Simon Burton is CEO of Exposure Communications and a serial entrepreneur. Simon is delivering the Keynote at this year’s LiT (Leaders in Technology) Summit in Cambridge on 28th June. Ahead of his talk, we ask him some questions about his talk and the art, and science, of storytelling.
Simon, so we agree that storytelling is really important. What should we be aware of when forming, and then presenting our story?
People are receptive to stories and will form judgments based on content and delivery. I would ask anyone to put themselves around the campfire. This is where stories came from, and the skill of the great storyteller was refined.
In order to be an effective storyteller, you need to first put yourself in the shoes of the recipient, the listener or reader. So a knowledge of the audience is important. You will need to understand there are two worlds - your vision of the world and the world your audience inhabits. Art and storytelling are mimetic and storytelling mimics what the real world is like. But you must be clear that my view is different to yours. So good storytellers are able to put themselves in their audience’s position.
Has technology and culture changed the rules of storytelling?
Yes it has somewhat. In the digital age when we have so many tools when we are no longer constrained by traditional or legacy media – so it is really important to become a storyteller and commit to it consistently. But so many don’t do it as effectively as they could. For example, people are not generally good at concision and relevance.
I am often meeting new people, and they give you an elevator pitch and commonly you will need a really slow elevator and really tall building! The pitch is too long! Because so much has changed in our world, but our view of how we tell our stories has not, and this is a problem. Many people are stuck with traditional methods of story-telling about how they got to where they get. I can give plenty of examples of when I have met with 50 somethings and they start their pitch by telling me where and when they went to university! Half a life time ago, and it’s not relevant to our conversation. So don’t be afraid to summarise. This will hold my attention far more effectively.
So to what extent should the story just be about the presenter?
Of course, the story is defined and delivered by the presenter, but we still need to leave enough gaps for the listener to engage and interact. If we do this, we connect. Many brands are monotone and this is unhelpful. As listeners or readers we want colour, variety, pace and rhythm.
As I said it is easier to fall into mass detail as people are not really good at concision, relevance and focus. But if we waffle, we will struggle to get people to interact with us. Stories need to be intriguing, and not lacking in colour and candour. In the print world, Benny Landa is a superb example of a great storyteller – we gravitate to him not just because of his disruptive technology, but because he puts on a great show and tells a great story. We are caught up in the narrative
So if you don’t have an innovative product. Can you still tell a great story?
Absolutely. It reminds me of the fact that the best comedians don’t necessarily need the best material to get laughs. They manage to make people laugh through performance and timing. They just have an ability to deliver.
Any other advice you would give a storyteller who is looking to improve?
Yes, don’t think you need a neat ending. You don’t. Audiences are cynical about endings that neatly wrap up and are too clever – the trick is not to end it, so people want to talk directly to you to afterwards, or contact you for more information! Give them a cliff hanger.