Why It Matters
Want to hold attention?
Then tell a story.
Look at any of the videos on this site and you will see how some of the most varied and complex issues one can imagine were transformed into dramas — scenarios described by a moderator and worked through by panelists. Through this technique we witnessed how a President might deal with a threatened terrorist attack (Bioattack); how a war correspondent decides what is or isn’t news (War Stories); and what two Supreme Court Justices — Sandra Day O’Connor and Antonin Scalia — think of judicial elections (Choosing Justice).
It can be riveting. And holding attention is essential — but not, in itself, the point. Story matters because of its power to generate insights:
A Story is Concrete. Storytelling cannot hide behind empty catchphrases or vague theories. It requires the storyteller — whether the moderator or the panelist — to explain, in detail, exactly how an idea plays out in the real world. A story can put ethical standards, policy choices, or management decisions to the test, and prove to the audience why they matter.
A Story Connects. Humans connect at the individual level — the level of the story. You already know this as a creator or consumer of information: no set of statistics can compete against the story of one human being’s struggle against a great challenge.
A Story Creates Conversation. Take two participants with diametrically opposed positions. Make them partners in a hypothetical enterprise relevant to their disagreement, whether they’re cast as co-workers in a major project, White House advisors, or two parents raising a family. Suddenly, these two opponents must talk to each other rather than argue past each other.
But the conversation doesn’t end there. A powerful scenario will keep audience members talking (and thinking) long after the event has ended.
What It Takes
Taking full advantage of the power of story in a dialogue requires:
The Right Research — One needs to understand not only what issues matter to panelists and audience, but exactly how those issues play out in real life. Who exactly are the decision-makers? How are their choices made? Who feels the consequences and how? One needs the details that turn an abstraction into an experience.
The Right Panelists — Of course they must be interesting and capable speakers. But storytellers require something more: a willingness to open up, extemporize, be challenged, converse with and listen to others. Some entertaining speech-makers can’t do it. And some folks far from fame or power are great at it. Finding the right people, and the right mix of people, is crucial.
The Right Format — The use of storytelling must fit one’s goals: the issues to be addressed and the information to be conveyed. Many topics are wonderful vehicles for gripping long-form scenarios — stories spun out by the moderator and worked through, scene by scene, by the panelists. But story can also be integrated with video, audience participation, how-to presentations, even a traditional one-person-at-a-time panel presentation. The possibilities for format are endless — but the set of possibilities that work for a particular goal are finite.
The Right Moderator Preparation — For interactive storytelling to succeed, the moderator needs more than a set of questions. He or she needs a roadmap that provides not just the next turn in the story, not just who should be asked what next, but what the various options are based on the panelist’s response.