Let’s say you’ve decided to add some stories to your presentations, meetings, and conversations, so that what you have to say will be more memorable, real, engaging, and meaningful.
A question people often ask me when they’re getting started is, “Where do I look for stories?”
A story is simply something that happened, that’s interesting enough to be worth reflecting on and telling someone about. Like anything you tune your attention to, once you become more aware of stories and start looking for interesting things happening around you, you’ll start finding them everywhere. But here are four excellent places to start looking.
1) Things that have happened to you, or that you have noticed happening around you
This is my favourite place to look for stories, partly because your own stories have the greatest impact, and partly because--not to get too heavy on you here--looking for stories in your own life causes you to reflect on your experiences and what they mean. It’s a marvellous antidote to a frenetic pace of life.
The events you look for can be things that happened today, or things that happened many years ago. They can be small and mundane (“I tried doing something a little differently today at work. Here’s what happened and what I learned from it. You might like to try it too…”) Or they can be very personal. (“When I was 24, I had an experience that changed the course of my life…”) In general, the more personal a story is, the more inspiring people will find it. But it’s not necessary for all, or indeed any, of your stories to be like that. Simple, everyday occurrences--anything you’ve noticed that’s interesting--make really useful stories.
2) Things that have happened to people you know
I’m often asked, is it OK to use other people’s stories? The answer is a qualified yes. The caveats are that first, you should never pretend it happened to you if it didn’t. If it happened to someone else, say so. And second, you need to be confident that they wouldn’t mind you telling the story. Use your judgment about whether you need to ask permission, or whether you need to protect identities. Treat other people’s stories with respect.
3) Case studies, scientific experiments, history, biography and current events
Business books, biography, history, popular science, newspapers, journals and magazines are a treasure trove of stories. If you find an event interesting, and you learn something from it that’s relevant to your work or life, other people will too. Remember, you’re not just looking for facts, you’re looking for things that happened.
4) Movies, novels, myths and folklore
Fiction is also a good source of stories you can use at work. For example, have you seen The Martian with Matt Damon, or read the novel by Andy Weir? If you haven’t, do it now. I’ll wait.... Good. Now, how many things could you learn from how Mark Watney approaches being stranded on Mars? Plenty, I bet. In fact, according to some theories this is one of the main functions of fiction, and it’s why we are so hooked on it. Fiction lets us learn vicariously from other people’s extreme experiences, even if those other people never really existed. One caution here though--make sure most of your stories are taken from real life. If you’re looking for a guideline, I’d say use 80-90% from real life, 10-20% from fiction.
Stories are everywhere, happening all around you. You only have to begin noticing them to start building your own collection of stories you can use at work. What have you noticed happening today that’s interesting?