4 elements of a great story

4 elements of a great story

Storytelling is an art that a great leader and speaker know about. There’s a reason why you remember the illustrations that others share in their presentation and how you’ll often remember the stories and analogies from a minister’s sermon before you recall the points of the message itself. People love stories!

I certainly leverage the power of storytelling in my own leadership. Being a good storyteller helps you get your message across, become more memorable to others and raise your influence level across the team. We’ve previously talked about the types of stories (EP 124)  that you should have at the ready. Today, we’ll look at 4 elements that make a great story. 

Stories don’t have to be long and elaborate

I’ve certainly been known to dial in a little bit of exaggeration or emphasis in a story to drive a point home or to land a punchline. Stories don’t have to be incredibly long, in fact, shorter stories are typically more memorable.  Here’s an example of a story that Mike talks about in our book recommendation shows:

Two friends started a computer company. One person was a brilliant engineer, and the other had a passion for marketing and design. Together, the two Steves created Apple in Steve Jobs’s garage where he lived with his parents. Together, they revolutionized the industry and made computers easy to use for the average person.  Later, Jobs was kicked out of his own company after a failed boardroom coup. A decade later he came back to pull the organization back from the brink of bankruptcy and made it into the organization that many millions love today. In 2022, the brand founded by two guys in a dad’s garage became the first U.S. company to be valued at $3 trillion.

117 words are all it took to share the story of Apple and it includes all four elements of a great story. 

It needs Structure

There are some great stories out there that have been buried by a meandering storyteller. Maybe you know a person like this; they just seem to go on-an-on with an illustration or example and the story never really ends.  There is a great episode of The Office where their branch manager Micheal (ep 289) finally has a great story to share and he just kills it by dragging it on and on until people lose interest. 

All great stories have one thing in common: they have a beginning, middle, and end. The beginning sets the stage –  It’s the backdrop of the situation and introduction to the characters. The middle shines a spotlight on the conflict or obstacles and the end resolves the conflict or shares what the outcome was. 

Think about the stories that you want to share with others and visualize how the story plays out. Does it contain a definitive beginning middle and end? If so then you are already well on your way to a potentially memorable story. 

It should have Characters

Speaking of The Office, one of the main reasons that people love that show (or really any show) is because of the characters. They are memorable and unique, and oftentimes we can see a little bit of ourselves in those characters that we love the most. 

There are times when the concept of your story may be more abstract. Perhaps you are trying to capture your Mission, Vision, and Values. These abstract ideas can be embedded in your stories but the people or characters are the ones carrying the message. When I worked on a project where a company was relaunching its Values, we created videos where the executives came in and shared stories of what that particular Value meant to them or how they’ve seen it played out in the organization. We almost exclusively used the power of characters and stories to convey the message of the Values to those associates. 

There needs to be Conflict

People love good conflict in stories. It’s what keeps people engaged as they wait to hear what is next. Remember conflict doesn’t always have to be physical or violent. Other areas to think about in conflict include:

  • Time – a natural enemy to all people!
  • A breakdown in resources or communications
  • An unexpected twist to a well-thought-out plan
  • Nature or other physical barriers
  • Yourself
  • Technology
  • Society or government
  • Personalities

There are conflicts going on around you on a daily basis and it’s very likely that the basis for your story may have more than one conflict. Choose and highlight the one that best accentuates the point that you are trying to make to keep people focused and engaged. 

It needs Resolution

Every story needs to end. Give your story some closure. What was the point or lesson learned that you want to share? People enjoy hearing how someone overcame the odds or obstacles and to understand how the person or situation was transformed as a result. 

In many business-related stories, the story simply wraps up with a solution to the problem or conflict at hand. 

Craft great stories that include all the elements above. Practice and refine them with friends and family and then add them to your proverbial roll-a-dex to pull out at the right time in the future. There is quite a bit of power in storytelling as a communication tool and relationship builder.  Tell a compelling story that pulls people in and inspires them. 

Make a better tomorrow. 

The Be Series: Be the storyteller

The Be Series: Be the storyteller

One of the most undervalued types of communication is a person’s storytelling skills. I remember one year when I put storytelling skills in the areas for improvement section of my annual review. It was largely brushed off and likely taken in the context that I was not focusing on the right areas. The truth of the matter is that we all need to be better storytellers. When I travel around the country and teach leaders or consult with organizations, I often tell the same stories over and over again if it’s on the same subject matter. If you are in sales you do the same thing daily with potential clients. If you are a parent, you use stories to teach your children. We also use stories to build and grow relationships both personally and professionally.

There are three types of stories that everyone should have in their toolbox.

Underdog story

This is your outsider to insider story and your goal is to connect on an emotional level. Think David and Goliath or Rocky. Both great stories of overcoming the odds to win. For me, it’s starting out at an organization as a seasonal hire, after not even getting an interview the first time, to becoming a leader in that company and being responsible for over 500 people. It doesn’t have to be extreme. Your story may be getting laid off from a job and how you bounced back, not getting into the school you wanted, not getting the dream job you applied for, etc. Basically, what obstacle and personal setback have you overcome to get a win. A few months ago, I told a story of how the GA marathon destroyed me, but I was able to bounce back and do really well at the Boston Marathon weekend a month later. Large or small, have a few of these types of stories in your pocket.

Authority story

This story shows your expertise in your specific field, also known as your street cred story. What gives you your credibility? Again this can be both large and small scale, depending on your experience. I have a few including turning around retention rates, stories of other leaders that have thrived under the right kind of leadership, and financial gains by focusing on the right training delivery method. Yours may be your academic success, work success, or success as a parent. Another way to think about it is from the perspective of your friends/family/co-workers. They would say you are awesome at _________ because _________ . There’s one of your stories right there.    

Fixer story

This is your story of what you do. What problem do you solve for other people? “I help people __________”, “I help my organization _________”. Share a problem that you currently working on for a customer, your boss, or your business.  These are typically easier stories to identify and showcase your drive to improve others and work with a team. It helps people see how you can help them with their own problems and situations.  People enjoy hearing how their pain points can be solved and they get that from hearing how you did it with others.

Keep in mind to tailor your stories around what people need to hear. The stories I share when speaking to business students are going to be different from the ones I share with a CEO going through a culture change initiative. In her situation, she doesn’t care that I got passed over for a seasonal job, but a college student will project themselves into the story and see how they can build future career growth.

Tips to start writing your story

  • Free write: Spend time weekly writing out your thoughts or experience that happened to you in the last week. We all forget our interactions and they can often be a great start to an engaging story.
  • Voice to text apps or voice recorders: Hate writing? Use voice recording apps, your phone, or a recorder to record your thoughts.
  • Be authentic: People see through fake stories or ones that are overexaggerated and insincere. People want to hear about the real you.
  • Try it on friends and colleagues: Use those close to you to give you honest feedback on how your story is. They can help you edit and polish your story to make it more impactful.
  • Don’t improv your story: I know that you’ve heard yourself tell the story a hundred times, but it’s likely a first for your audience. There is a reason why people enjoy a greatest hits album and far fewer buy the remix album. People want to hear your best!
  • Have an impact that they remember: If people can’t summarize and tell your story to others then it probably needs to be reworked.
  • Develop a skill people don’t have and then give it to them: Give them something that they can’t readily get elsewhere.  That may be a service, a unique combination in skill set or life experience.

Make a better tomorrow.

*Ryan Williams is an expert in storytelling and the writer of the Influencer Economy. He is the champion of the three types of stories everyone should have and can be found at The Influencer Economy