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How does one tell a story in an interesting way, so that it does not become a boring account of facts?

Storytelling is a buzz word which Harvard Business Review used to describe one of the best business ideas of 2006. The gist of the idea is as follows: "The best way to give a report or a presentation and to share knowledge is to tell a story". It is believed that storytelling in the modern sense of the word was first suggested by David M. Armstrong, who introduced this concept in his book Managing by Storying Around. Some resources indicate, though, that people realized the importance of stories even before him.

Hardly anybody would doubt the method is good. But there are some questions. How does one pick an appropriate story? How does one tell a story in an interesting way, so that it does not become a boring account of facts? Finally, how does one create a story, if there is no story as such and all one has is lots and lots of information?

In other words, how does one master storytelling? In order to find the answer, we need to become clear about what a story is.

Intuitively, we (along, perhaps, with many others) have long found the secret and have been using it in our work. But we found all the theory and methodology clearly presented (guess where!) in manuals for screenwriters. STORY by Robert McKee proved to be one of the most useful among them. Aleksandr Mitta describes the same principles in his book Cinema between heaven and hell, and does it in a much more interesting way, yet McKee does it in a more strict and "technological" way.

Now let us imagine that we need to present some information about a company, present its valuable attribute, and we want to either find or create a story for this purpose.

Now, let us list the elements of a successful story.

First, stories always happen to a protagonist. We need a protagonist. This may be a person or an organization, but if it is an organization, we need to speak of it as if it were an animated object. Also, a narrator, a presenter, a real or even "hypothetical" person, or even any creature animated by our fantasy may be the protagonist.

Second, a story must involve a change. A transformation. And this should be a change of values; in other words, the protagonist must acquire something important he did not have earlier. This is perhaps the most important and indispensable attribute of a story. Without a change, it is not a story-it is a narration.

Third, an interesting story always causes empathy, always makes viewers unconsciously identify themselves with the protagonist. In other words, a mere account of facts is not a story. An abstract story, in our case, is also not a story.

Next, if the events take place in the real world, it is very important to have a formal framework, or "coordinates": when, where and how long did it take place.

Events are the substance of a story. General words may only cement pieces together; they cannot be the content. A story which consists merely of general words is a puddle of cement. Finding facts, events and examples is the most difficult and at the same the most interesting job.

Now let us imagine that we need to present some information about a company, present its valuable attribute, and we want to either find or create a story for this purpose.

First thing we need to do is do some research. We should read some corporate press, talk to some people, search through the Web and our memory.

Lets say, a film about a major metallurgy plant speaks of how the company takes care of its employees. We find an excellent story on the subject in a corporate newspaper: on a certain date, in a certain place, several liters of liquid metal got spilled on a certain worker. But the worker was not hurt because, fully in keeping with safety regulations, he was wearing protection gear. After that incident, he started telling his coworkers how important it is to observe safety regulations and even became a safety engineer, much respected by his coworkers.

This is a story. There is a protagonist, an event with a date and a place, a significant change in the protagonists life. Such a story says much more about how the company takes care of its employees than general phrases about "enhancing workplace safety." The main thing here is not that the worker was not hurt; it is that this incident made him a different person, a safety engineer; it is that the company deemed it useful and gave him such an opportunity. In fact, company managers have already applied "storytelling" here: they used a fortunate occasion to effectively promote safety rules. We just need to repeat their move in our film.

In case there is absolutely nothing you can find (which is a rare occasion but it does happen), we can "create" a story. What we are talking about is not fiction. (Fiction does not belong in our information-based work.) The point is to present information in the form of a story.

One of the most simple yet effective methods is to use the following scheme: you didnt know-you find out-you are amazed-you change your attitude. Such a change may happen to a film narrator, to a report presenter, or to any company employee. Such situations are interesting because they make viewers experience the same emotions (amazement, admiration) as the protagonist. This method was used effectively in the film we made for the MosTransGaz anniversary: Kirill Nabutov, who knew absolutely nothing about the industry, discovers things he never considered: the sophisticated and fascinating technologies used for transporting gas. It is interesting for viewers who have been working in this field for decades to take a look at their daily work from the viewpoint of a stranger and to share his amazement. Viewers who are strangers to the industry will be even more interested in learning something new. Its a good, effective method.

In 2007, An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gores documentary about climate change, won Academy Awards for Best Documentary Feature. The film consists almost entirely of a sequence of stories, and it presents each fact, every evidence as a detective story. Even charts demonstrating climate change are presented as "mind-blowing." Thats why it is not difficult to watch them, even though there are quite a few of them. The film is full of real-life, serious, amazing stories. But right now we are mostly interested in a fully invented and even somewhat stupid story of a cartoon frog. The author had to illustrate the idea that people always tend to ignore danger until something terrible happens. For this purpose, a cartoon frog first tried to get into boiling water and immediately jumped out of it (its too hot!), but it was able to remain calmly in warm water which gradually became hotter and hotter, not worrying until until until somebody rescued it. The frog represented mankind which does not care about global warming. Also, it was the protagonist of an invented mini-story.

In other words, as long as we remember a few principles of storytelling, we can present any fact, any information in an interesting, not boring, way.

Finally, we need to ask whether storytelling is always necessary. Perhaps not. If what your audience is looking for is information, there is no need to add drama artificially (especially if the information is of negative nature). In this case, your listener is involved in the real story, and this may be more than enough for him.

Andrey Skvortsov
CEO, Mercator group

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