Lessons in storytelling from my seven-year-old grandson.

I gave myself an early birthday gift and took a week off to visit my family and friends in the San Francisco Bay area. It was a welcomed respite from the rigor of weekly emails and blogposts, workshops, and coaching.
November 8, 2021

A change of setting and the company of loved ones can shift your outlook. But I did not anticipate that my seven-year-old grandson, Mo, would give me a fresh perspective on storytelling during my visit. The books he selected for our morning reading time heightened my awareness of the immense power of children’s literature to unveil new ways to influence and captivate the world of business.

My birthday gift to you is to share those sparks of inspiration. Or at the very least I will show you ways to set off your own sparks of storytelling magic.

When I coach business leaders on public speaking and presentations, storytelling is often a speed bump on the road to skilled communication. “I have no stories to tell.” ‘‘I am not a natural storyteller.” These are among the litany of reasons why executives are cautious about weaving stories into their speeches, sales meetings, investor pitches, press conferences, and other high-stakes presentations. 

The truth is that stories are the best way to persuade and influence people to your point of view. It has been proven that facts backed by compelling stories are 20x more likely to be understood and remembered by an audience. That is because stories well selected and told travel to the minds of your listeners via their hearts and become a shared emotional experience for both the teller and the listener. But good storytelling takes practice and understanding of the deep wisdom and human connections that characterize the right stories told at the right time to the right audience.

Human beings are hard-wired for stories. Our parents read us stories to help us navigate the world and provide a foundation for becoming functioning adults. Annette Simmons, in her extraordinary guide to storytelling and culture, The Story Factor, writes: “Stories pass along behavioral information that is just as important to our survival as the information passed along in our DNA.”

Scanning the titles of the books in my grandson’s room, the common threads were the core values of being a responsible human: the importance of collaboration, friendship, loving ourselves, respecting our parents, kindness, generosity, tolerance, and the consequences of our actions.

Mixed in with modern children’s literature, his library included classic collections of fairy tales and fables by Hans Christian Andersen, Aesop, and the Brothers Grimm. As Mo and I sampled some of his favorites, here is what I observed they have in common:

There are three parts to most stories: the beginning, middle and end.

The beginning usually starts with the ambiguous, “Once upon a time,” followed by an arc of conflict, danger, and struggle. The end is characterized by “And they lived happily ever after.” Our ears have been accustomed to the three-part structure with a happy ending. This provides a starting template for a story you might use to move people to action with an authentic personal story of success. Take the Piped Piper of Hamelin, who rid the town of rats, replaced the inept mayor, and “from then on the town of Hamelin thrived.” 

There are recurring themes and patterns.

In these themes, love, trust, honesty, and justice prevail despite selfishness and greed. The good and evil, poor and rich, old and young contrast in the dance of life. Here are four examples from Mo’s library:

Theme: Do not be stupid. Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, based on his own childhood in Brooklyn, illustrates the need to balance personal freedom and the consequences of our behavior with the love of family—and he does it in just 338 words.

Theme: Loyalty is good. The cherished Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White is the account of a barn spider named Charlotte who places the life of her friend Wilbur, a livestock pig, above her own.

Theme: Clean up your messes. In Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat, the Cat entices two children alone at home to have messy fun despite the Goldfish’s warning that they would be punished by their parents when they returned. The Cat pulls off a massive last-minute cleanup. In other words, it is OK to have fun, “but you have to know how.”

Theme: Tell the truth.The Boy Who Cried Wolf reminds us that people who lie and sound false alarms will be rebuked by their neighbors. Even when and if they tell the truth, no one will believe them.

There are tales of wonder and fantasy with strong moral dilemmas.

By creating Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling gave us a version of the magic school where budding wizards are caught up in the push and pull between doing magic and causing harm to others.

The 100-year-old story of The Wizard of Oz by Frank Baum has been gleaned for business wisdom including a book on leadership by Dorothy’s dog, Toto. Among the lessons in Baum’s original and the movie version, too, are that you learn to appreciate what you have when you lose it, that what you seek externally is already within, and that courage and fear can coexist. These themes should be familiar to readers of leadership success books.

There are ancient stories with relevant lessons for wholehearted living today.

Aesop’s fables date back 2,500 years yet remain meaningful and relatable because they bear timeless wisdom. Aesop, a slave, and storyteller in ancient Greece, placed animal characters in metaphorical settings to teach us about never giving up (The Tortoise and the Hare), the value of hard work (The Ant and the Grasshopper), that good ideas and execution go hand in hand (Bell and the Cat), to lead by example (The Two Crabs), and myriad others.

There is metamorphosis and transformation.

The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen follows the journey of a young mermaid who is willing to give up her life in the sea to gain a human soul. The love of a girl named Beauty transforms the Beast into a handsome prince. And let us not forget the countess frogs morphed into handsome young men by a mere kiss. You get the idea. Without a transformation, a marked change in a situation, a story can fall flat. It is in the peaks and valleys that the heart beats faster and our memories grow stronger. Business stories are no different.

Find your own stories.

I tell my clients that powerful public speaking and inspiring storytelling will change your life and transform your audience. This is not a fairy tale. You can transform into a confident and influential speaker and storyteller. It takes work, practice, and dedication. 

Children’s literature is just one fountain of inspiration for stories. But you can find them anywhere there are events and situations that create strong emotions. Go on a scavenger hunt for stories about people you admire. You cannot assume you are aware of someone’s story. Ask people you know and strangers alike to share their personal narratives. Most people will gladly oblige. Read biographies of people who made a difference in the world. Look to your own childhood and formative years for pivotal moments that shaped your life. Start a story bank from your favorite fairy tales and fables as a child. Choose stories with strong moral messages, like Aesop’s fables, to activate memories of similar situations you have observed or lived.

The stories that resonate most are usually those that are about specific events that happened to you—the ups and downs, moments of triumph or despair, embarrassment or bliss. If your personal story collection is a bit thin, you can explore a seven-year-old child’s bookshelf for lessons and deep wisdom to jog your memory. 

Rosemary Ravinal

I teach business leaders how to shine on video calls and have more productive virtual engagement. As Founder/Chief Trainer at RMR Communications Consulting, I also help executives master the art of public speaking, inspiring presentations, and authoritative media interviews online and in person. My company’s services are available in English and Spanish in South Florida and elsewhere.

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