A three-step process for creating riveting stories

January 29, 2013

The importance of storytelling has become an article of faith in our business. Study after study points to the unique power of stories to move and persuade audiences.

The problem is, few people know how to actually craft and tell a good story.  And that’s a pretty big disconnect. It’s like the difference between understanding a language and being able to speak it.

Fortunately, storytelling isn’t quite as complex as, say, becoming fluent in French. In fact, it’s pretty simple, once you know the three key ingredients that make a good story. (Plus, the one extra ingredient that makes a good story great!)

What is a story?

Have you ever left a movie feeling vaguely dissatisfied?  You didn’t like the film but don’t know exactly why?

Chances are, the movie failed in terms of story structure. We are hardwired for stories — we’re practically raised on them. Storytelling is so ingrained in us that it sets up certain expectations for how a story should unfold.  When those expectations are defied, it leaves us vaguely unsettled.

So what exactly is a story? A colleague of mine went searching for a definition and came up with 82 different versions. The one that he settled on was similar to what I learned in writing classes at Chicago’s famed Second City, the improvisational comedy enterprise.

At its simplest, a story consists of three critical elements:  A story is a character in pursuit of a goal in the face of an obstacle or challenge.

How the character resolves (or fails to resolve) the challenge creates the drama and human interest that keeps us reading or listening.

One can make an argument that resolution is a fourth critical element to storytelling, but that’s inherent to the “pursuit” of the goal.

In fact, there are undoubtedly other elements to a story — a surprising twist, a moral lesson (plus that “X factor” I promised) — but these three elements are indispensable. Omit any one, and what you end up with is less of a story than an anecdote. If that.

How do you spot stories in the wild?

Once you know this structure, you can see it at work in your favorite books, movies and TV shows.

Take one of the classics of  Western literature, “Romeo and Juliet.”  The main characters are a pair of naïve young lovers. Their goal is to be together.  The obstacle is the blood feud that separates their families. Romeo and Juliet are ultimately thwarted in their goal (in this life, anyway).

Or look at the movie “The Fugitive.”  The main character is Dr. Richard Kimble, a man who’s wrongly accused of killing his wife. His goal is to prove his innocence.  The obstacle is the federal marshal sworn to bring him to justice. That struggle helps keep us on the edge of our seat.

From the world of television, there’s the quintessential sitcom “I Love Lucy.” The character is a zany redhead married to a bandleader. Her goal (in practically every episode) is to break into show business. Her obstacles vary from week to week and include her husband Ricky’s objections, Lucy’s delusions about her talent and her penchant for squandering opportunities by overreaching. Hilarity, as they say, ensues.

Think about your favorite movies and TV shows and see if you can identify this simple formula at work. The more you study it, the better you’ll be able to recreate it in your own communications.

How do you find stories?

To uncover the stories that are surely at the heart of your business, take a look at your workplace and ask these three questions:

  1. What are the organization’s goals? Quality? Cost containment? Customer service?
  2. What are the impediments to those goals? Entrenched bureaucracy? Outdated technology? Poor communication?
  3. Who are the people (the characters) dealing with those challenges and how do they overcome them?

That’s an internal approach. You can do the same thing externally by making your customer the character and looking at her goals and challenges. Ideally, your company provides the resolution.

Of course, the better the character, the better the story.  Your characters should be relatable (and, depending on how you use them, skilled at telling their stories). 

After all, the reason people still tune in to see Lucy essentially pursuing the same goal in show after show is because, well, we “love” her. Or at least we identify with her.

How do you apply storytelling?

Here’s an example from my own experience. I was working with a client — a company that makes candy and gum — that wanted to communicate its commitment to quality and safety.

So we went looking for stories. I was on the plant floor talking with a line worker who walked me through her quality control processes and procedures. It was impressive, but it wasn’t a story.

Then, I asked her about her family and she totally lit up. She turned over one of the packages of gum and pointed to a code on the label.  That code tells you exactly when and where the gum was made, right down to the individual shift and production line.  And her children can read the code, she said.

So when her family goes to the store, guess what happens? Her kids run straight to the candy aisle, look for the right codes and shout out, “This is mommy’s gum! My mommy made this gum!”

Now, that’s a story.  It’s got a character at its center, who we can relate to — a mom. Her goal is to produce a quality product. Her challenge is staying focused while performing the same task eight hours per day, five days per week. She resolves that challenge by treating her customers like family.

It also helps that this story has heart. It tugs at your emotions.  And that’s the extra ingredient — the X factor — that elevates a story from merely serviceable to truly meaningful.

I believe that every company has great stories with riveting characters among its employees, customers and other audiences.  They’re just waiting to be found, shaped and shared.

This three-step process is a simple way to create stories that bring your media pitches, new business meetings, case studies, videos, websites and other communications to life.

Rob Biesenbach

Rob Biesenbach works with leaders who want to persuade, sell and compel — anytime, anywhere, and in front of any audience. He’s helped hundreds of CEOs and other executives plan and deliver their most important presentations. He’s also an in-demand speaker and trainer, an award-winning consultant, a bestselling author and a Second City-trained actor.


Dupe Ayinla says:

thanks for the tips on writing. how do i become a better entertainment journalist in my story wrtitngs.

April 16, 2013

Jeanine L'Ecuyer says:

Love this... smart and helpful...thank you!

April 10, 2014

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