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5 Invaluable Story Telling Rules From Aristotle (You Don’t Need to Be Steve Jobs)

Recent leadership literature (exhibit’s a & b) tells us that “telling a good story” is something all the best leaders do.

According to the Harvard Business Review a good yarn “informs, involves, and inspires” employees.

Good stories also attract customers and build brand identity. We need only look at Steve Jobs’ eagerly anticipated and meticulously studied presentations.

But where’s the proof? We can’t really measure the value of stories, can we?

Would Apple be less popular if Steve Jobs’ stories were a bit dryer? Would Apple eclipse Microsoft if Steve Jobs’ had even better stories tucked under this turtle neck?

Further, what is a good story? Some people might think the founding story of your small business is inspirational. Others might tune out after you pause for your first breath.

We don’t have a universal measuring stick that determines a story’s value.

But, we do have Aristotle’s Rhetoric. Written in the 4th century B.C.E Rhetoric had one simple aim: teach orators and statesman how to persuade people to do or to believe in something. After defining rhetoric, its worth, and its power Aristotle considered rhetorical style and admitted it was an illusive quality. You can’t teach style, nor can you lay out the principals of style without stepping on the toes of your argument.

However, Aristotle believed there were five rules all public speakers and story tellers had to follow in order to hold an audience captive.

They are as follows:

1. “[Employ] the proper use of connecting words and the arrangement of them in the natural sequence which some of them require”

Translation: Avoid run-on sentences and parenthetic remarks.

Long sentences and weird word order will muddy your story and weigh it down.

2. “[Call] things by their own special names and not by vague general ones.”

Translation: Don’t use vague words–use specific words. Your story will thank you.

This is obvious sounding, but leaders and storytellers forget it all the time. Consider Delaware GOP Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell line: “I’m not a witch…I’m you.”

3. “Avoid ambiguities; unless indeed, you definitely intend to be ambiguous, as those do who have nothing to say but are pretending to mean something.”

Translation: Ambiguity is bad for speeches. Unless of course you want to fog the debate.

Here we get a glimpse of the pragmatic Aristotle. He knew that rhetoric could be manipulated and that’s why it was something worth learning. Still, his primary point about avoiding ambiguity is crucial for leaders who want to tell stories. Keep it simple.

4. Observe Protagoras’ classification of nouns into male, female, and inanimate; for these distinctions also must be clearly given.”

Translation: Use acceptable grammar.

I’m not sure leaders would do well to use Protagoras’ noun classifications today, but Aristotle’s larger point is apt. Don’t be lazy–use good grammar so everyone can keep on the same page.

5. “Express plurality, fewness, and unity by the correct word ordering.”

Translation: You and your argument will look stupid if your grammar isn’t consistent.

Again, Aristotle is stressing correct, simple, orderly grammar. Storytellers need to be clear–they don’t have to use big words and long paragraphs.

Three of Aristotle’s five style rules deal with grammar. It shows that even Aristotle didn’t have a clear idea of how to make an argument or a story truly stylish, enthralling, and interesting.  Aristotle didn’t mention dress, mannerisms, strength of voice, physic, and charm.  What mattered for Aristotle was the clear presentation of facts.

Leaders who want to begin telling stories can take heart from Aristotle’s rules. You don’t need the flare of Steve Jobs’ in order to tell a good story. You just need ordered thoughts, a healthy understanding of grammar, and a clear presentation. Other considerations like charisma and personality may help a story teller–but they certainly aren’t prerequisite skills leaders, orators, storytellers, and statesmen need.



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