Sean Penn, El Chapo, and how to tell business stories

201601-unsplash-travel-1452421822248-d4c2b47f0c81If you’ve recently been anywhere near news coverage, you’ve heard the story of Sean Penn secretly visiting El Chapo in Mexico a few months ago. El Chapo, a fugitive drug lord, was captured by Mexican authorities this past weekend. Shortly thereafter, Rolling Stone published Penn’s report of his visit.

Penn tells an elaborate story of his trip to and from Mexico. He describes his reactions to a few sticky situations. He tries to reconcile the lore of El Chapo with the actual man sitting across the dinner table. It’s a good story.

What does this have to do with telling business stories? Sean Penn does a good job of humanizing a story that could have been a boring lecture.

The problem, though, is that Sean Penn is not a sympathetic figure. He drives a lot of people nuts. And he knows it. So try to take Sean Penn out of the equation, and focus on the story of a journalist getting access to one of the most dangerous men on the planet.

What would be the boring way of telling this story? You could do it a few ways:

  • Strict lecture. Sean Penn wants to share his thoughts on the US war on drugs. He could have buried the El Chapo angle and written a polemic on American drug policy.
  • Travel report. Penn could have focused on all the intricacies involved in meeting a person who wants to hide. He probably could have written thousands of words on all the precautions and disruptions meant to protect El Chapo.
  • Diary entry. Another option for Penn was to write a whole piece about his feelings, what was most frightening, what was most exciting, et cetera.

How did his story differ? It blended all three of these styles. Rather than lingering on any one path for too long, he changed things up. He kept his audience engaged. He offered something for everyone.

What’s the lesson for you? Don’t tell one-dimensional stories. Say you’re giving a presentation. Say you’re talking about an analysis you performed of your company’s competitors. Blend elements from different styles of story-telling to keep your audience engaged and emphasize the most important takeaways

Here’s how you could follow Sean Penn’s lead:

  • Strict lecture. Some of what you share will be black and white facts. You might talk about your competitors’ revenue, or headcount, or facilities locations. Get the important stuff in there, but don’t make your whole presentation sound like you’re reading from an encyclopedia.
  • Travel report. You’ll want to share a little about how you studied your competitors, where you found your data, what hurdles you had to overcome in your analysis. Don’t bore your audience with too much behind the scenes minutiae. But offer some transparency.
  • Diary entry. Here you can include elements of humanity. All businesses are built and run by people. You don’t have to share your own personal feelings. But you can talk about how your customers perceive your competitors. Or you can focus on how internal morale is affected by the successes or failures of your competitors.

There’s no one way to tell a story. As someone with a technical background, you’re likely drawn strongly to the facts. My guess is you’re more likely to sound like you’re reading from an encyclopedia than a diary, when you’re giving a presentation.

Mix and match your approach to story-telling. Know who your audience is. Part of your story will be a lecture. You need to make your message clear. But you’ll want to be transparent about how you reached your conclusion. And you’ll want to humanize the story, so that other people can relate.

Tell dynamic stories. You’re more likely to keep the attention of your audience and help them remember your message.

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