Steps for Better Storytelling

Great leaders tell great stories. Here’s how.
May 03, 2013

It’s the reason Steve Jobs sold millions of iPods by skipping the technical specifications and simply stating that one thousand songs could now fit in your pocket. It’s the reason trial lawyers appeal to a jury’s humanity as much as the letter of the law. It’s the reason political candidates fight to define each other’s narrative. When human beings need to persuade people about ideas, we tell stories.

In 2007, the American Association of Advertising Agencies published the results of a two-and-a-half year study that charted the effectiveness of two types of ads: ads that told a story and ads that appealed to rational reasoning. The result? “For the most part, ads that tell stories and engage and involve consumers create stronger emotional relevance than product-centric ads,” the study concluded.

We all remember the “Wassup” ad from Budweiser that told the story of a group of close friends with their own inside jokes. But do you remember the Miller Lite ad that touted the brand’s low-carb recipe? Probably not.

In his book The Storytelling Animal, Jonathan Gottschall points to research by Italian neuroscientists as evidence for the effectiveness of stories. By implanting electrodes in a monkey’s brain, researchers discovered that certain parts of the brain were activated both when the monkeys performed an action and when they witnessed other monkeys performing that same action.

In other words, we live vicariously through the actions and stories of others. It’s the reason we wince when we hear a disgusting story or feel our heart race while watching an action movie. It’s also the reason that ideas that evoke a specific narrative are more memorable—they invite empathy, which increases the likelihood that they will be accepted and adopted.

“If you don’t know how a principle came to exist you’ll never adopt it as your own,” says Jonathan Harris, an artist and co-founder of the online storytelling repository Cowbird. Without a good story to back it up, ideas are easily dislodged and replaced in our memories.

Telling a Great Story

No surprise, telling great stories takes effort. To uncover a handful of key tenets, we asked some experts for their advice on how to be better storytellers in our work lives.

1. Figure out your controlling idea.

In traditional storytelling, you can start with a character or location and let the storyline wander, twist, and turn as you explore an underlying theme. When you’re using a story to persuade someone about your idea or your product in a professional context, the approach needs to be a little more precise. You have to first determine the one idea that you want your audience to remember. Then, make that “controlling idea” the cause for the conflict and climax. “Most good stories have one or several of those moments and the rest of the story is infrastructure to allow that moment to exist,” says Harris.

2. Set the mood.

The specifics depend on who you ask, but a good story always allows the listener or reader to get lost in the tale. “It might just be three sentences long, but a good story starts with one kind of mood or attitude,” says Kevin Allison, head instructor at The Story Studio. “The mood is a through line that has gone on a journey towards the end and shifted. That’s the skeleton, the main thing running through a story that makes it more than random information.”

3. Choose the right structure, and stick with it.

Syd Field preached a three act structure for screenplays. Gottschall thinks of a story as character, predicament, and attempted extrication. Veteran storyteller and past 99U speaker Jay O’Callahan prefers people, place, and trouble as his ingredients. Whatever construct or approach you prefer, the importance of structure in storytelling cannot be overstated. Craft the arc of your story meticulously for maximum impact.

4. Keep it short.

“People appreciate an economic approach to words,” says Storylane co-founder Jonathan Gheller. “Use only the words you need to use and not the words that will impress other people. Make it count.”

5. Use details and images to build empathy.

O’Callahan likes to think of a story as a series of images hanging on a clothes line with three poles. You need a beginning, middle, and end (e.g. the three poles), but the imagery in between is what ties it all together and makes for a truly memorable story.

Focus on emotions and sensory descriptions and don’t worry about providing a comprehensive account of the situation. Constantly ask yourself, how can I make this more emotionally resonant for the individual who is reading or listening?

6. Show vulnerability.

“A lot of people make the mistake of thinking they have to put their best foot forward all the time, like they are their resume,” says Allison. “One of the most valuable stories to listeners is when a confident person gets up and talks about a time they struggled and failed.” When you admit your own faults or flaws in a story, the audience is more likely to empathize with you and remember your message.

7. Practice, practice, practice.

If your background isn’t in storytelling, it’s important to set up a productive means of getting feedback for your storytelling practice. Sites like Cowbird and Storylane are new communities based on written storytelling. Toastmasters offers public speaking practice in a supportive environment as well. There are also storytelling classes and events all over the country. “It sounds somewhat trite and repetitive, but doing all of these [things] well is incredibly hard. But if you get good at this, it will help you connect with others in a more profound way,” says Gheller.

This story originally appeared on

Sean Blanda is the managing editor of 99u.

Photos from top: iStockphoto, Oscar Ramos Orozco