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Storytelling for Leaders: Context

This lesson is a part of an audio course Storytelling for Leaders by Paul Andrew Smith

The context provides the setting of the story. It’s where you answer questions 2 and 3. Where and when does the story take place? And who is the main character, and what do they want?

If you do it right, the context provides a number of benefits for the storyteller and the listeners. It grabs the listeners’ attention. It tells them if the story is going to be relevant to them and their situation. It builds on the Hook to generate more excitement about hearing the rest of the story. And it also helps the listeners understand the lesson in the story in a more practical fashion, so they can apply it to their particular situation.

So, let’s start with the where and when.

Clearly stating upfront where and when the story took place satisfies a fundamental curiosity humans have when trying to understand something that happened. If you don’t satisfy that curiosity early on in a story, it creates a dissonance for the audience—an unanswered question that nags at them until they get the answer.

Another benefit of starting the story with the where and when is that it provides instant credibility. If I start a story by saying, “20 years ago at the University of Central Florida,” what do you immediately assume about the story? That it’s a true story. And if my story started, “Once upon a time, in a land far away…” you’d know the story is made up. But what if I didn’t say either of those things and just started into the plot of a story? You wouldn’t really be sure if it was true or not. Provide the where and when upfront and remove all doubt, without having to say, “Now, this is a true story” which really just sounds defensive.

Okay, the second question in the context is about the main character. Your story will be more effective the more relatable your main character is to your audience. They should be able to see themselves in that person. So here, you’ll want to avoid what I call the Superman effect. If you tell me a story about how Superman saved the day, that might entertain me. But it won’t help me do my job, because I can’t fly or bend steel bars with my hands. But you tell me a story about my predecessor five years ago when they had my job and were struggling with the same problems I’m having now, now I’m all ears.

Now, for a lot of people, the closest they’ve ever come to crafting a real story at work is writing a case study. And in case of studies, the main character is usually a company: “The company did this… then the company did that.” But an impersonal corporate entity isn’t nearly as relatable to a human being as another human being. So, whenever possible, your main characters should be people, not companies.

And, an easy way to write a story about people instead of a company is to choose one or more people at the company to serve as the main characters and tell the story from their perspective. So, instead of the company doing this and the company doing that, it becomes “Bob, the marketing director, did this, and Sally, the product designer, did that.”

Now, here’s a watch out: it’s not uncommon for some people to cast themselves as the hero and main character in most of their stories. But when you’re the hero in most of your stories, you come across as arrogant and self-centered. Try using stories about other people more often, and especially stories about your audience. Who doesn’t love to hear stories about themselves?

Okay, the third and last aspect of context is, “What does the main character want?” In other words, what is your main character’s motivation in the story? Are they trying to save the world, or beat their competition? Are they trying to make their profit objective, or just not get fired? Whatever it is, your main character’s objective should be one your audience would deem worthy, or at least intriguing. Otherwise, they lose interest in your story.

Alright, once you’ve shared where and when the story takes place, who the main character is, and what they wanted, then you’re ready to move on to the Challenge.

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Written by

Paul Andrew Smith