Story is our first language. Story is one of the simplest and most effective ways to get someone's attention and then do something with it. Stories draw upon something primitive in our world-view and cut through the noise of modern life, practically begging for our attention. In fact, story is so ingrained in how we understand ourselves and our surroundings that storytelling is central to nearly everything we do. No matter who you're coaching or what their goals are, story is too powerful a tool to leave behind.
In this article we'll look at the following:
The elements of a good story
How stories are used
Crafting your clients' stories
What you and they will get out of it
Once Upon A Time...
It's amazing; just about anything that signals that you're about to hear a story grabs your attention to the point that you may be slightly disappointed that I'm not telling one right now. "Once upon a time?! C'mon man!" One of the better pieces of advice I've gotten in regards to capturing an audience's attention is to explicitly use the phrase "let me tell you a story" and to follow that with a relevant story. I aim to do this at least once an hour, and have found that even tangentially related stories help keep an audience engaged and involved in whatever I'm leading or presenting.
So what is a story? There's a surprising amount of literature out there on this, ranging from advice for the aspiring screenwriter to business owners and Chief Marketing Officers. One of my favorite breakdowns comes from the Story Brand team:
Has a problem...
And meets a guide...
Who has a plan...
That serves as a call to action...
Leading to success...
Most of your favorite stories can be broken down into these seven component parts. It's a great way to look at your clients, and to understand what they really want from you. And if we examine our lives and the things we aspire to, we can probably find most of the elements of a good story in our various searches for love, happiness, success, fulfillment, or anything else.
Still, we can be even more focused in our understanding of story, particularly as it relates to the stories our clients tell about themselves. More on that later.
Morality, Marketing, and Memory
I am far from the first person to realize or to espouse the power of story. Over the course of human history, story has been used to teach social values, as a mnemonic device, and to sell all manner of goods and services. From religion to politics to lessons for schoolchildren, stories are perfect vessels for whatever we're trying to convey.
My Very Eccentric Mother Just Served Us Nine Pickles.
Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto (I still ride for Pluto as a planet).
If anything makes stories hard to recognize it's their very ubiquity; they're everywhere. The politician who just happened to have a conversation with a voter in Iowa who perfectly underscores their platform; the holiday car commercial reminding us a that an oversized bow and a new car are all that stands between us and a perfect, happy family; the children's story outlining the dangers of lying or the importance of friendship.
It's not just that we're fed stories, we crave them, even make them up to help fill in the blanks. I was browsing through stock photos for this article when I ran into the following images:
In each case, with no information and even less prompting, I realized that I was trying to craft a story to fill in the blanks these photographs had created. Who the person was, how old they were, where they were, what they were doing there... it's second nature to the point that we rarely recognize it, and that's precisely why it's so important to tap into.
Story is our first language.
Your Autobiography, Starring...
It's a question many of us have toyed with at one point or another: if they made a movie about your life, who would play the lead?
Our answers—our real answers—probably reveal an awful lot about how we (want to) see ourselves. For me it's really probably as simple as choosing Hollywood's hunk-du-jour and imagining that, "yeah, sure, he kinda looks like me". I pretend I'm basically a younger Hugh Jackman crossed with Henry Cavill, mixed with a dash of the Hemsworths for good measure.
I'm kidding—mostly. And while I don't think I look much like any of those guys—much less like their unholy offspring—my choice(s) reflect how I want to see myself. It's probably no accident that three of the four have played superheroes!
It Was A Dark And Stormy Night...
It seems wrong to write an article about the power of stories and not include an actual story, and so I'll use a very short one to introduce the story structure I've found helpful when working with clients.
Last week I sat down with a young woman who was interested in training for her first bikini competition. Over the course of our conversation, I wound up with a very clear understanding of how she saw herself—as well as how that informed and motivated her training goals.
As a former athlete, she wants to train for her first bikini competition so that she can rediscover training with purpose and intent.
Viewing her as an aspiring Instagrammer/Influencer/Taker of Booty Pics—and then coaching her based on that misunderstanding—would be a sure-fire way to undermine our working relationship. By the same token, coaching someone who sees herself as the missing Kardashian like they were a former athlete wouldn't be any better, or any fairer to the client. When it comes to story, or job isn't to judge, our job is to understand.
In order to leverage the power of story we need to honor our client's stories rather than imposing our own.
The way I look at creating a client's story is so simple that you might have missed it:
As a BLANK, I want to BLANK, so that I can BLANK.
It's not complicated, but it works. Every one of your clients has a simple yet powerful story to tell, and in nearly every case, it can be distilled into the above formula. The tricky part is figuring out just how they fill those blanks in. Does Jane Doe see herself as a mother or as a daughter? As a wife, or as a professional? Is she a runner? A former soccer player? Does she want to lose weight, or to feel attractive? Does she want to tone, or does she want to feel powerful and capable?
It can seem daunting, but there's good news. As social animals, just about everything we do projects some element of how we see ourselves because that's how we'd like the world to see us as well. The dude in head to toe Rogue gear is telling you something, as is the woman in the Soul Cycle leggings. The client who always wants to do curls and the one who owns three vibrating foam rollers are doing the same thing.
Try a simple exercise the next time you're at the gym: observe someone you don't know for five minutes, and see if you can try write their story. It probably won't be perfect, but you may surprise yourself with how much you can glean from the social cues we all project.
Maybe the most important element of any story is the hero. And here's the trick: we are always the hero of the stories we tell ourselves. It's not ego, it's perspective. There's an old adage that if you want to sound interesting, ask someone to tell you about themself.
We are always the hero of the stories we tell ourselves.
This is where story helps us. When we can reflect the stories our clients tell themselves—about who they are as well as who they want to be and why—this whole "working out thing" gets a whole lot more interesting. Too many of us work under the misconception that people want to know about us—our certifications, education, beliefs, experience etc.—when really they just want us to know about them. That may sound jaded, but it isn't meant to. In fact, I'd argue that knowing about a client does a whole lot more to build buy-in and adherence—probably the two biggest drivers of results there are—than anything else you can do.
Knowing a client isn't just a matter of remembering their kid's names or where they work—it's about seeing them through the same lens that they do and letting this inform everything you do, from exercise selection to word-choice.
I'll close with a quick, final story: I almost never use anatomical terminology with clients—telling someone to "retract your scapulae" or "engage your core" has never made a movement any better—but I have one client I make an exception for. She teaches yoga and is studying functional medicine, and it's clear that both of these things are important to how she sees herself. And so she doesn't "reach", she "protracts". My word choice tells her that I see her as she sees herself, and that she can trust me.
It's tiny, but it's enormous.