Storytelling has become an indispensable skill.
From charities to brands, governments to even the United Nations, everyone wants to tell better stories - on social media, blogs, tv or any other channel.
At its best, storytelling can change the world. Great stories can quicken heartbeats, open check books, and spark massive moments.
In this post, we investigate Harrison's storytelling power, and draw out three lessons that can help you craft more powerful stories.
(*Please do watch his talks and draw your own lessons, and share them in the comments!)
Why Scott Harrison?
Confession: this post came about because I kept seeing over-the-top praise for his talks. So I decided to investigate, and was quickly won over.
Renowned presentation guru Nancy Duarte calls him one of the greatest storytellers ever. Branding expert Marta Kagan saw Harrison's talk move people to tears and draw a standing ovation. And another pro speaker said Harrison "blew me away."
If that's not enough for you, consider this:
- Harrison typically speaks for 40+ minutes, with few videos to share his burden
- He speaks about water - not the most exciting topic
- He offers the audience neither fancy products nor amazing service; instead, he asks them to give their money away - to people they'll never meet - with no tangible benefit in return.
And still his audiences give him undivided attention for almost an hour, and they also give money. Lots of it. In 2014 alone, Charity:Water raised $43.4 Million.
So, what can we learn from him?
Plenty, of course. But as you're all busy, I'll focus on three lessons that even veteran speakers should find useful:
- Be our detective
- Focus on the human: ONE human
- Use extraordinary photos
I drew these lessons from watching three of his talks:
Lesson #1: Be our detective
We all love great detective stories. So be our detective: Unveil the mystery/problem for us; Peel back its layers and show us its darkest core; Then resolve the mystery and lead us back into the light.
Nancy Duarte noted that Harrison employs a story structure of "likeable hero encounters roadblock, solves it and emerges transformed". Others have called Harrison's a redemption story. This is all true.
But Harrison isn't just a redeemed hero; He's also a detective who takes us to the root of the global water crisis. We follow him as he encounters terrifying facial tumor; begins his investigation; finds the cause in drinking water; travels to its source; then mobilizes the solution:
The actual timing of the events may not be this clean, but it nonetheless feels like a tight, evolving story of investigation. If your talk involves any mystery or problem that requires deep investigation, the detective story structure is perfect.
It generates irresistible momentum, because each finding triggers a further question: "what's going on here?", or "why is this happening?". And the answers to this trigger yet deeper questions. The audience never loses track or interest, because the tight logical flow and constant revival or curiosity pull them ever deeper into the story.
What's more, this also builds in credibility, because you were there. You personally took the journey. You did the investigating. You witnessed it all.
Another recent case shows just how powerful this structure can be. When intrepid Chinese reporter Chai Jing decided to make a presentation/documentary about air pollution in China, she chose precisely this structure. Her detective work led her from the streets into the science labs, then deep into the smoggy complicity between government and industry.
Lesson #2: Concentrate on the human: ONE human
Sharing pictures and anecdotes of real people is nice. Even better? Select ONE person whose story makes the greatest impact, and tell it in wonderful detail.
Most of us know by now that human stories can be incredibly engaging, a power that's increasingly confirmed by science. And indeed, Harrison shows us the human side with stunning photography and anecdotes. But he does something else that's pretty cool.
He didn't just focus on people. He focused on ONE person.
From all those who needed help, Harrison picked one person - Letikiros, a girl who walked 8+ hours to fetch water only to lose it, before hanging herself. And he devoted 6 full minutes to her story.
Later on, from all those who gave help, Harrison also picked one person - Rachel, a little girl who pledged to raise $300 for Charity:Water, but died in a tragic car accident before she could fulfil that goal. He devoted almost 7 minutes to her story, including this moving video:
Unsurprisingly, these were the two emotional high points of his speech.
The lesson: If you are able to find iconic stories of compelling individuals in your material, you'd be wise to feature them in prominence.
Something else to note: As it happens, of all the stories Harrison tells, Letikiros' and Rachel's are the only ones about death - death that inspired the living to fight even harder to end the global water crisis, as if to give meaning to their sacrifice.
Coincidence? I suspect not.
Human stories are powerful. And stories of sacrifice are especially powerful.
Lesson #3: Use extraordinary photos
Everyone knows that photos can be powerful. But not all photos are created equal. For extraordinary impact, you need extraordinary images. Make sure they precisely convey the message you intend and spark the emotion you intend.
Many great talks use pretty photos. But watching Harrison's speeches, it's immediately obvious (to both eyes and hearts) just how extra special his photos are.
They're not just professional and beautiful. They also hit the emotional buttons with incredible accuracy. Repeatedly.
A photo of a child drinking dirty water elicits exactly the right emotion - disgust, disbelief, a "this is simply not right!" outrage.
Another photo of a girl drinking heavenly water also sparks the right emotion - happiness. Elation almost:
Go and check out his photos here.
"Use photos!" is one of those tips that's easy to say and hard to master. Often do we find speakers using photos that get not a "whoa!" but a "huh?". Audiences are left confused about what the photo has to do with the point, and how they ought to feel.
Don't let this happen to you. Pick photos that are extraordinary not just visually, but also in how accurately they convey the message and emotion you want.
Yes, it takes a huge amount of time. But it really is worth it.
Bonus lesson: Avoid "holier than thou"
One of the great dangers when speaking about ethical causes - poverty, climate change, human rights, etc. - is the "holier than thou" syndrome.
We've all seen this happen: the speaker gets a little preachy, and the audience feels that their way of life is being portrayed as less than ethical. Their wall goes up: "Who are YOU to tell me how to live!?" "Oh, you think you're better than us!?"
Speaker-audience connection is dead. And so is the speaker's persuasive power.
Scott Harrison avoids this risk beautifully, by starting his talk with the story of how he became the "most morally and spiritually bankrupt person I knew." And the audience got it: he wasn't some sort of saint. He was just another lost soul who was trying to find meaning in this world, and he found it by serving others. And so can we all.
By sharing his lowest moments, he elevated his credibility.
- The detective story structure is also a "situation, complication, resolution" one that top consulting firms like McKinsey use (with modifications), as Dave McKinsey describes in Strategic Storytelling.
- And it can be easily adapted into a 2-3 minute pitch: "I wanted to serve the poor, and encountered terrifying facial tumour. I traced the problem back to dirty water, which is a global crisis (give evidence). To solve this, I developed a new kind of charity that maximizes the return on investment, and here's evidence that it's working. With your help, we really can end the global water crisis."
- Even great storytellers improve constantly: Comparing Harrison's presentations from 2012 to 2014, his improvement is obvious. For instance, he edited out many details that weren't strictly necessary to his larger narrative, and this led to a tighter, more effective story. And if even such a formidable speaker constantly works at improving his craft, the rest of us have no excuses.
- Tailor your talks to each specific audience: Another observation from comparing his talks is how he changes things up for different audiences. For instance, his talk to Stanford University students was quite different from his LeWeb and RSA keynotes. His tone and language were more college-like. He emphasized details that amused 18-22 year olds much more than they would an older professional crowd. And if such a star speaker makes the effort to adjust for different audiences, the rest of us have no excuses.
- Must you really start with a bang? We are warned endlessly to never, ever, ever begin with a meek "Uhhhh, hello everyone, it's good to be here... uh...." because that would kill audience interest. Well... this is exactly how Scott Harrison started his RSA talk. And he still delivered an amazing speech to a standing ovation. Of course, most of us aren't Scott Harrison, and "start strong" is still the right advice. But this goes to show that a tentative start isn't the end of the world.
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