“If you want to use the power of ‘story’, you need to make sure you understand what storytelling actually means”.
‘Storytelling’ is bandied about in media boardrooms from London to New York to Sydney – but do you really know what it means? It’s a question at the heart of a Now Go Create course run by stand-up comedian-turned-screenwriter Max Dickins, who says that understanding what storytelling really is can transform a business. We asked Max for the low-down on his masterclass which we’ve run for Facebook and Accenture Digital, amongst many others.
Most people in the media think they have a good idea about storytelling, Max – are they often wrong?
I’ve found that the word storytelling is a bit like the word happiness where it’s a word that means everything and nothing, because almost everyone has a different definition of what it means. In media, a lot of people use the word storytelling when they’re not doing anything of the sort; storytelling is often seen by people as a synonym for ‘presenting information’ or talking about a strategy or a process or a customer journey.
So what is a story?
Stories have people in them, human beings, who are having experiences that they have an emotional reaction to. And through going through that process they learn some insight. The benefit of doing training is that it can help people really see when they are and when they are not telling a story, and that’s important because if you want to use the power of a story – and it is a very powerful technique – you need to make sure you understand what it is.
Are some of its key elements taken from the best traditions of movies and literature?
What we can learn from movies and literature – and plays – is structure. There’s lot of books about this: all stories have a similar underlying structure, and it is so ubiquitous that it must fit in with how we understand the world. Structure is the order in which you present information, and if you can present it in a certain order and in a certain way you can give it more impact. What we learn from movies and literature is an understanding of effective structure that we can then map onto a more business-style message.
Is the storytelling ethos applicable to a product no matter how mundane it is?
I think it’s applicable to every product, because what you want to do when telling someone about something that you want them to buy is show them why they will benefit from that product. So what you can do is put a human being in the middle of it and show the human benefit that is brought about by this product – and stories are a really useful way of doing this because you make the consumer of that product the hero of the story and they can then see why the product is useful to them. Often in business people don’t do that – they forget about the benefit and they obsess over the features. They lose the human benefit, which is central to why someone would buy.
Where did you learn about storytelling?
My background has been and continues to be in the arts. I was a radio presenter for Absolute Radio for a few years, I had five or six years on the stand-up comedy circuit, did several solo Edinburgh Shows including one called My Groupon Adventure which became my first book in 2016. It was the story of how I spent two years of my life doing every single deal I could find on Groupon to teach myself to be spontaneous – everything from colonic irrigation to wrestling alligators, and I even managed to convince Groupon to sell a date with me on their website. From there I’ve become a playwright and I’m developing TV drama scripts with the BBC at the moment.
So stories are a big part of your life?
My passion is story, and it’s what I think about and play with all the time. The wall of my living room right now is covered with pieces of card as I try to plot out the pilot episode of a TV drama I’m working on – and I’m using all the techniques that we use during the course, so I’m thinking about structure, who the hero is and trying to make sure I can make everything clear and put emotion into things. These are things that people in the business community can really use.
How does storytelling dovetail into creativity?
In two ways. (Now Go Create founder) Claire’s essential premise is that we are all creative: we’re born creative and we just need to learn to remember that quality about ourselves or to learn some skills that can bring it out. In the same way, we’re all born storytellers: everyone tells stories round the diner table and in the pub – but then we get into the office and we throw that skill away. It’s about taking a natural capacity and polishing it up. The other way is that stories are a real balance of right and left brain. The right brain is shorthand for our creative side which is crucial to story and emotion, but it has to be matched to the left hand side of our brain which is concerned with logic and patterns. Stories are when emotions and structure meet, and when you have those together you can tell a really powerful message.
Does self belief help? Once people believe they understand storytelling and feel they can do it, are they capable of ‘magic’?
Like anything, self-belief is central to it. When you realise you were born with the capacity to do this that’s empowering, and then you perhaps create some great stories which lead to impact and confidence is something that appears in the rear view mirror. You suddenly realise you’re a lot more confident at communicating than you were before.
Finally, what’s your top tip for getting the creative juices flowing?
My biggest tip is to go for volume when you’re trying to tackle a problem; jot down as many ideas as you can and try not to judge them. A lot will be useless, but you will find stuff you never would have got to if you were very judgemental at the start. Take the pressure off yourself and dump your ideas down. The other thing is to just be fascinated by the world. Be curious, learn stuff, talk to people, read: you’ve got to have stuff knocking about your noggin in order to connect things up.