Six Storytelling Lessons from Winnie-the-Pooh

A. A. Milne is the king of storytellers. I never read Winnie-the-Pooh as a child, and only picked it up when my wife asked me to read the stories to our children. I actually think it should be a crime not to read Winnie-the-Pooh in your childhood. But it is never too late. If you have never read him, or are inspired to read him again, here are six lessons I am taking from Chapter 1 of Winnie The Pooh: The Complete collection of Stories and Poems.

01
Have a strong beginning, full of picture

‘Once upon a time, a very long time ago now, about last Friday…’

Right off the blocks you know you are at the beginning of a story. It is delightful, funny and has picture — you are picturing Friday. Why not try that with your opening sentences?

02
Introduce a story-gap — a surprise — as soon as you can

‘Winnie-the-Pooh lived in a forest all by himself under the name of Sanders.’

I want to know why Winnie-the-Pooh was called Sanders. I may never know why, but I am intrigued and engaged. Donald Miller in his book Building a Story Brand talks about the importance of story-gap. Every good movie or TV series has a story-gap. You have met the character but now something has happened which means you want to know more. It is why you keep watching. If you have no story-gap the viewer will switch off. If you have no story-gap in your presentations your audience will switch off. Don’t give everything away all at once — leave a trail.

03
Use logic to create simple steps

‘Winnie-the-Pooh … began to think “That buzzing noise means something. If there’s a buzzing noise, somebody’s making a buzzing noise and the only reason for making a buzzing noise that I know is because you’re a bee … And the only reason for being a bee that I know is making honey.”’

Pooh is taking us with him, step-by-step. It is enjoyable and easy to follow. This is rarely the case with presentations. Most presenters have thousands of thoughts and try to get it all into one long sentence. It is deeply unpleasant for the audience to listen to jumbled jargon. But it is lovely to be taken on a journey. So, take a leaf out of Pooh’s book. Your step by step journey to your product/solution/reason is more interesting than you realise.

04
Show us your motivation that led to the action

‘And then he got up and said, “And the only reason for making honey is so as I can eat it”. So he began to climb the tree.’

Now we know why Pooh has made the monumental effort to get up the tree: honey. We are involved and we want him to succeed. It is just the same with a presentation. You want your audience to be involved and to want you to succeed. So don’t be shy about your desire for that honey and showing your journey from sitting to standing to attempting to climb the tree.

05
Invite your audience into the story

‘I just said to myself coming along: “I wonder if Christopher Robin has such a thing as a balloon about him?”

“What do you want a balloon for?” you said.

Winnie-the-Pooh looked around to see that nobody was listening, put his paw to his mouth and said in a deep whisper “Honey”.

Pooh is utterly convinced that Christopher Robin is his way to get honey. He shares a big secret with him. If we were to invite our audiences into our story, if we were to make them feel special, like sharing a big secret, it would create a powerful connection.

06
Let them know what’s at stake

‘“Christopher Robin, you must shoot the balloon with your gun.”

“But if I do that, it will spoil the balloon”, you said.

“But if you don’t,” said Pooh, “I shall have to let go, and that would spoil me.”’

Pooh is deeply confident of his argument. He is kind, strong and to-the-point — and he shows Christopher Robin what is at stake. He doesn’t question whether his argument is good enough. He is hanging from the air and has to get down. Let’s be confident in our presentations of saying what is at stake.