Cartoon woman at desk with piles of books

Research Your Market and its Needs Together

Research is underexplored for collaboration.  There are several reasons.  Research is likely to be costly in time and money.  Collaboration means sharing such costs.  Persuading competitors to invest may be difficult. But there is a lot to do together at minimal or no cost.

Another reason is belief in keeping your research from your competitors.  But confidentiality may not be so important for research into your market and its needs.  Knowledge of your market’s needs allows you to develop your own response to them.

What to Research

Here are two areas for research.  There are other opportunities for research collaboration but these two seem fundamental and I see little reason not to share these costs.

First, research into your market.  Who are they?  Where can we find them?  Their habits and worldviews.  Many business owners are vague about their market and so good quality information is really valuable.  The more you know about your market, the more likely you are to find a niche that positions your business away from your competitors.

The second area is needs analysis.  What is a need?  Define what is ideal for your market.  What do they want?  Then compare the ideal with reality, as your market experiences it.  What do they need to move from reality towards the ideal?  The market defines the ideal, while you offer what they need.  What assistance do they need?

Comparing Notes

It is possible the research you need is already in the public domain.  It may need interpretation and gaps may need filling but why spend time actively researching when you can meet your needs through desk work?

Get together with competitors and compare notes.  What do you need to know and what do you already know?  Go beyond assertions based on belief.  Does anyone have evidence?  As you talk, take note of the main areas where you need research or to verify information. 

Then give everyone a topic and ask them to research it online.  Meet later to share results.  Then decide whether you need further research.

Surveys and Questionnaires

This is perhaps the easiest research to do together.  Use an application such as Survey Monkey.  It helps if someone among you knows about survey design.  Also consider the time to devote to analysing responses.  Tick box answers are fairly easy to collate.  Answers in prose take much longer!

Ask your lists to answer the survey.  Each business mails their own list.  You may have social media options too.  This is an effective way to get reasonably reliable results, if you all put the survey in front of relevant people.

Analysis of results takes far longer than you think.   If someone volunteers, consider paying.  The results may be immensely valuable to all concerned but getting them into a usable format is a chore.

Research Projects

Finally, ask someone to do research for you.  The drawback here is costs.  However, if you have pooled knowledge and know what you need, investing in professional research may not be so daunting.  I don’t expect most small businesses follow this route but with collaboration and shared costs it may be realistic for a few businesses who wouldn’t otherwise consider it.

If you collaborate over deepening understanding of your market, then there may be scope for further collaboration for marketing.  Next time I’ll look at how to pool resources for marketing to prospects who are not aware of their problem.

Eyes shielded

Raising Awareness: Creating a Market

This is the third post in my sequence about collaboration. Last time I suggested that collaboration between competitors can be rewarding. This post, about raising awareness, is based on the first rung of the Awareness Ladder.  Remember, the lower the rung on the ladder, the harder it is to move to the next rung.

If your market has no idea it has the problem, your task is to persuade them they do in fact have it.

Your Differences Don’t Matter

If your prospects don’t know they have the problem your business solves, it doesn’t matter what your solution is.  Your prospects don’t care about your solution or your competitors’ solutions because they don’t recognise the problem as theirs.

This makes raising awareness together mutually beneficial.  Any business offering solutions to a problem most people don’t believe they have, faces an uphill struggle.  Why should anyone believe you?

Furthermore, if you do persuade someone they have the problem, what’s to stop them looking around for a solution elsewhere and finding a competitor? 

Collaboration therefore means you can work together to find creative approaches to explaining the problem without fearing you’re going to lose out to your competitors.

An Example

I used to be obese.  To look at me now, you would find it hard to believe! 

I didn’t think I had a problem.  My image of an obese person was someone of gargantuan proportions.  I was clinically obese, which means I met the clinical definition of obesity. 

Did it matter?  Yes it did.  I told myself it was encroaching old age that led to my lack of energy.  I had high blood pressure and developed Type II Diabetes.  It was that diagnosis that led to me accepting I had a problem and seeking a solution. The fact that I did not acknowledge the problem cost me my health.

I lost about one third of my body weight, once I understood I had a problem and took it seriously. 

If you had a solution to the problem of obesity, how would you persuade obese people they have the problem? They won’t buy if they don’t see the benefit.

Similar difficulties face people who sell financial advice, prepare wills, life insurance, trusts, etc.  Many people need these businesses to solve a problem they are not aware of.  The problem is real, the problem is lack of awareness.

Raising Awareness for Mutual Benefit

Whenever I promote my business and especially the problem it solves, I benefit other people in similar businesses to mine.  Similarly when they raise awareness of similar issues, I may benefit from their marketing.

Ah, yes you may be thinking.  If you promote your own solution at the same time as you raise awareness of the problem, then surely you have an advantage?  Perhaps that is true but remember, the next step on the Awareness Ladder is to increase awareness that the problem can be solved.  And then people don’t always buy solely on the quality of the solution.

I shall address these steps in future posts but there are other possibilities for collaboration at this bottom rung of the Awareness Ladder and I’ll cover these first and so next time I explore “Research”.

End on view on runners in race

Collaboration Between Competitors

Last time, I wrote about collaboration between businesses that are very different.  Such collaboration seems safe but the benefits are likely minimal.  It’s always worth exploring collaboration with businesses that deliver something a long way from your offer; it’s always possible you’ll stumble on something viable.  But your competitors, those with offers uncomfortably close to yours, may offer greater opportunities for collaboration.


One big untruth about business is, businesses have competitors.  This belief leads to competition and divides businesses that otherwise benefit from collaboration.

If two businesses have similar aims, there are more opportunities for collaboration.  Successful businesses collaborate.  There are stories of cutthroat competition but mostly successful business owners see opportunities for collaboration with close competitors. 

I’ll explore this in more detail in future posts in this sequence.  But at this stage, understand there are opportunities at every stage in your sales funnel, from raising awareness of the problem you both address through to joint ventures.  


Positioning is key to understanding collaboration between similar businesses.  Say you’re a business coach.  You have common interest with other coaches in increasing awareness of the advantages of business coaching generally.  Indeed, if you cannot find any competition, what evidence do you have that you have a market?  Opportunities for collaboration correlate with market size.

Look at it this way.  If you want to increase public confidence in business coaching generally, then you need to make sure you match prospects with the best coach to meet their needs.  A poor match might discredit the coach and also the principle of business coaching.  The better you know your competitors, the more likely you’ll guide prospects to the best match for them.

The challenge is to find ways to help prospects decide between you and your competitors. Everyone benefits if they make good decisions.

How to Position Your Business

  • Geography.  You offer exactly the same services as someone based in another city.  It may be convenient to serve people who live locally. If you network locally, you’re likely to find local prospects.  You won’t reject customers from outside your area but they’re not your target market.  As your business grows, you may find your reach goes further but you may equally find people seek you because you are local.
  • The problem you solve.  You may be an all-round business coach but chances are you specialise in solving some specific problem.  This may be the easiest criterion for collaborators to understand.  Prospects seek you for your reputation in some specialist area, even though you are a good all-round business coach.
  • How you solve the problem, using some technique or approach, separates you from competitors.   Customers express a preference for the approach you use.  
  • Demographics are mostly your choice.  Quite a few coaches market to women only.  They’re not necessarily saying they never work with men.  There may be legal constraints to how you market to specific groups, so seek advice if you are unsure.
  • Your worldview may be relevant.  You need not target customers who share your worldview, the fact that people know about it may cause them to self-select.   

Of these, the problem you solve is most likely common ground.  Competitors understand the problem in different ways or use different solutions.  I explore this in detail next week.

Four cartoon people's heads

Collaboration Between Businesses

I attended a speed networking event recently.  About 20 of us spoke one-to-one with everyone in about one hour.  A minute each way for each meeting.  I’m not sure how effective this approach is – I’ll see if any collaboration builds from it. 

We weren’t expecting this and so we all invented our own approaches.  I promoted Telling Stories: Making Business.   I collected business cards with a note of those who expressed interest.  I’ve written to these new contacts and will see how effective this was in due course.

Speed networking means we have brief encounters and ask whether they’re interested.  There’s no time to dig deeper.  Indeed the pressure is to think of reasons why not to go further, simply because there’s so many potential opportunities.


Does speed networking reinforce the idea that the purpose of business networking is to sell?  Obviously sales happen, I’ve made a few purchases from people who I’ve got to know through networking.  But making a purchase is fairly rare. I decide I need something and look for someone I know who can supply it.  A direct sales pitch is unlikely to work, especially from someone I have not met before. 

One person I met at the same meeting with whom I had a longer one-to-one, sells personal financial advice.  I already have a financial advisor and so I explained I’m not currently in the market.  I offered some ideas about why selling financial advice is difficult.  Most people don’t understand the need for it.  I wish I’d talked to an advisor earlier – why didn’t I? 

We edged closer to a better understanding of the purpose of networking.  It is not primarily to sell.  It is mostly about collaboration or inspirational support.  How can I help this business owner, even if I have no interest in their business? 

If we seek inspiration, we’re likely to find it in unexpected places, with businesses different from our own.

Creative Collaboration

Even where a business is different, there may be opportunities for creative thinking.  Imagine a 10 minute conversation where you work out an offer you could make together.  What sort of offer could someone in property make with someone who offers massage for sports injury?

Maybe none.  But the majority of ideas come to nothing.  The aim is not to come up with something revolutionary and viable.  It is to look at what I do from a fresh perspective.  There’s no pressure to take it further but you never know, until you make the effort.

So far, I’ve assumed two very different businesses.  But what happens when you ask the question of a business similar to your own?  This opens up a world of new possibilities for collaboration.  More next time.

Cat mystery

Use Distraction to Hide Something Important

Last time I explained misdirection.  Distraction is related: here you conceal something significant early in your story.  The audience forgets about it until it reappears towards the end.

The Story of the Sparrow, Part 5

Daniel landed catlike on his feet.  Folk cheered him as he held the silver asp aloft.  Cat and Little Sparrow were at his side and Cat moved them on.  Little Sparrow removed Daniel’s mask and gave it back to Cat.  Daniel slipped the asp onto Little Sparrow’s wrist.

Cat reminded Little Sparrow she’d said she’d reward him.  He smiled his wickedest smile.  “Stroke me!”

Little Sparrow froze in terror.  Daniel objected.  Why did he insist on tormenting her?  “Because I’m a cat, it’s what I do.  It’s up to her.  If not, it’s another tuna steak!”

Little Sparrow knelt down and held out her hand.  Cat walked towards her and as her hand touched him, began to purr.  Daniel stood there open-mouthed.

“I’m off home” said Cat, “Don’t stay out all night, she can look after herself.”

Daniel and Little Sparrow walked toward Josiah’s village. Suddenly, Little Sparrow stopped, Daniel walked on a few paces before he realised.  “Daniel”, she said.  “Yes?”  “May I hold your hand?”

He held out his hand and she slipped hers into his.  “Oh, it’s so cold!”  She pulled her hand away.  “Sorry. No, no it feels good!”

And so they walked on together hand in hand.

Near the junction with Josiah’s road, they stopped.  Little Sparrow let go of Daniel’s hand and faced him.  “Daniel, friend.  I thank you.”  She bowed.  Then she turned and ran down the road to her beloved. 

That was the last Daniel saw of her.  Except …


A few days later Cat was annoyed at Daniel’s moping.  “Forget her, she’s gone”. 

“I know.  She’ll be back under water now.  It just hard not knowing how it went.”

“Well, that’s easy, go and ask him.”

A few hours later Daniel walked down the lane toward Josiah’s house.

As Daniel approached the gate, the old man looked up from his roses.  “You must be Daniel.”

The old man said he’d never forgotten Little Sparrow.  He believed she was gone, drowned.  He’d married, had children and grandchildren and passed his love of birds to them.  “I’m so grateful to you”, he said, “my time is close and now I have a name for my lips.”  He’d prepared a gift for Daniel.  An album of photos of birds.

Back home, Daniel and Cat, turned each page.  Cat thought it would make a good take-away menu.  They turned the last page and there was a different photo.  Josiah and Little Sparrow, arm in arm, looking into each other’s eyes.  No mask.

The Gun in the First Act

The playwright, Chekhov, said that if you see a gun in the first act, it’ll be used in the last.  The challenge is to introduce the gun in such a way, the audience forget about it.  When it’s used, it’s been present all along.

How well have I done this in the five parts of this story?  This is a story about loneliness.  I probably need to make more of Daniel’s loneliness in part 1.  The fact he’s accepted an invitation from friends, shows him coming out of his shell.  Perhaps it helps him understand Little Sparrow. 

In between we have scenes of possession, comedy and the dreadful rabbit, not to mention the mystery of Bryony his grandmother.

This final part brings us back to this underlying theme.  Cat shows Little Sparrow can overcome her fears.  Daniel perhaps doesn’t see this so clearly.

The love story plays out but it is not the key relationship.  It is the friendship between Daniel and Little Sparrow.  He understands she must know whether Josiah remembers her. It’s important the lovers are reunited.  But the emotion is in Daniel’s empathy for Little Sparrow.

Provide Information Early

Now you know the end, you understand what motivates Daniel in the middle.  Why does he go through so much for Little Sparrow?  Once we know the end, we see the initial description of Daniel’s loneliness informs everything that follows.  The magic, the strangeness of the world he inhabits does not matter.  What matters is why he does what he does. 

Note how misdirection and distraction reinforce one another.  Is this a story about magical Folk?  Or is it about a teenage boy with compassion?  The magic is largely misdirection.  It distracts us from Daniel’s state of mind.  We know he’s lonely from the start.  We see the significance of this towards the end. 

Using Distraction

Distraction is finding ways to conceal the importance of some detail.  I’ll share a few ideas but if you innovate, you are more likely to succeed. 

Remember you know the end of the story and your audience does not.  This means you can relax.  It may seem obvious to you but it won’t necessarily be obvious to them.

Here are a few ideas:

  • Describe a scene and conceal something important in the description. 
  • Show the important thing being used for some other purpose.
  • Mention a weakness when describing the villain.  You could depict the weakness as a strength. 
  • Hide it in plain sight.  For example, the container that holds something of value might be more important than its contents.
  • Describe something from the perspective of the protagonist, who might not appreciate its importance at that moment.
  • Build a foreground scene that conceals something in the background.
  • A departed character makes an unexpected reappearance. 

This concludes this sequence about storytelling for the present. 

Over Here. No, This Way

What is Misdirection in Storytelling?

Misdirection builds suspense in your stories.  When you begin a story, your audience does not know how it ends.  If it’s your life story, you survived, so how do you surprise your audience?

The Story of the Sparrow, Part 4

Cat licked his lips and then his paw, his eyes on Little Sparrow.  Daniel had apologised for putting her through this audience with the Oracle. 

“So, what’s it worth?  You don’t want me to eat the bird?”

“Tuna steak”, said Daniel.   “Two this week, on condition you help us.”

“Done.  I’ve heard there’s lots of new Folk from the reservoir.  They’re having a scramble tonight.  Get to know each other.  Visit old friends before they go back underwater.”


“The prize is the silver asp.  When Folk wear it, they become human for one day.”

Little Sparrow fluttered around, excitedly.  She could enter and win and meet Josiah!

“Hah”, said Cat, “you’ve no chance.  The Rabbit’s entering and no-one has ever beaten him in a scramble, apart from Bryony.”

“My grandmother?”

“He’ll want to win when he discovers she’s taking part again.” 

“Cat, she died before I was born.”

“He’ll think you’re her.”

“No, I … Look, I’m human, they won’t let me take part.”   Daniel thought he’d spotted a flaw in Cat’s plan. 

“Which is why I’m going to lend you my mask.  With that they’ll think you’re Folk.  And you’ll move like I do, with power and grace and not like a teenage boy.”

Cat rarely took human form.  Daniel had never seen his mask.  Cat’s true name remained a mystery.

Little Sparrow had every confidence in Daniel.  How had he got roped into this?  She wanted to know how to thank Cat. 

“If I can’t eat you, there’s something you can do for me when you’re human.   And it’s another tuna steak for the loan of the mask.  The bird must fasten it on, you must not see the outside.  It’s got ‘Idiot inside’ written on it.”

The Scramble

Daniel stood on the land in the reservoir, staring at a massive crowd of folk.  Most expected Rabbit to win. He stood head and shoulders above everyone else.  Fully armoured, snarling at any Folk who came too close.  “That’s Rabbit”, said Cat unnecessarily. 

Daniel wore the mask and mingled with the crowd.  Then the murmuring began.  “Bryony …. Bryony …”  The rabbit turned and snarled at him.  “I told you don’t race me again.  This time I win and you release me.”  What did he mean?  Daniel had no idea, release from what?  What had his grandmother done and when and how …?

The race was along the shore and then up the bank to a great oak and high in its branches, the silver asp glinted in the sun.  Suddenly the crowd surged forwards and the race began.  Cat had said use elbows and teeth, push them aside, be ruthless.  Daniel found he was stronger more agile, cat-like.  He shot ahead of all but Rabbit, who bounded along the shore.  He was soon at the tree and began to climb.  Daniel caught up and he could see the Rabbit was less good at climbing and his armour slowed him.  He leapt onto the tree and began to climb but the Rabbit blocked his way.  Daniel leapt onto the Rabbit’s back and then from his shoulder, leapt ahead, reached the asp, grasped it and fell to the ground below. 

Misdirection and Your Audience

This part of the story is a massive exercise in misdirection.  I’m not going to spoil the final part but notice what I’ve done here.  The silver asp is a McGuffin.  It is a magical instrument and its purpose is to bring the story to its conclusion.  Very little else contributes to the resolution to the story.  It raises questions about the relationship between Cat and Daniel, who Daniel’s grandmother was and why so many Folk know her, what did she do that the Rabbit wants to be released from? 

Cat has his own agenda and this brings humour into the story.  You get the impression, Daniel’s going to be paying for tuna steaks for some time.  Note the way Cat and Little Sparrow assume Daniel will take part in the scramble. 

You think you’re going to find out more about this magical world.  You’re not.  The story pivots as Daniel falls from the tree.  That’s misdirection!

Concealing the Ending

The ending is consistent from what has gone before but it also has a different feel to it.  The ground is laid in what has gone before.  This is the point of misdirection, you set off in apparently one direction and then pivot the story in a different direction. 

Humour is a common means to misdirect.  You think this is a funny story and then the story pivots to tragedy. 

In this story, Little Sparrow will either find the love of her life or else she will not.  One of those has to be true.  We can all see that.  Can the ending surprise?  Yes, it can.  

Comedy and Tragedy

When you start a story, your audience does not know what will happen.  Don’t announce at the start, this story is a comedy and has a happy ending.  We see this in Rom Coms, there is always a point where the principle couple seem to be impossibly far apart.  We genuinely believe they cannot possibly get together and then at the last moment …

There is a point where it could swing either way. The audience does not know what will happen.  Comedy or tragedy?  Keep them guessing until the very end.

Distraction is a close ally of misdirection.  Here relevant material is divulged early in the story, where its significance is downplayed. 


Wonder in Storytelling

Wonder helps the storyteller change the way we see things, builds suspense and holds attention.  Witness the story of the sparrow.  It is a story for entertainment, to be performed, not written.  What do I seek to change with this story?

The Story of the Sparrow, Part 3.

Little Sparrow kept close to Daniel.  She watched him sleep, she followed him everywhere, which was awkward in the bathroom.  Folk are not usually visible to humans and they don’t see things as we do.  Little Sparrow decided Daniel was a friend and she would not leave his side.  She was terrified of Cat and so when he left her outside the bathroom, Cat lost no opportunity to torment her. 

Daniel was glad to get out of the house and took the bus into town.  Little Sparrow sat fluttered beside him on the bus.  She sang a sad, sweet little song. Away from Cat, she seemed calm and determined.  She’d resolved to find the one she loved, to know whether he still loved her.  There were a few days before the waters returned and she would be drawn back into them.

Into Town

They arrived in the city centre and made their way to the Local Studies Library.  The Library was built where trees and animals existed and some persist and found themselves in a library.  Some enjoy fun, hiding things and turning pages when people look away.  Others try to help, although their understanding of help might be different from ours.  They were greeted by a librarian and beside her an old squirrel-headed Folk, with spectacles perched on the end of its nose.  He was delighted a Folk had come to the library for help. 

Daniel asked the librarian for a map of the flooded village, he wanted to find the house.  Various Folk flittered and flustered about.  Soon, a duck waddled over and guided Daniel’s hand, helped him write the names of books he needed.  It wanted to help Bryony, Daniel’s grandmother. With genealogies and electoral rolls, they came upon the name of Hinchcliffe.  Then they found the oldest son was Josiah and still alive. 

Daniel sat with Little Sparrow in the Peace Gardens.  He held his phone to his ear as he explained they were going to visit him and find out whether Josiah is indeed the one she seeks.  Daniel tried to prepare her for disappointment.  She listened and said she knew it was the right name.

Josiah’s Garden

They took the bus to a small village, not far from the reservoir.  Daniel walked to the end of the street.  Little Sparrow sniffed the air.  Daniel found a spot where he could see unseen.  The man lived in a small cottage with a lovely garden, full of roses.  He was deadheading and carried a small package on a strap around his neck.  Daniel wondered what it was and then he saw the man pause and look at a songbird in a tree.  He stood still and opened the package, a camera. 

Meanwhile, Little Sparrow edged closer.  As she entered the garden and stood in front of him, Josiah paused and looked up.  He sighed and then continued with his work. 

Eventually, Little Sparrow returned to Daniel.  She was very sad.  Daniel said he thought this would happen.  People often lost second sight as they grew older. 

He explained the next step was to consult the Oracle.  Little Sparrow was very excited until Daniel explained the Oracle was his friend, Cat.

Wonder in the Story of the Sparrow

This is literally a fairy story.  Fairies are often called Folk.  But what I want is to reinvent Folk.  They are often depicted with a king and queen.  My Folk are anarchic.  They are blobs of sentience that take a wide range of forms.  We glimpse more in the next part. 

They have different personalities.  Little Sparrow is timid, calm and determined.  She knows what she wants and she’ll stop at nothing to get it.  Cat is argumentative, opinionated and has his own agenda.  Others are helpful, mischievous or dangerous.  Their relationship with our world is half in and half out.  They see us more than we see them. 

Structuring their world this way has advantages for the storyteller.  Relationships with Folk take many forms.  We see a relationship between Daniel and Cat, never fully explained.  It is established, free and easy, they appear as friends who argue.  The odd thing about Cat is he appears to be a real cat.  It’s not clear from this story whether others see him but there is something odd and in-between about him. 

The key relationship in this story is between Daniel and Little Sparrow.  I can’t say too much at this stage.  What we have seen so far is his compassion for her.  She is totally dependent on him to help her. 

It is the friendship we see develop that gives this story its emotional heft.  The wonder is in the relationship not the strange imaginary world of Folk.

Wonder in Real Life Stories

Can we learn anything from the story to help us structure real life stories?  What evokes wonder in a real life story?

Here are a few things:

  • Relationships – genuine relationships, showing love and compassion, are rare in stories I hear.  Maybe people find it easier to talk about past failings than to talk about love.  But love is only one possible relationship.  Friendship and even rivalry can be moving.  There are negative relationships as well and there are reasons storytellers avoid using them.  We might agree someone deserves punishment but is it a good note to end a story, if you are promoting your business?  Wonder is perhaps best encountered where positive relationships overcome negative.
  • Transformation – where someone becomes a better person.  This is usually the protagonist but might be someone else.  The ending of many fairy stories, “they married and lived happily ever after” may be trite but summarises the transformation we see. 
  • Spectacle – where we see something we have never seen before.  The story triggers imagination and invites us to see things differently.  This implies a sense of place, sharing details that help us see something not seen before.  This may be somewhere far away, we’ve never seen but can see as a result of a story.  Or else somewhere familiar, seen from a new perspective.

Meaning – Should Stories Have a Moral?

Maybe a fourth source of wonder is meaning.  Business owners have a purpose telling stories but meaning does not necessarily evoke wonder.  A story that helps us see things differently and act in consequence, may evoke wonder.

Confluence of wonder and meaning is powerful and easy to misuse.  Think of slogans like “Make America Great Again”.  For true believers these words evoke a story.  They’ve heard the story and listen to it repeatedly.  But do they think of it as a story or as the truth by which they live?

We see competing stories in politics.  You need a more powerful story to compete with one already powerful.  This is why images such as “unicorns” or “sunlit uplands” don’t work.  Those who oppose Brexit need a better story, they cannot win the argument without it.

Stories are Powerful

In the words of the Amazing Spiderman, “With great power comes great responsibility”.  Stories are powerful and business people are obliged, with everyone else, to use them with care to build relationships and empower audiences.

It is in the nature of stories to have multiple meanings.  Retell a story to bring out a new meaning.  If you don’t do that you find audiences apply their own meanings to stories.  This might be what you want but make it a conscious decision.

However, bringing a story to a moral, “therefore we should all live in this better way”, is not effective.  People don’t like to be told what to do.  You know what meaning you want to communicate, and so build it into the story.  An effective way is to conceal the meaning of the story until the end.  There are two ways to do this, misdirection and distraction, and I shall cover these in the next two posts.

Dead bird with fairy

Build Suspense to Hold Attention

Last time, I covered use of humour in storytelling.  One use is to build suspense.  Humour diverts attention from incoming disaster.  Here is part 2 of the story I started last time.  Note how I use suspense in this part of the story.

The Story of the Sparrow, Part 2

Daniel’s grandmother left him a box of belongings.  She too had second sight but he didn’t know how she used it or what became of her.  He searched her belongings to find her mirror.  A mirror with silver backing.  Folk have an interesting relationship with silver.

Daniel peered into the mirror and recoiled at the vicious, beaked, red-eyed monster.  He threw the mirror down on his bed and stepped back.  The Folk trapped in the mirror would escape!  In a flurry of feathers and fear, anger and energy, the creature struggled and propelled itself out of the mirror and towards Daniel. 

He held out his hand and shouted: halt!  The creature fell to the floor.  “Well done”, said Cat, “I’ll finish it off.”  Cat licked its lips.

“No” – Daniel stepped forward – “let me hear it out”.  “Oh, you’re never going to help this one.  It possessed you.  Proper put the wind up me.” 

The creature stirred.  Its form changed as it took in its surroundings.  Now it appeared as a young woman.  She wore a half mask, covering her eyes, common among Folk who have not shared their name.  She leapt onto the bed and cowered in the corner, never taking her eyes off Cat.

Daniel sat on the opposite end of the bed.  He spoke gently, “What do you want?”  Folk fear human contact but also crave it.  The Little Sparrow had died in the mouth of a cat.  “Please Cat, let us be.”  Daniel opened the door.  “This’ll end in tears, mark my words.  I’m here if you need help despatching it.”  A gentle foot hastened Cat’s departure.

Sparrow’s Story

Little Sparrow was calmer now.  She had been the adventurous chick in her nest and balanced on the edge before she could fly.  A young boy had seen her fall but couldn’t reach the nest.  She loved his warm hands, gentleness and smell.  And he fed her.  But the cat got in and …

In the way of Folk, some souls persist.  She persisted, hid from the boy and watched him.  He sensed she was there.  He coaxed her with morsels of bread.  She took her current form.  They happily played and talked together.  Then one day, he left.  Followed by waters that covered and trapped her.  Until this summer.  She saw her chance when Daniel appeared and hitched a lift.   

Daniel asked: “You want to find him?”, she nodded,  “It’s a long time, you know he may be dead or love another or forgotten you?  But you need to know?  Do you know his name?”

She did not.

Why is Attention Important

This is a first written draft of a story I plan to tell live.  My challenge is to grasp and hold attention.  Reading it and part 1, in the last blog post, do you want to know what happens next?  If your audience does, you have a viable story.

Aim to tell a story that captures and holds attention.  In business this has advantages.  It produces emotional buy-in.  Skilled storytellers sell through their story; by the end of the story their audience (or some of them) are ready to buy.  You might not be quite so persuasive but a good story means an audience predisposed to hear out your offer.

If the audience wants to know what happens next, they listen.  This helps you segue into teaching at the end or during the story.  You build a relationship with your audience and invite them to continue that relationship through some offer.  This need not be a sale, it could be signing up to an email list, for example. 

How to Build Suspense

Hold attention by building suspense.  Suspense in this story comes from several places.  There are two big mysteries and I’m not planning to reveal them too soon.  One is the mystery of where this story is going.  Clearly, they are going to search for the missing boy.  How will that work out?  There’s how they set about it, what they find … and that’s all to come.

The second big mystery is the nature of the protagonist.  I have dropped hints about Daniel.  Who is he and what can he do?  What about his cat?  And his grandmother is part of the mystery.  And what about Folk?  Who are they and what do they want?

Here are more techniques:


Notice how I divide this story into parts.  I don’t necessarily recommend you do this.  This story is better told in one helping.  But notice whether you want to know more when you get to the final line.  If you break a story, it is a good way to hold attention.  Is the story compelling enough to persuade someone to open your email next time?

Slow Description

Another approach to suspense is to slow things down.  The creature does not emerge from the mirror immediately.  Daniel throws the mirror on the bed and then it flies at Daniel.  These are only a few lines and the problem is quickly despatched.  You don’t know what is going to happen and so slowing down the narrative builds suspense.  Contrast with the later story of the Little Sparrow and her friend.  Here I speed up the narrative.  It’s stuff you need to know but there’s no need to linger. 

This story has a number of moments that are action packed and moving.  I make decisions about when to linger and when to get a move on.

Hold Back Information

One way to build attention is hold back information.  There are two types of information.  Information about characters or back story.  The characters in my Story of the Sparrow all have back stories.  I hint at back stories but don’t go into detail.  It’s not necessary.  Hints suggest depth for the characters.  You need to know about Daniel’s grandmother but need little detail.  Other information is held back until later in the story. 

Don’t Apologise

There is no need to explain anything, simply tell the story.  I could begin the story by saying this is a story about a Sparrow who is seeking love.  But I don’t need to say this because the story explains it. 

At the start, you know nothing about the story.  Is it comedy or tragedy?  Who should we root for?  Who are the characters?  They’re all mysterious.  Daniel is not an ordinary schoolboy.  Declaring he has second sight at the start serves to identify this as a fairy story – it’s equivalent to “Once Upon a Time”. 

He commands the Sparrow to halt.  He has a talking cat.  I don’t have to explain this.  We find out more as the story progresses but there will remain questions at the end. 

Concealed Information

Conceal information that does not seem relevant until later in the story.  So, I mention cats have second sight near the start of the story and then introduce a talking cat.  Until the talking cat appears, the remark about cats having second sight seems throw away. 

Another example is the mask the Little Sparrow wears.  Notice how this is the only feature I describe other than she takes the form of a young woman.  I don’t say much about it, other than it covers her eyes.  He saw her eyes when she attacked him, so what does the mask conceal?

What Happens?

The best way to conceal information is tell the story as it happens from the point of view of the protagonist.  We know what Daniel knows and nothing more.  We are invited to make the same decisions Daniel makes.  Should he help Little Sparrow?  What would you do if asked for help by a lovelorn sparrow? 

Notice too Cat is of a different mind to Daniel.  Cat is the voice of reason (to some degree).  Cat means I don’t need to describe the dilemma, it’s a part of the story. 

Keep the story moving forward.  Don’t pause to explain. 

The End

Do you need to tie up all loose ends?  I want this story to be mysterious and leave something to the imagination.  My promise is to resolve the story of Little Sparrow.  There will be lots of questions about Daniel and Cat.  These can be left to imagination or another time.

The end brings resolution to the story.  You don’t need to tie up all loose ends.  This raises the question: what makes for a satisfactory ending?  This story aims to build a sense of wonder.  We find ourselves in an unfamiliar world, where the rules are unclear.  The trick is to create a world that intrigues and builds a sense of wonder and that’s what we’ll look at next time. 


Humour in Storytelling

Humour is one example of emotion in storytelling; it has many uses.  Here is the beginning of a traditional story I’m working on.  It’s a sad story and I’m telling it next month, if I can control my emotions!

The Story of a Sparrow

Daniel has second sight.  This is rare.  Young children often make friends with Folk.  Adults rarely hold on to the sight.  Only his grandmother held it and what happened to her?  And then of course, cats always have the sight!

Who are Folk?  They have different names around the world.  They occupy the same time and space as we do but have their own concerns.  They fear us but have no need to hide since we cannot see or hear them.  They fear Daniel but at the same time they’re intrigued.  And so they appear monstrous and deranged (in self-defence) or graceful and delightful (if they want something).  They’re rarely malicious; that’s our way.

The hardest part for Daniel is making friends with people.  It is hard to concentrate in a conversation, with some creature gurning over their shoulder.  Imagine Daniel’s delight when a couple of school mates invited him to join them on a bike ride to Ladybower.  It was a long hot summer and the boys had heard water levels were way down, exposing the drowned village of Derwent.

They stood peering over the wall into the depths.  The smell was a bit rank but OK and then Daniel saw a figure, dancing down by the ruins of an old cottage.  Just for a moment and then it was gone.  They all felt the cold wind and Daniel fainted.

His friends brought him round and accompanied him home.  He assured them it was the heat and the cold, the shock had unsettled him.  He was worried but not for his health.  What had happened?  He laid on his bed.  His cat walked through the door and hissed.

This was odd.  The cat could see Folk and was usually easy with them, although disdainful.  “What is it?”, he asked.  The cat spat at him.  Daniel looked around, there were no spirits in the room.  Unless …   He opened his grandmother’s chest and hunted for her mirror.

Emotional Control

Humour is possible in any kind of story, even tragedy.  Just as comedy does not have to be funny, tragedy does not have to be entirely serious.  Consider therefore the purpose of using humour in storytelling.  

At the beginning of my story, I use a little humour, to help my audience accept the absurd premise of Folk.  Humour is one way to do that.  It is gentle humour in keeping with the atmosphere of the story. It will be a performance story and so I’ll be able to convey humour through voice and gesture too. We all know cats see more than we do.  Humour cuts through the sadness and helps the audience appreciate the story – once I’ve worked out how to do it! 

Humour’s an excellent way to communicate emotionally, where your story is deeply moving or traumatic.  When you tell a moving story, it is important, as you move into challenging parts of the story, you show emotion.  If you seem to the audience to be too preoccupied with the story and not enough with the emotional response of the audience, it won’t work. 

Always consider the emotion your audience feels.  If you lose control, you embarrass your audience.  Even though you don’t lose control, if the audience thinks you have, it can be just as embarrassing for them.

Use humour at the beginning to reassure the audience.  They may not know the story but as it progresses, the fact that you used humour at the start reassures.

When to Use Humour 

It depends when or if you use humour.  Humour takes many forms.  A serious story might use humour but you would not expect to roll in the aisles. 

For some stories, humour all the way through may be appropriate.  But generally, for business, I would not encourage this.  You’re demonstrating a problem and how to solve it.  Usually, humour all the way through undermines your message. 

The beginning of the story is perhaps best place for humour.  This is where you build relationship and trust with your audience.  Laughter or at least a gentle smile, can go a long way.  Show the audience they’re in safe hands.  If they trust you, they willingly experience anything with you. 

Humour works part way through.  The audience does not know the end of the story, so use humour to point them away from the eventual outcome.  This builds tension where the audience doesn’t expect the big negative at the heart of your story. 

Don’t End with Humour

This is good advice ,even for comic stories.  Where stories are conceived as comic, perhaps ending on a big joke is OK.  But if you tell a story from life, using it in a business context, humour at the end undermines your message.

It is particularly bad, in a serious story.  Describe some traumatic story, then end with a merry quip?  Not a good idea.  Even if the end is happy, honour the story that has gone before.  Aim for a response of hope or affirmation, not a belly laugh.

I heard a story about someone diagnosed with a genetic disorder.  He has a future of gradual decline, he’d already seen in his parents.  His story begins with a hilarious account of the tests he experienced to get the diagnosis.  He was genuinely expecting an all clear and so the story pivots on the letter with the test results.  After that humour would be out of place.  He found an affirmative note by describing the daughter they conceived as a result of the diagnosis and how he looks forward to seeomg her grow into an adult.

His emotional journey is almost slapstick humour, the tests were on his sperm.  Then the shock of the diagnosis.  Then the affirmation of the birth of the child.  A joke at the end would undermine the story.


What happens if your humour turns out not to be funny?  This is something many find worrisome.  Is it better to avoid humour if you don’t have a talent for it?

You don’t know for certain until you try it with your audience.  You may find carefully crafted humour results in stunned looks.  Or you say something in a certain way and everyone laughs.  The best advice is don’t laugh at your own jokes and don’t pause in anticipation of laughter.  You may have to pause for a very loud laugh.  But don’t milk it.  Some audiences smile inwardly, appreciate the humour and don’t express it dramatically.  You don’t need to signal an intended joke.  You wouldn’t expect everyone to burst into tears at a sad point in the story, so why expect gales of laughter?  Silence does not imply humour is not appreciated.

Different people have different tastes.  I prepare my tea listening to Radio 4 at 6.30pm.  Sometimes, programmes at this time are laugh out loud funny, sometimes I follow intently, appreciating the wit but don’t laugh aloud and sometimes I wonder why the programme was commissioned. 

Presumably someone in the BBC appreciates all these programmes.  That I personally find some of them incomprehensible, does not mean there aren’t others who appreciate them.  The same applies to your stories. 

Even if you deliver the story to a live audience, you cannot be certain how much it is appreciated because audiences don’t always respond with obvious emotions.  The big advantage to going live is, if you see your audience, you pick up cues.

But lots of storytelling is not live.  Written and recorded stories invite feedback through comments but you rarely have any idea how your audience responds.  If you deliver the story live, it may give you some idea about how it goes down with an audience.  Then you can prepare a recorded version, although this is not always practical.

Humour is one way to capture and hold attention.  Next time, I’ll explore other ways to build suspense.

Rose and masks

Emotion in Storytelling

Emotion in storytelling is key to character development and makes your stories compelling. Here’s a story about boredom. How does it make you feel?

I’d like to say I’m never bored.  But then sports have always bored me.  Especially cricket!  I’ve been to a football match twice.  The first was Aberdeen versus Hearts and the second was Coventry versus Sheffield Wednesday (my inherited team).  At the last, we sat at the Coventry end.  Fortunately it was a no score draw, because with goals I’d have been out of synch with those around me. 

To be honest, I wasn’t bored!  I thought I would be.  I’d seen football on TV and found in the grounds you see the context, the teams’ strategies played out.  I’m still not interested but I see why many people are not bored by football.

I love opera and one of my favourites is Rosenkavalier.  It’s an opera you need to know to appreciate, especially if it’s in German.  There’s little action and whilst character development is profound, I imagine the whole thing is incomprehensible to some.  I remember taking a potential girlfriend.  Afterwards, she was no longer a potential girlfriend, if she ever was before.

Emotion in Storytelling is Artificial

It’s not the same as real life.  With 10 minutes to account for over several years; you cut an enormous amount!  The storyteller constructs everything, including emotions.

Aim to evoke an emotional response in your audience.  You do this deliberately or inadvertently.  Decide the response you want or else lose control.  Emotional responses you usually don’t want include boredom, revulsion, anger (aimed at you). 

Whilst you normally aim to finish on a note of laughter, joy or hope; many times you touch less positive emotions like sadness, anger at some injustice, worry, frustration …

Emotion and the Audience

Focus upon what you want your audience to feel at each stage of your story, whether you tell a story from experience or a fictional story.

When marketing, you have another concern.  What is your call to action?  How do you want your audience to respond, what would you like them to do?  What emotional state is likely to encourage them to respond?  Perhaps you present a problem and your solution to it.  So, leave your audience in a hopeful state.  Someone ready to buy is likely to be hopeful this purchase will solve their problem.

Often your audience passes through several emotional states as you tell your story.  A common pattern is laughter followed by sadness.  If you begin with humour, you do two things.  You build audience confidence.  Many fear the storyteller who seems likely to break down during telling a heavy story.  If you use humour, it shows you in control of your emotions.  Laughter also conceals the true nature of the story.  When the sad part comes along, it has more impact for not being expected. 

The challenge for the business owner is once you get to the sad part, how do you bring hope into the story?  Returning to laughter may work but often doesn’t; a merry quip at the end is rarely appropriate.  Something serious happened and you must honour that.  Finding that keynote of hope or affirmation is key to bringing your story to an end that inspires potential customers.

Wounds and Scars

There are two common problems using emotion in storytelling.  Usually emotions are more intense where you tell a story from experience but maybe some traditional stories cause you to choke up if they resonate with your story.

It takes time for wounds to heal.  If you tell a story in public too soon, you may encounter two waves of negative emotion.  The first is overwhelm as you speak.  The problem is not so much a public display of emotion, as losing sight of your audience’s emotional response.  A public performance is not a good place to hunt down your inner demons.  Your audience will work out you are not in control and lose trust in you.  The second wave may be remorse after you have told your story.

Discern whether you are ready to tell the challenging story.  Maybe you need to wait a few years.  Maybe therapy would help or telling the story to a trusted friend.  There is no compulsion to ever tell the story.  If you want to tell stories, you have many more.  I have heard speakers allude to other stories and when I ask in private, reply they are not ready to tell them. 

When you’re ready to tell a difficult story, the chances are it is a story many need to hear, a story told from scars.  The events you tell of are still a part of you but now you focus on your audience and their needs.

Beware, you can over control emotion in storytelling.  You become inured to suffering and tell the story in a mechanical way.  It is OK to choke up as you speak.  What you feel now may not be anything like what you felt then but you need to show you feel something!

Boredom can be Interesting!

Obviously, you should not bore your audience.  Everyone knows boredom.  They remember as kids, at home while it rains or in school conjugating verbs.  When you describe boredom, you trigger memories. 

Where were you bored?  Can you describe the bus stop where bored teenagers gathered and hung out?  When were you bored?  Was it as a kid or teenager?  Have you been bored in adult life? 

Boredom is not always having nothing to do.  The story at the head of this post describes adult boredom.  Hopefully it shows boredom can entertain!

I could do more with that story but you can see its potential.  The only rule is, don’t bore your audience!  One way to entertain your audience with boredom is to use humour.  Humour has several roles in storytelling but maybe not what you would think.  Find out more next time.

1 2 3 72