Key Elements of Storytelling

Being able to tell a good story is critical, especially if you are a leader. A surprising number of leaders don’t know that if you want people to forget, tell them a fact. If you want them to remember, tell them a story.

Let’s look at an example that has essential ingredients you find in any good story:

It seemed like a good idea at the time. I quit my dead-end job to make a major career change. But the job market was slow, and things took a turn for the worse. Five months into the hunt, my life savings was disappearing fast. I felt like an idiot. That’s when I started writing super tight 500-word blog posts every day. I never would have guessed how important that skill would be when I finally found my dream job.

A Strong Hook – You have to hook your audience immediately. My first line hopefully piqued your curiosity with its dry humor. It’s also relatable, because who hasn’t done something that seemed like a good idea at the time? Answer: Robots. But they don’t count.

Conflict – Life is filled with conflict. Every good story needs conflict. “I felt like an idiot” is an example of an internal conflict. The other two types are with an antagonist, like a bully, or a fellow team member, like a boss.

Stakes – You need a big risk to ratchet up your tension. The best stakes are life and death. It doesn’t have to be actual death. It just has to be something dear, like the loss of one’s soul. In my example, it’s my life savings.

Build Tension – Tension is the building block of surprise and humor. The more you have, the better it will hold your audience’s attention. The lines that build it up are “things took a turn for the worse” and “I would never have guessed”. Aren’t you dying to know how the story ends? I know I am.

Surprise – Never be predictable. As soon as the audience knows where you are going, you’ve lost your source of tension. In my example, the last line sets us up for a surprise that isn’t going to pay off in this post. Sorry.

I encourage you to practice these principles. Try to incorporate them into a story you are telling your friends or family. Think of a hook nobody can resist. You can use mine if you want. We all have a surprising story, now ratchet up the tension to hold their attention. Emphasize the conflict. Sharing internal doubts makes you more human. Raise your stakes as high as you can, then release the tension you built up with humor or a surprise.

Bonus Hint: Humor is usually surprising.

These principles will become natural as you practice them. The more you do, the more entertaining you will become, and the bigger the dividends your practice will pay in all walks of life.

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