The gigantic power of tiny stories

Imagine the huge crowd of racers at the starting line of the Boston Marathon. Everybody there has different goals and different levels of ability. But there’s one thing that binds them all together - everybody at that starting line has to run.

Business communication is like that for knowledge workers. Regardless of how good you are or how much you enjoy it, you have to communicate if you want to accomplish anything in your career. You’re in the race, like it or not. 

The good news is that you can tweak what you’re doing and get better with less effort. Sometimes dramatically so. 

I think about these little tweaks a lot - what is the smallest thing a busy person like you can do differently to get better results when communicating? Using anaphora is one. The rule of three is another. Stack enough small changes together and you’ve got something big.

The power of stories

One of my favorite little tweaks is the use of “tiny stories.” Basically, anytime you would describe something (“telling” your audience about it), you can use a tiny story instead to achieve more resonance with your audience and keep them interested in what you’re saying (“showing”).

Stories work because:

  • They trigger an emotional response. We more easily remember emotionally charged content.

  • They make abstract issues more relatable. Stories have a main character. That gives us someone to root for, even if we don’t know anything about the specific challenge they are facing.

  • They humanize the person telling the story (aka you). People want to connect with people, so this matters.

  • They show instead of telling. In life, showing always beats telling. Stories are probably the easiest way to do that.

Using tiny stories effectively

A tiny story is still a story. That means it needs a beginning, a middle and an end. A really basic formula for a good story is:

So you just need three things and you can do it all in a few sentences. 

  • A person we can root for. This could be a customer, , a person you’re recommending, a cute little dog that’s trying to get home, etc.

  • Tension caused by some challenge they need to figure out. Any story without tension will sound boring. The challenge can be big (“I need to destroy this ring in the fires of Mordor”) or small (“I want to make a sandwich but I’m out of bread.” Actually, come to think of it that’s a big challenge.)

  • Resolution caused by the person successfully grappling with the challenge. The resolution, which is some action a person takes, is how you show the thing you were telling about. For example, if we want the story to show how Ned is kind, the resolution is the part where he does a good deed (e.g. “Ned went out of his way to help a stranded motorist call a tow truck.”)

Putting it to work

Explaining why someone is great:

  • Telling: “When it comes to making sure our clients are happy, no one is more dedicated than Rosie. She always goes the extra mile, and she has brought more new business to the firm than anyone else.”  

  • Showing: “One busy morning, a stressed-out client knocked on Rosie’s door. He didn’t understand his tax return. She spent two hours with him going through it line by line. One year later, he’s moved all of his business to our firm.”

Launching a new product:

  • Telling: “I’m super excited that we’re launching Schedulr, a new feature that auto-schedules your meetings to save you time. It takes all of your messages and turns them into a series of tidy meetings with agendas.”

  • Showing: “Let me tell you about my friend Matt. Every morning, he gets that same sense of dread when he opens his computer to a sea of urgent messages and pings. Last week, he tried the new Schedulr plugin. He clicked it and - POOF! - most of the messages disappeared.”    

Celebrating a team win:

  • Telling: “A huge congrats to the sales team for hitting 125% of their target this quarter. That’s some serious dedication!”

  • Showing: “When Jane told me she thought her team could beat their quarterly number, I nodded politely - but I had my doubts. It was the ambitious target we ever set! But they came up with a really smart way to share their workload, and they absolutely crushed the number. 125%! I’m a believer!”

When in doubt, remember that specificity is credibility!

Help me help you

Want to brainstorm on how to use tiny stories effectively in your own work? Have a question or something not clear? Just hit reply and we can work it through together. Happy storytelling!