Skip to content

If You Want To Tell A Compelling Story, Do These 3 Things

2024 February 4
by Greg Satell

There’s a great, although perhaps apocryphal, story about Franz Kafka and a little girl. The relatively unknown author—he wouldn’t achieve great fame until after his death—met a young girl who lost her doll. Kafka helped her look for it, but to no avail. The doll was lost forever and the girl was heartbroken.

But then Kafka told her a story. The next day he brought her a letter from the doll. “Please do not mourn me, I have gone on a trip to see the world.” Kafka would bring her letters telling her of the doll’s adventures. He eventually bought her another doll and gave it to her with another note that said, “my travels have changed me.”

As the story goes, after Kafka’s death the girl found another letter hidden in the replacement doll that said, “Everything that you love, you will eventually lose, but in the end, love will return in a different form.” We can’t all write like Kafka, but with a little bit of knowledge and some practice, we can all learn to tell stories that give meaning and purpose to our messages.

1. Create Tension

The first element of any story is its exposition, which is the world you build around the story. It includes the setting, the characters and other background information. That’s where most people start their stories, but it can be a trap, like when your mother starts a story about meeting someone at a drugstore and ten minutes later you’re still hearing about the grandchildren and wondering what the point is.

Master storytellers start with a tension or conflict, like the girl losing her doll in the Kafka story or a James Bond movie when it starts with him hanging from a helicopter and you have no idea why. It’s the tension or conflict that keeps our attention because we want to see it resolved. The Metamorphosis, the only novel Kafka ever finished, began with:

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”

Another element of tension and conflict is the characters themselves. David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas, points out that we find characters like Darth Vader more interesting than one dimensional characters like Superman because they lack moral clarity. It is that ambiguity that makes them interesting and provokes thought and discussion.

Notice how in the story with the girl, the resolution to the lost doll creates its own tension. What will the letters say? Will she appreciate them, learn from them or see through the ruse? We appreciate the ending of the story not only because the tension was resolved, but in a way that honored the feeling of loss that created it.

2. Manage The Cognitive Budget

Born in the late 13th century, William of Ockham was a giant of his age.  As one of the few intellectual lights of medieval times, his commentaries on reason, logic and political theory are studied even today.  His ideas about the separation of church and state were literally centuries ahead of their time and formed the basis for our own constitutional principle.

Yet he’s best known for Ockham’s Razor, sometimes known as the “principle of parsimony.” Often, the principle is interpreted as “Keep It Simple Stupid,” but that’s not quite right. Notice how the Kafka story, although it’s short, has a sort of elegant complexity to it. The notion of a doll traveling around the world having adventures certainly isn’t simplistic.

A much more accurate translation would be, “entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity.” In other words, if something doesn’t need to be there, it shouldn’t be. Everything you include, should be intentional and have a purpose. Even a subplot needs to play a role in the overall narrative. Anything else just distracts from what you’re trying to say.

A useful device I use for applying Ockham’s razor is to imagine my audience, whether that is a reader or a listener, as having an internal “cognitive budget” they are willing to devote to whatever I’m trying to tell them. Then I judge everything I include by the standard of, “is this worth using up my cognitive budget?”

So be cautious and respectful with your audience’s attention. If you have any doubts whether it needs to be there, it probably doesn’t. Take it out and see if anything meaningful is lost. If not, keep it out and don’t look back.

3. Create “Buts” And “Therefores”

Being mindful of your audience’s cognitive budget doesn’t mean stories should be linear. In fact, you want twists and turns.  South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone call this their But & Therefore Rule. Learning how to master it can dramatically improve the way you tell stories and engage audiences.

The idea is that each element of a story is either a causal connection or a twist. There should never be a simple, “and then” linking two elements together. You can see Parker and Stone explaining the concept in this video:

We can see the concept at work in the Kafka story. Kafka found the girl crying, THEREFORE he helped her look for it BUT they couldn’t find it THEREFORE she was heartbroken. BUT he brought her the letter telling her the doll was going on a trip to see the world. BUT eventually he bought her a new doll. Kafka dies and their relationship ends, BUT he left her one final note.

Each THEREFORE reinforces the element that precedes it and each BUT creates a new twist. Everything has a purpose and nothing is there that doesn’t need to be, which is what makes the story so elegantly compelling.

We All Need To Learn To Leverage The Power Of Story

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, along with other giants like Oppenheimer, von Neumann and Gödel, would reside until 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. Without the stories, Fuld Hall is just a red brick building.

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.

Stories, as Hollywood mogul Peter Guber has put it, provides emotional transport for ideas. Emotions are like little yellow highlighters in our brains, providing markers that tell us, “remember this, it’s important.” It is, of course, crucial to get your facts straight, but if you don’t learn how to tell a story, those facts will be easily forgotten.

Do yourself and those around you a favor. Learn how to tell stories and tell them well. Life’s too short to be boring or to be bored.

Greg Satell is Co-Founder of ChangeOS, a transformation & change advisory, an 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 and on LinkedIn.

Like this article? Sign up to receive weekly insights from Greg!

Image generated by Microsoft Designer


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