Before you ask – yes, you have a story to tell. Everyone does. “But I’m just a software developer,” one of my clients once protested. In the past ten minutes, he’d responded to my questions with one-syllable answers, and he was starting to get a little desperate. “It’s all zeros and ones. There’s no story there.” But we didn’t give up that easily. We delved into the topic, adamant that there was more to it. Here’s what we discovered: to him, those number sequences were as rhythmic as they were elegant. “There’s such beauty in cleanly written code,” he said. “I’m not sure if I can explain it.”
It turned out he could. We went back to his childhood: at the age of eight, he had discovered striking similarities between mathematics and melodies. A huge fan of classical music, he ‘saw’ the musicality in software code the way musicians hear it in their minds. “I orchestrate with my computer,” he said an hour into our conversation (incidentally, he couldn’t stop smiling at this point). “If you think about it, I’m an arranger and a conductor – of the weirdest of all orchestras, that is. But still.”
A road paved with narratives
Stories come in different shapes and sizes. They have existed since the beginning of mankind, and the ways in which we tell them have changed significantly over time (for example, it’s pretty amazing how we went from cave drawings to 3D movies). But the concept is the same. In some cases, the content is, too – even today, we like to immerse ourselves in the mythological worlds of the ancient Greeks and Romans. And rightly so. There’s a lot of wisdom to glean from their myths, and we can acquire it in the most entertaining way.
The thing is, people have always tried to understand the workings of the world and everything beyond it through the framework that stories offer. We need that structure, or scaffolding, to fathom who we are, why we are, and what’s going on around us. Obviously, the answers to all three of those questions are up for heated debate. But my point is, the road to that discussion is paved with narratives.
From mind to paper
So, let’s turn it around: what if you want to convey what you believe in? What if you’ve got a message to share? First things first: you won’t get far if you don’t have your facts straight. But you’ll also fail if you can’t wrap those facts in an appealing packaging: an interesting, genuine, enthralling story. Why?
Well, take some philosophers whose work has stood the test of time. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote poems on nature, Henry David Thoreau penned a personal account of his two-year experience in the woods, and Jean-Paul Sartre explained his theory of existentialism in novels with interesting plots and well-developed characters. These works contained ruminative messages, but their writers conveyed them in an accessible way. Of course, there are plenty of philosophers who stuck to essays, some of them purely theoretical. And although these have affected the lives and thought processes of many as well (mine included), they’re not as accessible. I’ve recommended some of these works to people only to have them tell me they’d given up halfway. Not because they weren’t interested in the subject matter, but because they struggled to get through the dry passages.
The age-old adage: show, don’t tell
The way to a person’s mind might be a narrative-lacking essay, but the way to their heart will always be a story. The ancient Greeks and Romans knew this – which may have been the reason why they created a myth around every theme they wanted to convey. If you think about it, the ‘show-don’t-tell principle’ applies here: the Greeks could have just told us about the concept of a self-fulfilling prophecy, but they used gripping tales to show us how it works. A successful approach – their mythology has made a lasting impact.
Throughout the ages, parents have followed their example by incorporating life lessons into fascinating stories to teach young children about ethics. Hence the steady popularity of fairy tales.
Here’s the lesson we can draw from history: people will digest what you tell them if you tell them in the right way. Since we connect on the human level, our communication should be concrete and tangible rather than abstract and emotionless. When it comes to our professional lives, this means you should let your target audience in. Tell them who you are and what makes you tick. Remember that stories create empathy: they help us identify with unfamiliar situations, interconnecting people from all walks of life.
One story, many outcomes
Back to my client, the software developer slash math genius slash music aficionado. Unearthing his story resulted in several things. First, I used it as a foundation to write several blogs as well as a bio he used in online and offline communications. Soon, our efforts bore fruit: the content led potential clients to contact him, and he strengthened relationships with existing clients. Moreover, he went on to incorporate his love for music into an application. I can’t share any project specifics (as these are confidential), but suffice to say it was a major success, and everyone involved had a lot of fun throughout the development process. Bottom line: for this software developer, discovering his story and putting it into words led to growth at a personal and professional level.
The moral of this story: people do business with people, not with the brick-and-mortar or digital version of an organization. So, unearth your story. It will provide insight and make for a happier audience. And you might discover some interesting things about yourself as well.