Why Stories: 10 Characteristics of Effective Stories

July 10, 2014 | By Nathanael Yellis

Stories win races. Change minds. Influence events.

Stories are one of the most valuable tools that we have.

Learn the ten characteristics of effective stories from my recent Leadership Institute webinar, Storytelling Part 1: Storytelling & why it matters.  Watch the recorded webinar here.

 

1.     Stories connect to experience or values.

This Chrysler commercial, played during a Super Bowl, inspired intense debate on what it was saying, and why.  Why the debate over a commercial?  Why did the commercial become a cultural touchstone?  It connected to Americans’ values.  

2.     Stories have a subtle takeaway.

The message of a story can work even if the message is not explicitly stated.  In fact, stories often work better if the ultimate conclusion is left to be made in the mind of the listener.  This video, Dove’s Controversial “Real Beauty” Campaign, illustrates how building a subtle message through a story can be powerful.

Unremembered details from the floor of congress linked above.

3.     Stories force the storyteller to be concrete.

Members of Congress are legendary abusers of too many unremembered details.  Compare that with the Obama Administration’s Julia campaign.  Instead of talking about a 20-something woman, they talked about Julia.  Her life had enough details to be remembered.  Julia let them talk about policy in terms of personal, tangible benefits.  That concrete story moved the debate.

4.     Stories bring the teller’s emotions to life for the audience.

When confronted by a lesbian couple’s daughter, who spoke about her church congregation’s support and love and acceptance, Doug Wilson countered not with a refutation of her stance, but instead a story of the love, acceptance, and truth found in his conservative Christian congregation.  This built an emotional connection between Wilson and the otherwise hostile audience.  Making them sympathize with him and think was the best outcome he could have had in that setting, and he got it with a story.

5.     Stories force you to focus your words on a very few points.

 Concision is the MVP of your communicator’s toolbox.  It takes time to tell a good story, and that limits what you can say.  This is good.  Forced prioritization, like triage, makes you stronger.  Fewer, stronger, more memorable things are what you want to say.  Stories help you get there.

 

6.     Stories provide structure to your data.

Pecha Kucha is a discipline where presenters are forced to spend 20 seconds per slide on 20 slides.  Full stop.  It’s a fun event.  Watch pro speaker Steven Tomlinson deliver one here.  Storytelling makes a Pecha Kucha work; and like Pecha Kucha, storytelling imposes a structure on what you want to say.  Stories, according to Aristotle, follow the arc of order/disorder/reorder.  Your high school English teacher probably told you more about fiction as a form.  The point?  Stories give your audience a plot, or framework, on which to hang your points.

BONUS THREE POINTS NOT COVERED ON THE WEBINAR!!!

7.     Stories entertain.

What do we tell our friends?  Stories.  People like hearing stories.  Jokes are stories.  Want to be entertaining?  Tell a story.  This is a two-edged sword, because if you’re too entertaining, people may remember having fun but not what your point was.  Sometimes, that’s ok; sometimes it’s not.

8.     Stories are convincing.

How did Barack Obama rise to power?  People believed in him.  They understood his story and were convinced he was the leader America needed in 2008 and in 2012.  People can reasonably attribute his electoral success to his grassroots army, new voters his campaign found, and the vault of money raised and spent on his campaign.  All of those may be proximate causes of his victories, but what animated them all was his narrative.  People were convinced.

9.     Stories are sticky.

In Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath drop an amazing truth bomb: razor blades in homemade halloween candy never happened.  It started, thrived, and lives on as a fact-free myth.  Millions of parents have warned their kids against collecting any non-commercial halloween candy because of nothing.  Stories are sticky.

10.     Stories seem real.

Read the reason Subway’s Jared Fogle campaign beat the ‘7 sandwiches with 6 grams of fat or less’ campaign.  Stories, real or not, connect with people at a deeper level, the soul, than any set of facts can.  Gut beats brain.


Join part two of this Strategic Storytelling webinar series to ask us your questions and learn how to tell effective stories.