Elements of a Great Story
A WORTHY LESSON
The first element to consider in choosing a story is the lesson the story teaches. In fact, a good argument could be made for it being the only element. Remember, sales stories aren’t just told for entertainment. They’re told for a purpose. If the story you choose to tell doesn’t accomplish that objective, you’ve wasted your time and your prospect’s time.
It may sound obvious, and it should be, but many businesspeople significantly underestimate the importance of the lesson in the story selection process.
A RELATABLE HERO
A good guy who saves the day. It means the main character of the story, the protagonist, or more generally, the person from whose perspective the story is told.
The most compelling hero for your story is someone your audience can identify with. That means they can either imagine themselves in the same position or working with that person—in other words, a customer, a supplier, a boss, a subordinate, or even a competitor.
A RELEVANT CHALLENGE
The challenge is an obstacle or opportunity the hero confronts. The challenge plays the role of the villain in the story. Without a proper villain, it’s hard for the audience to care about the hero or her struggle. Consider this example from Karen Dietz and Lori Silverman in Business Storytelling for Dummies:
- Mary goes to the store (we don’t care)
- to buy some milk (we still don’t care)
- for her baby (we care a little)
- who is sick (we care a little more)
- and hasn’t eaten in days because a neighborhood bully stole most of her money on the way home from work (we care a lot).
It’s the challenge or villain that makes us care about our hero. But that doesn’t mean the villain has to be a person. The obstacle could be:
- An entire company (like one of your competitors)
- A thing (like the mountain you’re trying to climb)
- A situation (like Pig Island having no food for the pigs, or the Iceland volcano erupting in 2011)
Yes, you could be the obstacle in your own story.
AN HONEST STRUGGLE
The struggle between the hero and villain is the heart of storytelling. If there’s no struggle, there’s no story. That means it can’t be easy for the hero to get what he’s after.
In their book The Ideal Problem Solver, authors John Bransford and Barry Stein suggest, “A suitable story problem exists when there is a discrepancy between the initial state and a desired goal state, and when there is no ready-made solution for the problem solver.”2
That “no ready-made solution” is the key.
Make sure the stories you choose to tell involve a legitimate struggle and that your audience can see that struggle in the way you tell the story.
Choosing the Right Story to Tell
SO, HOW DO you come up with the right story to tell? Now that we’ve discussed the most important components of a great story, we’re in a position to know what we’re looking for.
STEP 1: DEFINE YOUR OBJECTIVE
Since the most important element is that the story has a worthy lesson, we have to start by determining what lesson we want our audience to learn. In other words, step 1 of story selection is defining your objective in telling the story. Specifically, what do you want your audience to think, or feel, or do as a result of your story? What is your main message?
STEP 2: LOOK FOR A RELEVANT SUCCESS, FAILURE, OR MOMENT OF CLARITY
Once you’ve defined the objective, the most productive way to search for an appropriate story is to look for a relevant success, failure, or moment of clarity surrounding that objective. In other words, think of times in the past when you or someone else has done that thing very well or utterly failed to do it, or when you learned that lesson the first time.
Obviously, a story about someone successfully doing what you want your audience to do illustrates the behavior you’re trying to encourage and probably also shows the benefits of doing it. A failure story can show the downside of not following your advice. We know that humans often learn more from our failures than from our successes. That’s why they make good fodder for stories.
A moment of clarity could be a success or a failure, but often is neither. It’s just a moment in time when something happened that taught you or the main character a meaningful lesson. And if it did such a good job of teaching that lesson when it actually happened, it can do a great job of teaching that lesson to others when it’s recounted in a story.
STEP 3: MAKE ONE UP
What happens if you can’t think of a story? Do you just give up? Fortunately, you don’t have to. You have another option. Step 3 is to just make one up. Seriously. You can fabricate the story you need. But you can only do it under one condition. That is that your audience knows you made it up. Otherwise, you risk losing all credibility.
For stories like this to be effective, however, they have to be plausible. In other words, they should be the kind of thing that could likely happen, or more pointedly, the kind of thing that probably does happen all the time.
Using a plausible but fictionalized story is perfect for situations where you know what generally happens in the situations you want to describe, but you don’t have access to all the details that normally go into a specific story. Don’t be afraid to craft and use hypothetical stories. Just make it clear to your audience that’s what they are.
STEP 4: LIST AND CHOOSE
Using all this as a guide, think of as many potential events as possible to serve as the basis for your story—as many different successes, failures, and moments of clarity around this particular objective. List each of them on a piece of paper. The more you think of, the better. Just because you don’t use each story this time doesn’t mean your time’s been wasted. Keep the list and use it again in the future. You may eventually use all of them for just the right situation.
Then you have to pick one to use. Obviously, if one of them does a better job than the others at communicating that lesson, go with that one. But assuming all of the stories you listed are equally well suited, make your choice based on how well your intended audience will identify with the hero, the obstacle, and the struggle: how relatable is the hero, how relevant the obstacle, and how engaging is the struggle.
Once you’ve chosen, you’re ready to move on to the next phase: story structure.
The Hook (Transition In)
THE HOOK IS a single phrase or sentence that explains why you’re sharing the story. For listeners, it generates interest and gives them a reason to want to listen to it (hence the name “hook”). For you, it serves as a way to simply and smoothly transition into your story.
Recognize that stories don’t appear out of nowhere in a sales call. They happen in the context of the conversation. Any story you’ll be telling will either be in response to a question or objection you get from the buyer, or it will be the next logical component of your sales pitch. The point is that it should flow naturally as a part of the conversation and shouldn’t require a lot of additional “setup.” For the most part, it should be obvious why you’re telling the story based on what was said by you or the buyer immediately before you start telling it.
THE CONTEXT IS the first of four main phases of your story. It answers the following questions: Where and when does the story take place? Who is the main character? What does he or she want? It’s also where you provide any other necessary background for the rest of the story to make sense.
When done well, the context provides a number of benefits for the tellers and the listeners. It grabs the listeners’ attention. It tells them if the story is going to be relevant to them and their situation. It builds on the hook to generate more interest in and excitement about hearing the rest of the story. And it helps the listeners understand the lesson in the story in a more practical fashion, so they can reapply it to their particular situation.
No doubt in high school you learned there are five “Ws” that need addressing in any story: who, what, when, where, and why. Notice that the context contains four of them: who, when, where, and why. The who is the main character. The where and when are obviously the where and when. And the why is the answer to the last two questions, “What does the main character want?” and “Is there any other background needed for the story to make sense?” It explains the passions and motivations that drive the character’s behavior throughout the story. It explains why the character does what they do.
Challenge, Conflict, Resolution
THE CHALLENGE IS the part of a story where the hero first faces the problem or opportunity. It’s often called the “complication” or the “catalyst” because it’s that moment that a monkey wrench gets thrown into the hero’s original plans and sets off the entire series of events in the story. In other words, this is where the hero meets the villain.
Here’s a little test to help you distinguish the challenge from other events in the story: Ask yourself how it would impact the rest of the story if the challenge never happened. If most of the things that happen in a story never occurred, the story would continue, but things might turn out a little differently in the end. But without the challenge, the rest of the story wouldn’t happen at all.
The conflict is where the hero does battle with the villain. And as we learned, this is the heart of a story. If you were to strip everything else away from a story except the conflict, it would still be interesting to listen to. In fact, it’s the only part of a story that can stand on its own and still command an audience. The context alone would be pointless. The challenge alone would be a tease. And the resolution alone would be baseless and therefore powerless to effect change. This explains why millions of people sit through even the most unpromising and poorly reviewed action movie just to watch the battle scenes.
The resolution is where you explain how everything turned out in the end.
Did the hero win or lose? Did the plan work? Did the villain get caught or did he escape? It’s there that you may also explain how things (including the characters) were forever changed as a result of the ordeal.
How do you know if you’ve adequately wrapped up the story in the resolution? The work of educational philosopher Kieran Egan offers some insight. In his book The Educated Mind, he reports the result of his research that suggests “we know we have reached the end of a story when we know how to feel about the events that make it up.”
So here’s the test: The resolution is complete when the audience knows how to feel about what happened in the story. If you haven’t provided enough information for the audience to have an emotional conclusion, you’re not done with the story.
Lesson and Action (Transition Out)
THE STORY IS technically over at this point, but your work as a storyteller isn’t. Now it’s time to “get out” of the story and make use of it—to make meaning with it and drive action. The three most productive things you can do immediately following the story are: (1) explain the lesson, (2) recommend action, or (3) just listen. And you might do all of them.
EXPLAIN THE LESSON
The easiest way to share the lesson of your story is to start like this: “I think what I learned from that story was . . .” and then complete the sentence. This method has a couple of benefits. First, by telling the audience what you learned from the story, you’re still giving them the freedom to draw their own conclusions, but guiding their thinking in the direction you want it to go. This shows respect for the audience and lets you leverage one of the strengths of storytelling, which is to get your message across without arrogantly telling your listeners what to think.
The second benefit is that it’s a short, simple way to signal that the story is over and now it’s time for both of you to talk about it. Transitioning out of the story for some people is just as awkward as transitioning in. They end up hemming and hawing and waving their hands around in a tongue-tied attempt to signal the end of the story. But using this kind of a transitional phrase into the lesson makes it easy.
Recall that stories are just components within your overall sales process. Not all of them will end with a recommended action or ask for the sale. But some will. And for those, this is the place to make that recommendation.
The final option for what to do when transitioning out of your story sounds like the easiest, but in practice it’s the hardest one to pull off. That’s unfortunate because it might also be the most effective. And that is to just listen. We’re so enamored of our own voice that it’s hard to turn over the reins of the conversation to someone else. Let the story sink in and give your listener a chance to respond to it. After all, you’re having a conversation. Giving your partner a chance to talk is a requirement, and right after you’ve told a story is a good time to do that.