How to Become a Better Storyteller

In Chevalier's fictional account, the characte...

In Chevalier’s fictional account, the character Griet is the model for Vermeer’s painting. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

by Rebecca Cochran

It is said that, in his Fifth Symphony, Beethoven told his story in the first four notes. In an NPR interview upon the release of his book, The First Four Notes: Beethoven’s Fifth and the Human Imagination, author Matthew Guerrieri shared several theories. “The most common story that is told is that Beethoven allegedly said that the opening of the symphony was supposedly symbolizing fate knocking at the door.” Listen to the full interview here.

Short stories. Long stories. True stories. Fictional stories. Old stories. New stories. New twists on old stories. Stories of what could be. The list is endless.

And, of course, there are many ways to tell a story. Verbally. Visually. In-print. Online. Over-the-air. In film. On canvas. Musically. Or in never-ending combinations of any of the above.

Johann Sebastian Bach was another great musical storyteller. “From the first chords of his Chaconne, the final movement of the Partita No. 2 in D minor for solo violin, you have a sense that this is going to be a saga, not just a small journey,” remarked Arnold Steinhardt, famed violinist of the former Guarneri String Quartet. Learn more about the Chaconne in this NPR interview with Steinhardt here.

Author Tracy Chevalier presented a TED talk on “Finding the Story Inside the Painting.” In her talk, she shares three stories inspired by portraits, including Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring that led to her best-selling novel of the same name. Listen to her talk here.

Of course, few of us can compete with the likes of Beethoven, Bach or Chevalier. But we can look for inspiration all around us. And, we can practice storytelling. Yes, practice. There’s that word again.

Pick up a book or a magazine. Without thinking, open the cover and randomly choose one image. Next, start to concoct a story based on the image. If the photo is one of an animal, give him a name. Make up his life story. Define what makes him different from all the others of his species. Make it all up. And remember, it doesn’t have to make perfect sense – you’re just practicing (and, probably, even having fun).

Try this exercise in different settings. Take it outdoors and see what happens. Try it with a friend or your significant other. Better yet, try it with one of your children. Or, turn on the radio and randomly listen to a song or piece of music. Create a story based on what you’ve just heard.

Then, try taking your practice into your business. Practice telling the true story of why you started your business. Tell the story of how you came up with one of your best-selling products. Tell stories of how you helped some of your key clients succeed. You can tell these stories in person. You can tell these stories on your website or via other media. The main thing is to share them.

With regular practice, you’ll discover talents you didn’t know you had. Chances are, you’ll become more observant and a better listener. And, just think how easy it could be if you regarded public presentations as “just telling a story.” You’ll be more effective, more engaging and more memorable.

Storytelling can be a valuable tool online and off. All it takes is a little practice.

Storytelling from the front

The History Channel Commemorates the WWII Leather Bomber Jacket

In partnering with The History Channel to develop a licensed chair and ottoman inspired by the ever-popular WWII leather bomber jacket, I was given access to THC’s vast photography archives. My photo research inspired me to build the marketing campaign around a “postcards from the front” concept, blending history with romance to tell the chair’s story.


We used a sepia effect on the images and I had a great time penning intimate messages from imaginary flying aces to send back home to Mom, Dad, a sweetheart, etc. The set of postcards, bound together with a military dog tag chain, became the basis for point-of-purchase materials used in the furniture manufacturer’s showroom and at retail. Individual postcards doubled as actual direct mail pieces.

Print ads carried the headline, “Once They’re Gone, They’re History” to build a sense of urgency and highlight the limited edition nature of this commemorative collection.

by Rebecca Cochran

Rebranding a nonprofit — online and off

BustWhen asked to assist a non-profit organization with the redesign of its website, I met with staff and board members several times before recommending an overall rebranding effort. The organization was founded nearly two decades ago to raise money to fund research for a biological breast cancer test. It is the only organization in the world with the single mission of finding a test to detect breast cancer earlier.

I interviewed key staff and constituents to learn more about where the organization had been. Next, I facilitated a brainstorming session to begin to unearth new ideas. The session included an extensive wordplay and lots of “what if-ing.” I framed the brainstorm such that no idea was too offbeat or unworthy of consideration. We wrote down literally everything.

As a result of these efforts, we determined that in order to reach a more global audience of researchers and online donors, the name of the organization needed to change. The answer happened to be right in front of us  — the URL already in use became the new name of the organization. Here are the “Before” and “After” identities.



by Rebecca Cochran