Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins: A book review by Bob Morris

Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins: How to Use Your Own Stories to Communicate with Power and Impact
Annette Simmons
AMACOM (May 2015)

How to “lay the groundwork for using stories as credible tools” to “adjust the perceptions your stories build and sustain”

Note: The review that follows is of the revised and updated Second Edition of a book first published in 2000. It remains the single best source for superior information, insights, and counsel. A “classic” in every sense of the word. Bravo!

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In my opinion, no one has a wider and deeper understanding of the art and science of storytelling – notably the business narrative — than Annette Simmons does. She is convinced – and I agree – that almost anyone has a number of personal stories that they are unwilling and/or (more likely) they are unable to share with others. Her purpose in this book and her mission in life is to help as many people as possible to overcome their self-imposed barriers so that they can share what she characterizes as “meaningful stories” that touch the heart rather impersonal messages “dressed in bells and whistles” of lifeless rationality. As Simmons explains, “This book gives you new skills in story thinking that will complement your skills in fact thinking. Facts matter, but feelings interpret what your facts mean to your audience.”

As I came upon those words when reading this book for the first time, I was again reminded of an observation by Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” The power of a personal story well-told is such that the audience could be one or two people or one or two hundred thousand people. Peggy Noonan’s speech for President Ronald Reagan on the Challenger disaster has touched the hearts of millions of people so far, and still counting.

Simmons focuses on six different types of personal stories. What they are and how to use them are best revealed within her narrative, on context. However, I now provide some information about one of them, “Teaching Stories.” As she explains, “Certain lessons are best learned from experience and some lessons over and over again — patience, for instance. You can tell someone to be patient, but it’s rarely helpful. It is better to tell a story that creates a shared experience of patience alo0nt wi9th the rewards of patience. A three-minute story about patience may be short and punchy, but it will change behavior much better than advice. It is as close to modeling patience as you can get in three minutes.” She explains the skills and process needed to think about, prepare, refine, and then share stories in all six categories.

These are among the dozens of passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of Simmons’ coverage:

o Significant Emotional Event Stories (Pages 12-14)
o Stories as Experience Reconstituted: Stories We Tell Every Day (21-29)
o Choose the Stories You Tell (Pages 26-29)
o Where Do I Find Stories? (37-40)
o Feedback (40-43)

o Brain Training (46-56)
o Don’t Expect a Recipe to Make You a Chef (48-49)
o “Who I Am” Stories (59-66)
o “Why I am Here” Stories (67-79)
o Teaching Stories (81-92)

o Vision Stories (93-94)
o Book, Movie, or Current Event Stories (102-140)
o “Values-in-Action” Stories (105-121)
o “I Know What You Are Thinking” Stories (123-135)
o Sensory Experience (139-149)

o Brevity (151-159)
o BIG Stories (161-170)
o Points of View (171-176)
o Secrets of the Design-Thinking Process: Solution and Story Testing (191-195)

I agree with Simmons that every culture “is based on stories and metaphors that aggregate around that culture’s preferential answers to universal but ambiguous human dilemmas like how to manage time, authority, safety money, ethics, and whatever else is important. If it is important to the culture, you will find a story that tells you what is important and why.” With rare exception, the greatest leaders throughout history were great storytellers. They shared a vision and embodied values with which others could identity. Jesus and Mohammed expressed articles of faith almost entirely with parables and Abraham Lincoln was widely renowned (even by those who hated him) as a master “teller of tales.”

Simmons observes, “The key to story thinking is to learn which stories stimulate your own feelings first. Then find the stories that also stimulate the feelings of others. The skills you develop by starting from the inside will help you learn the way stories create feelings that motivate us to action.”

I was especially interested in reading the chapter Annette Simmons added, Chapter 16, “Borrowing Genius” (Pages 187-207). She begins this final chapter as follows: “Some of the brightest minds in their fields have aggressively applied storytelling principles, applications, and practices to their own goals with great effect. They now offer more practical insights, creative applications, and experiments than do many so-called storytelling experts. This chapter outlines some of their most innovative applications, along with ideas on how to transplant them into your own practice of personal storytelling.”

The “secrets” were contributed from “fields” that include the design-thinking process, the nonprofit world, the legal field, and narrative medicine as well as from digital storytelling, content marketing, and storytelling podcasts such as This American Life, The Moth, and Serial.

I urge everyone who reads this brief commentary of mine to obtain and then re-read (at least once) this second edition with appropriate care. Better yet, read and re-read it with a sense of delight. Absorb and digest the valuable information, insights, and counsel that are provided. Meanwhile, I presume to suggest that you highlight key passages and keep a notebook near at hand to record whatever touches your heart and stimulates your mind. Perhaps you will begin to feel that the book is reading you. (That’s what I felt as I began to re-read it for the first time.) Let this book be a magic carpet, not to travel to distant lands and ancient times but, rather, to regions of your heart and mind where precious material resides, the material you will need to create and share your own personal stories.

As you begin your journey of personal discovery, I join with Annette Simmons to wish you a heartfelt “Bon voyage!”

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