It's a crisp, chilly evening in October. The sun has just set over the mountains in the distance and long, blue shadows are filling the park beside the white gazebo. A few warm street lamps dot the park in Jonesborough, TN, annual home of the International Storytelling Festival. As the last warm colors disappear into the distance, a lone figure steps onto the stage of the gazebo and begins to spin a yarn. I pull the blanket around me a little tighter. From the railroad tracks to the creek, the audience falls silent as the storyteller kicks off the ghost story portion of the festival.
Beginning slowly and with a matter-of-fact tone, he talks of a town just like this one, with a festival, a park, and a railroad running through the middle of town. The simple beginning gives way to the realization that something bad happened to the town involving the train. A railroad accident had wiped out an entire town but every year on the same day, the ghosts of the townspeople would wander into the park, unaware that they had passed on. It was at this exact moment that the 9:15 freight train sounded its triple air horn while rumbling past the park at breakneck speed. After the initial shock and screams had passed through the crowd we all sat in stunned silence while the boxcars whizzed by in the dark. I looked back up to the gazebo but the storyteller was gone. His presence was no longer necessary, his job was done.
So what does the most amazing ghost story ever told have to do with content? Every individual, business, and product has a story to tell. From the smallest internal communication to the largest consumer focused campaign, we are in a daily struggle to communicate effectively. Two of the most important questions anyone can ask are: Who is telling our story? and When is the ideal time to tell this story? If a business can correctly answer these questions it's on the way to effective storytelling.
The storyteller was a professional. The ease with which he told his tale was evidence that he had spent thousands of hours perfecting his craft. He read the crowd and adjusted his performance accordingly-- which was probably invisible to the audience. Now, imagine if a committee had selected an individual to tell that story. An expert on trains or a professional ghost hunter might have brought technical expertise to the experience, but they would be all wrong for your message. When you ask "Who will tell our story?" you should also realize that most of the time someone trained in that area of communication will be more effective than an expert on the subject matter. Sometimes the CEO or the Product Manager is not the right choice to clearly tell your story.
Timing is everything. If that freight train had been a minute earlier or later the effect on the crowd would have been dramatically different. The storyteller had obviously researched the train schedules and knew the precise moment to begin his story. Not only had he done his homework but he had also spent time syncing up the ghost story with the train's path through town. Having a message hit at just the right moment is a delicate balance of preparation and being in the moment. Your content can be the best presentation/sales pitch/email/etc. ever, but if you send it at the wrong time, it can fall flat. Make sure you know your target audience, their surroundings, and when they will receive your message to ensure maximum effectiveness.
I wish that I could take you back to that chilly fall evening in the oldest town in Tennessee. On that night a pitch-perfect professional told an incredible story at the exact right moment, and the hairs still stand up on my neck when I think about it. But if I can't take you all there, I can at least tell you the story and hope it helps you better prepare your content. If you listen really closely you can probably hear a train whistle. Be sure to share this article to your coworkers and then sneak up behind them with an air horn.
Now that would make a great story.