Matching Story With Meaning

As you tell your story, a few people in the audience might have a question in their head that they’re not asking.

The question is this: “Why are you telling me this?”

Maybe they’re just excited to get the upshot. Or maybe they’re impatient, or even skeptical you’re taking them somewhere worth going.

Don’t worry. It’s natural. Because as long as you know where you’re going, and you’re controlling the vehicle, all is well. You are building to your message, the purpose you have for telling the story.

But here’s the catch: your message needs to be a good one. And everything in your story has to lead to it.

By good, I mean relevant. Relevant to the moment, and to the audience.

The message of your story is not a data point, and doesn’t have to be a ‘moral’. And there can’t be five. Just one. The message of your story is the treasure that your story carries, the one that you wish to unveil to the particular audience, at this particular time.

Each of your stories may deliver a slightly a different message depending on the moment. And there are different ways of finding that message, depending on your starting point. Here are three:

1. You’ve got a story, but lack the right message.

Sometimes I find that a story has a way of calling out itself. I want to be told, it says. I’ve got something to say! You may not know why at first, but with some consideration, it becomes more clear. Sometimes, when I’m puzzling about the purpose of a story, I go back to the moment in question, get as specific to the moment as I can, and freeze the scene.

Once you have thought of the story you want to tell, or when you’re practicing telling the story in a different way than you’ve told it before, you can ask yourself: Why do I want to tell this?

As you prepare, scan across the story, and ask: What is this story really about? Depending on the timing and the audience, it could be about a few different things. Look around at the sequence of events. Are you getting it? What is happening here? Do you need to drop a scene or two? Or add one?

Keep asking until you are sure…sure enough to tell it, at least – it may well change later. And once you have the why of the story, you can more readily draw from it the message you want to share.

2. You’re looking for the right story for your message.

You know the message you want to share, and are looking for the right story to land that message.

Most likely, there are a few messages that you deliver already. Things you find yourself saying over and over again in a variety of different ways.

Each of these key messages would be well suited to have stories that match them. Largely, this comes back to the work of developing your repertoire, and of mixing and matching. What stories do you tell already? What stories are in your reserves that you’ve not quite yet told, but that could be developed now?

This process of matching stories to messages doesn’t all happen in real time, of course, five minutes before you give a talk, or when you’re having a difficult conversation with a team member. But as you develop your collection of stories, and are more readily able to draw from it, these moments will occur more and more. A need will arise, a message will emerge, and a story will appear. Then it’s just a matter of tuning the message to the story to the moment.

When you are able to match that message to a story, it becomes a gift. It’s a gift because it carries an insight, distinct information about how the world works, applied with intention and care. It’s a gift because you’ve considered your audience deeply. And because you’ve delivered it at just the right time.

3. You’re looking for the right message for the audience.

So, there are the times when you have a story, and times when you have a message. Yet other times you simply have a particular audience, and a particular moment. Maybe no stories are emerging, and no message seems completely clear.

In these times, consider these questions as you consider your audience:

Where am I right now? Where are they right now?

That is: what do I need? What do they need?

And as you consider this, ask this: What do I want to say to them right now to meet them where they are?

Sometimes the destination of the story – the message, the lesson, the key data point – is worth developing first. Find the place you want to take them, and then go looking for a story that will take them there.

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