Skip to content

Leveraging The Power Of Story

2022 April 17
by Greg Satell

Some years back I was invited to visit the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Over the years many of the world’s greatest minds have taken up residence there. It was where Einstein worked till his death in 1955. It is a place, for me at least, in which stories permeate from every corner and crevice.

There is a common room in the main building, Fuld Hall, where tea is served every afternoon and, if you know the stories, you can almost hear the din of legends arguing, cajoling and discussing pathbreaking ideas when you enter. That is the power of story. It can imbue even inanimate objects with meaning.

Look at great leaders throughout history, from General George Patton to Martin Luther King Jr. to Steve Jobs, and they all used the power of story to anchor an enterprise with a sense of mission and destiny. It was undoubtedly a big part of their success. We need to learn to tell better stories, if we are to give meaning to others and build faith in a common endeavor.

The Structure Of A Story

The first element of any story is its exposition, which is the world you build around the story and includes the setting, the characters and other background information. This often comes at the beginning of the story, but it doesn’t have to. Sometimes, elements of the setting or details about the characters are leaked out as the plot develops.

The most important aspect of any story is the tension or conflict to be resolved. That’s what keeps the audience’s interest. Will the hero survive? Does the boy end up with the girl? Will justice prevail? It is the uncertainty surrounding the tension that makes a story interesting. A preordained story is a bore.

Finally, the conflict needs to be resolved in some way that is satisfying. That doesn’t mean that the characters in the story end up happy—in fact, often it’s exactly the opposite—but if the main conflict is never resolved the audience will feel cheated. So however the story ends, with a lesson learned, a triumphant hero or a tragic loss, it has to resolve the conflict.

These are the essential elements of a story: exposition, conflict, and resolution. They don’t need to be told in order. In fact, master storytellers often put the conflict first, before we know much about the setting, and then let things develop over time. In a TV streaming environment writers have months or even years to resolve the tension, which allows for greater exploration and deeper storytelling.

Identifying A Meaningful Problem

The key to telling a good story is to identify a source of conflict that your audience cares about. That’s easier said than done. Just because a story is meaningful to you, doesn’t mean it will hit home for others. Yet just because a story doesn’t resonate immediately doesn’t mean you should give up on it. Even finding the right narrative is often trial and error even for the best storytellers.

Ed Catmull, CEO of Pixar, insists that “early on, all of our movies suck.” In Creativity Inc, he wrote that his company’s initial ideas are “ugly babies” that are “awkward and unformed, vulnerable and incomplete.” “Originality is fragile,” he continues. “Our job is to protect our babies from being judged too quickly. Our job is to protect the new.”

The reason new stories need protecting is that we experience them differently than our audience. They immediately make sense to us because they are ours. We often lose sight of the fact that others don’t share our particular context. Often, even a slight change in how we shape the details can make a big difference.

The only way to refine a story is by telling it, seeing which parts the audience reacts to and experimenting with different methods of delivery. That’s why big-time comedians spend time in small comedy clubs trying out new material. When I’m writing a book or working on a new conference talk, I always try out different versions in blog posts to see what resonates.

The bottom line is that just because a problem is meaningful to you doesn’t mean it’s meaningful to everyone else. It takes work to identify a story—or an aspect of a story—that connects.

Charting The Hero’s Journey

There are many ways to tell a story. But one of the most common is the hero’s journey. Which involves different variations of a departure, an initiation, and a return. Usually the hero is transformed by the journey in some way, but sometimes the hero transforms the world around him, for better or for worse.

For example, in the original Star Wars, we met Luke Skywalker as a restless boy on Tatooine. The hologram he unlocked in R2D2 kicked off his departure onto the journey, during which he was initiated in the ways of “The Force.” After Luke uses The Force to aim the shot that destroys the Death Star, he and his friends return to the rebel base to a hero’s welcome.

What makes the hero’s journey compelling is not so much the sequence of events, but how the characters are tested and revealed. David Mitchell, author of bestsellers like Cloud Atlas, points out that we find enigmatic characters, like Darth Vader, more interesting than one dimensional caricatures because they lack moral clarity.

It is the uncertainty about how the story will end that keeps the audience interested in it, which is why coming up with interesting tension is so important. It is also what opens up the possibility of leveraging a story into a strategic narrative.

Unlocking The Strategic Narrative

Stories have the power to unite us because their themes are universal. We can all relate to a hero, identify with their struggle and then revel in their triumph or, as is sometimes the case, learn a lesson from their tragedy. By telling a familiar story in an unfamiliar context, we can also gain insight and understanding into the hopes and fears of others.

The only problem with stories, as John Hagel has pointed out, is that they are self-contained—they have a beginning, a middle and an end.  Narratives, like Darth Vader, are less clear cut. They are open ended and still to be determined. In other words, a narrative is a story that is still in progress and that we can still participate in and influence.

Narratives can become strategic when they give meaning to a mission. Southwest’s strategic narrative to be “THE low cost airline,” helped it rocket past the competition. Steve Jobs’ insistence on creating products that were “insanely great” helped make Apple the most valuable company on the planet. General Stanley McChrystal’s revelation that “to defeat a network you need to become a network,” turned things around for the US military in Iraq.

That’s what makes the art of storytelling so powerful and so important. When Shakespeare’s King Henry needed his soldiers to fight, he did not offer to raise their pay or threaten them with the stockade, but told a story to inspire them to go “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more…”

In the final analysis, we live our lives not for external rewards, but for intrinsic meaning and we determine meaning through the stories we tell, the narratives we adopt and the missions to which we dedicate the best of our talents and energies.



Greg Satell is a transformation & change expert, international keynote speaker, and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change. His previous effort, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business books of 2017. You can learn more about Greg on his website, and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto

Need to overcome resistance to change? Sign up for the Adopting A Changemaker Mindset Course today!


No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS