Storytelling: a 4-step method

Want to use storytelling  to improve your communication?

You can do that with the Analytic Storytelling method.

This method helps you make an effective story in 4 steps. For a presentation, for example, or a policy plan, or a funding application.

We developed the Analytic Storytelling method especially for people who communicate about complex topics.

For instance, for people like Laura.

Laura works for an NGO. This organization supports small Indian farmers.

Laura has developed a sensor that monitors the humidity of crops. It helps farmers make more efficient use of water, which is scarce.

Laura uses storytelling techniques to communicate with farmers, with local policy makers, with the engineers who produce this sensor and with potential sponsors.

Step 1: Adapt to your audience

Whom will you tell your story to?

If you want to communicate effectively, it is crucial to know your audience.

Your audience determines how you start your story; which questions you answer; whether you use jargon and if so, what kind of jargon; and whose perspective you choose.

For instance, in a story about healthcare, do you emphasize the patient’s uncertainty, the doctor’s workload, or the costs for the insurance company?

Adapting to your audience is not the hardest part of storytelling. But it is a fundamental part. And we often don’t do it explicitly – or at all.

The Analytic Storytelling method offers all kinds of tools to capture your audience. But the most important thing is to think about your audience in the first place.

And to do that before you start making your story.

This time, Laura will speak to a Rotary Club in Amstelveen, The Netherlands. The members are potential sponsors.

She makes a quick audience profile.

Rotarians are well-educated. Most have a business background, some a technical background. They tend to be a bit older than average.

They don’t know much about India. But they tend to have a broad interest and like to learn new things.

Members often donate to people in need. They want their money to be used effectively. They also like to offer their knowledge and networks to help.

The principles of the Rotary are laid down in its five so-called Avenues of Service. Two of these seem to link with Laura’s project: International Service (engagement with other cultures and peoples) and Community Service (engagement with local communities).

Step 2: Build a structure

Every story is different.

And yet, good stories have something in common: a clear structure and a narrative arc.

This makes the audience interested and helps them follow the story.

At Analytic Storytelling, we use the SCQA format for this.

Situation – Complication – Question – Answer.

In the situation, you help the audience picture the topic in a way that draws them into the story.

What is this story about? Where are we?

Next, the complication introduces an urgent problem or goal. And it points to the hurdles that should be taken in order to solve that problem or to achieve that goal.

Which leads to the questions: will the goal be achieved? And if so, how?

Finally, you explain in the answer what you (or your audience) need to do to answer these questions and take these hurdles.

An SCQA structure helps you provide context and urgency to your story.

Laura makes an SCQA outline for her story.

First, she chooses a starting point that her audience is familiar with: the Rotary Avenues of International Service and Community Service.

Then she mentions that in recent years, this club has sponsored projects in Africa, South-Amerika, Russia and China.

But not in India.

Even though India has het largest number of inhabitants of the world, after China. 

She sketches the picture that most outsiders think of when they think of India: huge, chaotic cities.

Then she explains that the largest part of India is actually rural. Full of small-scale farms.

Then, the complication…

Small-scale farmers in India are struggling, to the point of desperation. With meager harvests most of them hardly get by.

One of the reasons for this is the scarcity of water, and the use of outdated irrigation methods.

Could something be done about this?

Laura’s sensor helps farmers to only water their crops when it’s necessary.

This is a very effective way to improve the harvest. More effective than alternative approaches.

She needs funding to upscale the working prototype. And that’s where the Rotary club can help.

For instance, by organizing a fundraising event, in collaboration with the Indian community in Amstelveen. It is a sizable community: almost 5.000 Indian-Dutch people live in the city.

She has already found a restaurant that wants to contribute.

Perhaps the Rotary members want to consider this, and if they’re interested, send Laura an email?

Step 3: Be concrete

A strong story structure is like a strong skeleton.

You need it to prop up your story.  But to bring the story to life, you need to add some flesh and blood.

You do that by making your story concrete.

This is especially important with complex topics. Because these often contain a lot of abstractions.

When you make your story concrete, you make it specific, familiar and sensory. You create a (mini)scene, as it were, which your audience will picture in their mid. As a result, your story becomes attractive, comprehensible and engaging.

You can make your story concrete by using an example, metaphor or anecdote, for instance.

  • Laura makes her message concrete by telling the audience what the small-scale farmers grow. Cabbage, eggplant and roses, among other things. They produce these for Dutch supermarkets too.
  • That farmers are ‘struggling to the point of desperation’, is an abstraction that doesn’t speak to the harshness of their reality. Therefore, she quotes shocking numbers about suicides as a result of their circumstances. In 2019, on average, 28 farmers killed themselves each day.
  • And she talks about a farmer – Vyaan – whom she met recently. In the dry season, he and other farmers organize a ceremonial “frog marriage” to bring back the rains.
  • An example of an outdated irrigation method is watering each cabbage with a watering pot.
  • The sensor will look like a kind of thermometer, which the farmers will stick in the ground. They receive signals from the sensor via Wi-Fi.

Step 4: Write text or design visuals

Delay has a bad rap.

But it is an important part of the Analytic Storytelling method.

The first 3 steps postpone the moment of ‘really’ producing something.

By first going through these 3 steps, you make a blueprint for your story. For instance, by making a bullet list. And only after that you start your work on text or visuals.

By dividing the process of making a story into 4 steps, the process becomes easier. And at the same time, you improve the end result.

There are some things to keep in mind during that last step as well: both when writing text and when designing visuals.

For instance, it’s good to make sure each paragraph or slide has a clear main message. And to make sure that each word or image supports that message.

There are of course many more things to think about. Avoiding unnecessary passive sentences and never-ending paragraphs, using color and composition to highlight what’s important … You can fill libraries with books about text writing and visualizing.

But if your story is adapted to your audience (step 1), has a good structure (step 2) and contains good concretizations (step 3), you have already taken the most important steps.

Laura prepares a presentation.

She first formulates the message for each slide. For instance, one of these messages is: A sensor indicates when a crop should be watered.

Laura collects photos of a busy street in Mumbai, of a supermarket shelf with cabbages and eggplants, and of the Indian restaurant that has offered to collaborate.

She summarizes the shocking suicide statistics in a simple graph, leaving out unnecessary values and grid lines.

She has a short movie of farmer Vyaan on his land, with a water pot.

She uses icons of a thermometer, a battery (which powers the sensor) and Wi-Fi.

In a schematic visual, she illustrates how the sensors can be connected to a small irrigation system with tubes and valves. She gives sensors, tubes and valves each their own color.

Towards a story, step by step

The Analytic Storytelling method helps you from the first idea to the final product in 4 steps. Just like Laura in the example.

Want to learn more about using this method? Take a training course with us! In our courses, you work on a story about your own topic, learning storytelling methods as you go.

Need help with a storytelling project in your organization? Email or call us! We look forward to exploring the possibilities with you.

Arnaud is trainer, advisor and text writer at Analytic Storytelling. He helps customers to send out a clear and convincing message in both words and images.