everyone, too.

“Good stories are about people. Even if the thing you want to get across is an idea or a product that you’re trying to sell, the vehicle for that works best when it’s a person.”

Jonathan Soble, Editorial and Communications Lead, World Economic Forum

Transcript:

Why is storytelling important?

Jonathan Soble:

Everybody should learn how to tell a story because everybody does tell stories. Even if you’re not a journalist, even if you’re just working in a small company, or if you’re talking to your colleagues, you have to convince people of things. You have to get your ideas across. So it’s a universal skill.

We tell stories for all kinds of different reasons.

In business, we tend to think of it as something you do when you want to convince somebody of something, when you want to sell somebody something. But there’s more than that. We tell stories to tell people who we are. We tell stories to create connections. That’s both in personal life and in business. We kind of create our whole identity, whether we’re a brand or a human being, through stories.

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What are the elements of a good story?

Soble:

I think the main elements of a good story are characters. Good stories are about people. Even if the thing you want to get across is an idea or a product that you’re trying to sell, the vehicle for that works best when it’s a person.

And good stories are about conflict. In business, especially, people tend to want to avoid conflict. They want to tell stories that are free of any kind of tension and everybody’s happy—but that doesn’t work because those stories are boring. Those stories don’t get people to listen.

You have to choose your conflict, in a sense. You don’t necessarily want a story where people are being horrible to each other, but you want a story about challenges that are overcome—something like that, right? An obstacle that that character has to overcome. That’s what people listen to and remember.

What ruins a good story?

Soble:

Bad stories often die because there’s too much information that people don’t need to know, or because the storyteller assumed an amount of information that was wrong for the audience. Telling things they already knew—or, more often, assuming a whole bunch of shared knowledge that just doesn’t exist. You really have to know your audience, have empathy, and understand who you’re talking to.

What are the traits of a good storyteller?

Soble:

In my profession, journalism, good storytellers are people who have good news judgment. They know what’s important. They hear a whole bunch of information and they sift through it and they say, “This is what my audience needs to know.” Good storytellers put the important details high up in the first paragraph in the headline.

And finally, good storytellers are good at telling the audience why they should care. A good journalistic story always has a paragraph somewhere high up where it explains the context, says why this is important now. Why you should be reading this.

Good storytellers are always reminding their audiences in subtle and explicit ways why they should care.

How can I become a better storyteller?

Soble:

A lot of people think of storytelling as being a kind of campfire raconteur—you have to have a good voice and a good presence. But stories are often on the page. Some of the most painfully shy people in the world are authors who are brilliant at telling stories. So one thing is [to] find the medium that works for you.

And the second thing is [this]: If you want to be a storyteller in front of an audience, but you’re too shy, start small. Start with your family, your friends, your cat, even. Get a little bit of confidence, a little bit of feedback. And I think the first time that you feel an audience reacting to you because you’ve mastered some techniques, you’ll gain the confidence and the appetite to tell more stories.

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