IDEO is the legendary creative firm credited with designing the first mouse for Apple, the first notebook-style computer, and award-winning designs for products in nearly every category.
Effective storytelling within teams is a crucial element in the success of a creative project at IDEO. And that’s why former IDEO partner and general manager, Fred Dust, addressed the topic in his new book, Making Conversation.
During a recent Zoom interview, Dust shared four principles of storytelling that will help entrepreneurs, leaders, and business professionals make meaningful connections with their customers.
Dust calls stories “illuminations.” It’s a great word for what stories do.
“Stories are simple, delightful illuminations that help people understand you more completely,” says Dust. “Providing these moments of illumination is integral to the ability to engage and connect with people you’re in conversation with.”
A compelling story—an illumination—follows four principles.
1. A great story is short.
It’s not necessary to tell your listener everything. If someone asked me which way I took to get to their house, I’d say “highway 680,” or whatever the main route was. They don’t need to know every turn.
Stories should be part of every job interview. When a recruiter asks, “Tell me about a time when you…” they’re looking for a story—a good story. Don’t recount every aspect of your life. We don’t need to know how you got the job if you’re simply sharing one relevant experience from the your previous job.
Learn to omit irrelevant details from the stories you tell. If the detail doesn’t advance the story, leave it out.
2. A great story is emotional.
We watch movies or read books to be moved, to feel something. The story you tell should have the goal of making your listener feel an emotion: anger, frustration, joy, humor, or a sense of awe about someone who overcame hurdles to achieve the impossible.
Dust offers the following advice for finding the emotional hook.
“As you review the stories you tell often—or the ones you think are particularly illuminating about you, your values, and your life—first make sure they indeed have an emotional core. If you can’t simply spot the predominant emotion in a story, then dig deeper.”
3. A great story ends.
A bad storyteller rambles; a good storyteller knows when to end.
If your partner asks you about your day, they’re not looking for a minute-by-minute recount from the moment you woke up. They’re looking for one event that shines a light on the past twelve hours or since they last saw you.
“Find the truly revelatory piece of your story and make that where your story stops,” says Dust.
4. A great story has a twist.
We tend to remember surprises, twists, and unexpected reveals. Why do you think Steve Jobs often ended presentations with “one more thing?” Jobs knew audiences wanted a little magic in their presentations and magicians are experts are surprises.
I’ve been giving many interviews to podcasters and bloggers over the last eight months. Some ask for personal stories that illuminate something about my background or help to explain why I remain positive and optimistic in this time of chaos.
The story I often tell is about my dad who shaped my values. The story follows the four principles:
My father spent the most formative five years of his teenage life as a prisoner in World War II. He lived in Italy. Although he didn’t fight for the Italian army, the enemy rounded up young men and sent them to a concentration camp. He tried to escape twice and got caught. Each time, he feared that he’d be executed, but survived. After the war, he married and my parents came to America. My dad taught himself engineering and together they built a nice middle-class life for their family. He taught me three things: make your own opportunity, live in a state of gratitude, and always have hope that tomorrow will be a better day.
The story has an emotional connection (overcoming hardship), it’s short (35 seconds), it ends after the lesson, and it has one or two small twists.
Stories shouldn’t be complicated, but they should be intentional. Following these four principles will help you design meaningful and, ultimately, more successful conversations.
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