The Ancient Art of Storytelling

Before the onslaught of technology and information that follows us everywhere there was one effective method for passing along information from person to person, village to village, civilization to civilization:  Storytelling.

Before there was the ability to write, or later print to pass along written word, it was left to the memory and ability of individuals to verbally share information, with the purpose to persuade, inform, and connect.  It was not only necessary—it was something that became a source of entertainment.  Despite the advances in our communication over thousands of years, this fundamental component of communication is still as relevant as it was in ancient cultures. Storytelling is still what engages, inspires, and motivates. 

The Most Effective Communicators Agree

Dan Simon is CEO and cofounder of Vested, a New York-based communications consulting firm that has run campaigns for some of the biggest brands in finance, including Bloomberg, Citigroup, JP Morgan, and Citadel. He also happens to be a personal mentor who’s been invaluable over the years in helping me to properly vary my own vocal rhythms. For Simon, great communication is all about finding the right mix of serious versus lighthearted moments, statistics, and gripping human stories, as well as fast versus slow speech cadences. It is variability, he insists, that is critical to capturing and holding an audience’s attention. Anything else is just monotone soliloquy on a fast track to death by PowerPoint.

Even in a world buried under an avalanche of digital communication technologies, Simon is steadfast in his conviction that all great communicators have one thing in common: They are great storytellers. What’s old is new again. Whether around campfires or modern boardrooms, the best at persuasively communicating their thoughts, fears, and aspirations have done so in story form.

PowerPoint presentations are fine, Simon argues, but visual metaphors are even better. Picture a scene in ancient Egypt five thousand years ago. Two women are sitting by the banks of the Nile. One is crying because she just broke up with her boyfriend only to hear her friend say, “Don’t worry, there are plenty of fish in the sea.” Think about the powerful simplicity of that metaphor. Simon explains that visual metaphors are like “linguistic fractals,” using imagery to condense an enormous amount of information into a concise phrase. A PowerPoint slide, no matter how artfully crafted, can never resonate as powerfully as a well-placed, well-timed visual metaphor that paints a rich image in the mind of an audience.

“The content isn’t going to sell itself,” says Simon. “The great speakers are not always the ones with the better content. Strong delivery often compensates for weak material . . . .”  When it comes to your upcoming presentations, tell a story. Approach your information from the perspective of crafting a persuasive narrative.  Need ideas of how to do that?  Learn more about how the 10 Commandments of Great Communicators can help you become the most effective speaker from my book A Climb to the Top.