If you understand why stories stick and how to tell them well, you can literally change people’s minds and get any message across.
Use simple language
Many experienced professionals use lot of jargon that is domain or field specific language. Jargon consists of words that mainly insiders understand and/or is often language that is difficult to follow.
Gallo’s recommendation is to keep it simple: think about your audience and the level of your messaging.
Who needs to understand this topic and what I am trying to communicate? My professor or someone without same technical expertise? In many cases, eighth-grade readability is preferable as it is easy to read.
Gallo recommends using online tools to get an idea how simple vs complex your writing is: for example, you can test the level of complexity via using the Hemingway App.
Simple messages are often better remembered. For example, famous quotes are often very short but memorable.
There’s a neuroscience explanation for this: the less time it takes for the brain to comprehend a sentence, the quicker it can understand it, and the faster a revelation can follow.
With complex language, most of our brainpower goes into figuring out what it actually means rather than understanding it and reaching an insight. And we lose the audience quickly…
Simple ideas are the most powerful
This same advice applies to presentations: make them simple and focus on one powerful idea even if your topic is insanely complex.
We often try to cram in everything we know about our topic in a 20 min presentation to cover everything.
But again, Gallo advises the opposite: focus on your big idea, make it into an exciting and memorable story that gives people an element of surprise, and do it in no more than 10 minutes.
Our brains crave for coherence but they also thrive on novelty: presenting a simple but exciting idea with clear language reaches the brain faster.
Introduce your big idea in the first 15 seconds of the presentation to give the curious brain an answer that you expand on for the rest of the presentation.
Many company directors and investors in fact test their staff’s capabilities by asking them to deliver a 10-min presentation: if you cannot convince me in 10 minutes, a longer presentation will not do the job either.
For example, Adam Alter condensed his 80,000 word book into a TED talk that made the complex topic of screens & happiness into an interesting story, with over 4 million views.
Take away: Well designed, simple stories matter.
Stick to the story structure
We can include many of the structures and tricks from Hollywood movies in how we structure presentations.
This is called the Three-Act Storytelling Structure where you move from background to problem and finally to a solution.
The Act 1 is really the set up of your story: what is happening and why. This lays the foundation for people to understand the current state of the play (eg the current state of a business or the competitive landscape).
The Act 2 is The Confrontation or The Conflict: it is where the person or company faces a major problem or obstacle; this is where you highlight the many challenges that you face.
In movies, this is where the character struggles the most, and we are glued on the edge of our seats whether the character overcomes the challenge or solves the problem.
The Act 3 is The Resolution: but all hope is not lost! Something is possible and that something suddenly turns everything around, and shows a way through all these issues.
The three-act structure is common for example in probably the most famous analysis of stories: The Hero’s Journey where the hero struggles and finally triumphs.
Gallo does not suggest that each presentation must contain massive drama but that the key factors that make humans curious and interested lie in the intersection of not knowing, understanding a challenge, and seeing that there are new alternatives or solutions.
Utilising these elements in our stories makes us expert communicators if we know what kinds of messages have the most impact.
Communication as a key competence of the future
Especially in an era where many jobs are being replaced or redefined by Artificial Intelligence, Gallo maintains that the ability to communicate is and will remain as a key competence of humans.
Becoming a master storyteller is a skill that can be learned like any other. The secret is, as with most things in life, that we actually practice. Rehearsing and trialling different ways of telling our story is what makes us better storytellers.
Gallo’s book has both triumphs (amazing people, ideas and stories) and fails (where people have totally failed to explain what they are trying to achieve). Both of such moments can teach us how to be more vigilant in how we use words and connect our ideas with the audience.
The book again has also made me realise more and more how important it is also for climate adaptation professionals to have excellent skills in storytelling. Stories are what make or break the way people understand what we are trying to do.
Collectively, we have an amazing opportunity to tell “adaptation stories” as to how communities and organisations around the world are adapting and share these learnings in a way that ignite our imagination of what can be done now and in the future.
Ps. if you are interested in learning more about storytelling and how to do it well, I highly recommend Gallo’s book. Also, a recent episode in Coaching for Leaders podcast 553 “4 Storytelling Mistakes Leaders Make”, with David Hutchens. The examples in that episode just blew my mind, especially the one about NASA.