10 Essential Elements of a Successful Story

IMG_2415My agency has a whole team of people with the title “Storyteller.” They’re job is to make sure that analysts, managers and others communicate what they mean in a coherent way so that our customers can make sense of the products we give them.

Storytelling can mean a lot of thing to different people. In this context we’re talking about an account that one person tells to another person (or group of people) so that they can communicate an idea to them effectively

With that in mind, I’ve listed 10 Essential Elements to the Successful Story below.

1) Tell a Story About You.

This may sound strange, but a good story should include you. If you tell a story about someone else’s experience then that lowers the value of the story. I’m not saying that other people’s stories aren’t important. Rather, I’m saying that telling someone else’s story isn’t as powerful as telling your own story. Tell your own story and you will sell your idea more effectively.

2) Tell the Truth.

This is another Element that strikes some people as odd. But if people later learn that isn’t so, then you will lose all your credibility. Tell the truth.

3) Teach a Lesson.

Don’t leave your listeners hanging. If you tell a story and your listeners walk away thinking (or even worse saying) “What was the point?” then you’ve lost lot credibility. If you tell a story about how you were a soccer play when you were 12 and really enjoyed it because it gave you a rush … and then the team members voted you captain that shows leadership skills. Not a bad thing to have in government.

4) Give a Sensory Experience.

A “sensory experience” is a story that appeals to the senses. Some people –those who strongest sense (or mode) – is their visual perception– are visual communicators. Some people are auditory communicators – people whose strongest mode is listening. Some people are kinesthetic communicators – people whose strongest mode of interaction is their sense of touch. You may not know your listeners’ predominant mode of interacting with the world, so endeavor to use all of these modes in your stories.

5) Connect/Relate with Your Listeners.

All of the items discussed above are in their own way, manners of connecting or relating with people. But I’m talking about “universal experiences.” Universal experiences are emotions that people feel across cultures. Whether a person is American, Indian, Italian or Chinese that person understands certain universal emotions. For example: relief, joy, excitement. Which universal experience would you like your audience to walk away feeling? Incorporate into your story.

6) Say What the Impact on You Was.

What difference did the experience have on your life? This is different then teaching a lesson. For example, in high school I had a bad running accident because I was running too close to another member of my track team who accidentally knocked me over. The impact of the event was a significant cut to my head and about a dozen stitches. The lesson I learned is that it’s always important to stand alone.

7) Have a Beginning, Middle and End.

Just like a fairy tale or fable, your story must have a well-developed beginning, middle and end. What happened at the beginning of your story? Where did it lead you? And what was the result? If you don’t have all three in your story your story will leave your listeners disappointed.

8) Let Your Listeners Know How Your Changed.

How are you different because of this experience? What did you learn? I earlier mentioned my story about my running accident. As I noted above, I learned that it’s important to stand alone. Through that experience I gained confidence by learning the consequence of being dependent on others. Please note, that being able to stand alone does not mean that you shouldn’t collaborate with your coworkers. It just means that you bring something to the table and you are confident about what you have to offer.

9) Give a Context.

Tell your listeners when and where the story happened. That doesn’t mean that you need to have an exact date. Examples of the “when” include: ‘my senior year in high school,’ ‘my wedding night’ or ‘the day my dog died.”

10) Have Action.

Action is the word. The character or characters in the story (probably you) should be doing something. That probably means interacting with other characters in your story or movement (i.e., running from one place to another.) Don’t make the mistake of telling a story about an idea in your head or about a process that you undertook. Not including action in your story is a sure bet to lose your audience quickly.

All opinions are my own and not those of my agency or the federal government as a whole. Photo by Jay D. Krasnow

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Kirsten Neff

This is awesome advice on storytelling. My team of Project Managers has recently been discussing the importance of ‘telling the story’ about a project to all stakeholders – especially as new ones become involved.

Karen Baker

I like the way this article was put together. It gave me some things to think about when I am “telling stories”.

Tara McLoughlin

Great post! Would you be able to share an example of a story that includes all or most of the elements you mentioned?