5 Elements of Powerful Stories

This is a guest post by Matt Ragland. He is a writer who explores the motivations behind our choices and how people prioritize what is really important to them. You can read more from him on his blog and then follow him on Twitter.

When I was in college, I cared about what people thought of me. Too much. It affected how I dressed, spoke, ate, exercised, and what classes I took. I rearranged my life to make others happy, and went with the ebbs and flows of their opinions. I didn’t serve my true self, or the calling that was inside me.

Books Flying Through the Sky - Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/LuisPortugal, Image #7235328

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/LuisPortugal

Then I heard a story that changed me.

Once, there was a community of wise monks who lived in the desert. One day, a man arrived at the monastery, asking if he could stay and learn wisdom from the monks. The old abbot came out and greeted the traveler, then asked why he had come.

The man answered, “I want to be wise, but I only have the weekend.”

The abbot smiled, because many men hoped for the wisdom which had taken him a lifetime to accumulate. He replied, “To begin, go to the graveyard and spend the day cursing the dead. Tell them they lived useless lives, and the world is better off without them.”

The man thought this was strange, but he did as he was asked. The next day, the abbot asked the traveler, “So, what did the dead say?” The man replied, “Nothing, they’re all dead!”

The abbot told him, “Today, go to the graveyard and spend all day praising the dead! Shower them with blessings, exhort them, and speak of the many ways society has benefited from their life’s work.”

Now the man was thoroughly bewildered, but he did as he was asked. The next day, the abbot asked the traveler, “So, what did the dead say?”

The man replied, “Nothing! They’re all dead! And I have to leave today!” The wise old abbot looked at him and said,

“What wise men they must be, to not be swayed by either the empty blessings or angry curses of other people. They must know true happiness.”

I remember sitting in a tent, listening to that story. I had heard before that I shouldn’t allow the opinions of others sway me, and to be true to myself. But this was different, and I heard the advice in a new, compelling way.

Ever since then, I have been fascinated with stories. What makes them so important to our shared culture and experience? How can they be used to change us?

Here are five elements that you will help you tell more powerful stories:

  1. Powerful stories resonate within us. A good story connects in your soul. We’ve all read or been told stories where the actions of the characters have stirred something inside of us. We identify with the heroes and the villains, because we all have those tendencies inside of us. Look for ways where your story shares a common thread with the story of humanity.
  2. Powerful stories show the light and the dark. Whether you are telling a personal story, or a fictional one, it’s tempting to make the hero invincible and the villain the very definition of evil. But this is rarely the case, and something people cannot relate to.

    When something goes right in our life, it’s easy to celebrate. When something goes wrong, and we make a mistake, it is crucial to be honest and work toward making the wrong right. In most cases, people will forgive the mistakes they are made aware of but are furious when even little things are covered up or ignored.

  3. Powerful stories point to a greater cause. In the movie Gladiator, the dying emperor Marcus Aurelius, asks Maximus,

    Marcus: “Why are we here?
    Maximus: “For the glory of Rome”
    Marcus: “What is Rome, Maximus?”
    Maximus: “I have seen much of the world, and it is cold, and dark. Rome is the light”
    Marcus: “Yet you have never been there!

    Maximus believed in the glory and purpose of Rome, despite having never seen it. What purpose do you live and work for, despite it only being a whisper in your soul?

    Your company, and your life, is not about you! This can be the hardest lesson we ever learn. Our lives must point to a purpose greater than our own well-being. People will rarely align with your self-interest, but they will align for a common goal.

  4. Powerful stories teach—but in a different way. To speak the truth, we can easily put together a chart, graph, collection of numbers, or bullet points. Those have their place, but we need to use them to support why a story is powerful.

    In your life, telling a powerful story and being open to your true self is one of the best ways to lead others. When they see your honesty, it inspires them to lead honest, open lives as well.

  5. Powerful stories leave room for interpretation. We don’t have to explain everything! This is such a temptation in our culture, which seeks quick answers we can easily file away. Remember when you explain, it’s simply your interpretation, which becomes a part of the listener’s interpretation.

    Leave room for the listener to form their own ideas, and ask questions! Allowing this space will create the opportunity for future conversations and engagement.

Our stories define us.

How do we tell stories (including our own) that allow people to develop their life story, and be unafraid of what defines them? People will not align with what is a lie. The authenticity you show as a person or a company will have a major influence on your success.

With the power of social media, this is the new direction of business and relationships. People connect with other people. It’s no coincidence that people and companies who tell powerful stories are the ones who have the most passionate tribes. We desire to be known, and to know others.

It’s time to think about what story you are telling.

Questions: What are other important elements to a story? Do you think this is important for people and businesses who want to change? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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  • http://blog.cyberquill.com/ Cyberquill

    Powerful stories have a tendency to make us smirk. For instance, the monk story you provided almost reads like a joke with a punch line.  

    • http://mattragland.com/ Matt Ragland

      Like jokes, stories build intensity and expectation towards a final conclusion, call to action, or punch line. You certainly have a sense the monk is holding back to teach the lesson. You would really like Nancy Duarte’s TED talk on storytelling – http://www.ted.com/talks/nancy_duarte_the_secret_structure_of_great_talks.html

      • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

        Duarte’s presentation on story in presentation is excellent. One of the best I’ve seen. Thanks for sharing the link, Matt.

      • http://blog.cyberquill.com/ Cyberquill


      • http://twitter.com/JMZeiger Jennifer M Zeiger

        Thanks for sharing this link. Definitely food for thought. 

  • http://chrisvonada.info/ chris vonada

    That’s what I call a powerful post, excellent Matt! Go Gators ;-)

    • http://mattragland.com/ Matt Ragland

      Yeah! Go Gators! Thanks for reading Chris

  • annepeterson

    I loved the post. It was well-written. I did however find a typo at the very end.

    “It’s time to think about what story are you telling.”   what story you are telling

    • http://mattragland.com/ Matt Ragland

      Thanks for the heads-up Anne, I appreciate your keen eye. I was so close!

      • annepeterson

        Matt, I wholeheartedly agreed with all you said about how powerful stories are. I believe it’s because when we tell stories then we engage people emotionally. At least, that’s my hope. In a class I took about the brain it explained if you want someone to remember something of value tie in an emotion. I’ll never forget that. Thanks for your post.

        • http://mattragland.com/ Matt Ragland

          That’s a great point, an emotional tie definitely increases the strength of the memory. I think I read something similar in John Medina’s “Brain Rules” book

  • FriarWade

    Our Stories Define Us! Nuff said! 

    Yet I will speak again of a story I heard but have yet to rediscover it’s source. Here goes:

    A priest walking down a cold street is confronted by a soldier who, using his all to common uniformed authoritarian monotone voice, inquired, “Who are you? Where are you going? Why are you going there?”

    Ignoring the questions, the priest replied, “Son, how much are they paying you these days?”

    Taken back, the soldier mumbled the amount of his wages and waited for a reply.

    The priest paused for a moment, looked the soldier in the eyes, and with a calm yet serious delivery said, “Sir, I have a proposal for you. I will double your wages if you will stop me here every day and demand that I answer the same three questions.”

    • http://mattragland.com/ Matt Ragland

      Ah, I like that FriarWade, thank you for sharing. Good questions for us to remember

    • Jim Martin

      Great story!  Good questions!

    • http://www.RobTrenckmann.com/ Rob Trenckmann

      Awesome story!  It’s interesting how stories define us, and define organizations.  Ronald Heifetz notes how the stories told in an organization are the clues to the actual values of the organization.

  • http://www.LucilleZimmerman.com/ Lucille Zimmerman

    One of the stories that impacted me like the one you share, is the Mexican Farmer. I see each day as a gift and try to live to its fullest, rather than wishing for a better day.

    • http://mattragland.com/ Matt Ragland

      Thanks for sharing that story Lucille, so important to remember that everything we want we could be living right now!

    • http://www.sharonrosegibson.com/ Sharon Rose Gibson

       Thanks Lucille. I needed the reminder of that story today. :-)

  • kcroy

    Wonderful post. I am an English teacher of 20+ years,  a speaker, and an artist. I emphasize the importance of story in every role. Parenting, mentoring, and coaching also rely heavily on it. Thanks Michael.  

    • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

      Exactly … the importance of story in every role. As Robert McKee says, “Stories are the equipment of life.”

  • http://www.toddliles.com/ Todd Liles

    Powerful stories must teach a lesson. Otherwise, what’s the point? It seems to also be helpful if the story rings with truth, but offers unusual circumstances. Such as a man visiting a monk. How often does that happen? A lot. Monk=Leader of something.

    • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

       True. A story has to be ordinary enough that we connect with it, and yet extraordinary enough to pull us in and keep us there.

  • Leigh

    Do you think this is important for people and businesses who want to change?Yes, ABSOLUTELY, because so often someone thinks, ‘I’m the ONLY one this has happened to.” It’s stops them from telling THEIR story……transparency in other peoples stories, helps us tell our own…..because we’re NOT the only ones who having gone through something and survived…..we’re one of millions. Be one of millions BOLD enough to tell YOUR story!

  • http://newraycom.com Ray Hiltz

    Great post, Matt. Love the lead in story. Sometimes we intuitively judge the quality of a story by whether or not it holds our interest without thinking why it does or doesn’t. 

    • Jim Martin

      Ray, great point.  You are right.  We often intuitively judge the quality of a story this way instead of asking the harding question.  Asking that question may even improve our judgement about what stories would be effective in various settings.

    • http://mattragland.com/ Matt Ragland

      Thanks Ray, isn’t that point interesting?! Sometimes we can’t even put words to why a story compels us to action, yet it does. Glad to see you here!

  • Sltopham

    A wonderful post. People should also remember that the photos they share online tell stories — and make sure they tell the stories they want to tell.

    • http://mattragland.com/ Matt Ragland

      You make a great point there, everything we do online is a part of the story we are telling to others. 

    • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

       Just had that conversation with a writer the other day, how our online lives means we’re always being watched for the stories we’re telling.

      • http://mattragland.com/ Matt Ragland

        This is so true, the new social web presents a great opportunity to build a Platform, but a ruthless memory for the ways we slip up (though normally forgiveness for how we respond)

  • http://twitter.com/debbutterfield Debra L. Butterfield

    Powerful post, Matt. For me, a great story is like finding a lost key, or that elusive puzzle piece you’ve been searching for. I can be reading and suddenly the story reveals the truth of a life principle I’ve been grappling with or a false belief I’ve held. The questions I’ve been grappling with find their answer and all fall into place, allowing me to go in a new direction.

    • http://mattragland.com/ Matt Ragland

      This is a good addition to the storyline Debra, I’m glad you mentioned how stories can help reveal/change false beliefs. How often this has been the case for me! 

  • http://www.tammyhelfrich.com/ Tammy Helfrich

    Great post! Story is so important. I think being honest and real with our stories is critical, as well as celebrating good stories.

  • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

    love this!

    • http://mattragland.com/ Matt Ragland

      Thanks Jeff, an honor to see you in the comments!

  • http://www.sharonrosegibson.com/ Sharon Rose Gibson

    I appreciate the insights you shared here and especially love the monk story. The story gives me one more reason not to fear what others think as I step out into a new area to fulfill the vision God’s given me.

    Two of your points especially resonated with me. 1) To look for how your story connects with the common challenges we all face.

    2) As I have courage to be honest and authentic about my life and struggles, others with also. Love that and I’m finding it to be true.

    I used to think I had to be perfect and strong before I stepped out in a bigger way. Now I realize sharing openly (with discretion) about my own struggles and how I’ve found victory is empowering to others.

     This line encourages me in this new awareness. “The authenticity you show as a person or a company will have a major influence on your success.”

    Thanks much for stepping out to share your insight and perspective!

    • http://mattragland.com/ Matt Ragland

      Thanks Sharon, I can empathize with the desire to appear to have it all together, and how this facade ideally makes us more appealing. In some ways this might, but I have found once we are all willing to admit there are messes in our life, the more of a community you find showing up around you. 

      God Bless!

      • http://www.sharonrosegibson.com/ Sharon Rose Gibson

         Wow! Thank you for saying this. This encourages me even more! I appreciate your perspective.

  • Freshdeal@buckpcreacy.com

    Hello Michael;

    I’m a profession storyteller and I appreciate your asking about what makes a compelling story. I agree with all that you said but I would love to add two additional elements; desire and gap. Each person in every story has their own desire (wants). Powerful stories also reveal the roadblocks and gaps between ourselves & our desires. These gaps require a deeper investment of our meager resources in order to achieve our desires. I would love to talk with you at length about desire & gaps in story.


    • Jim Martin

      Buck, thanks for your comment.  Your words regarding storytelling are helpful.

    • http://mattragland.com/ Matt Ragland

      Buck, you made a couple great points. The point about gaps is particularly telling, but I don’t necessarily think people have meager resources (not even talking about money), but that we need to do a better job of prioritizing the time and energy around achieving our goals. Thoughts?

  • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

    This morning I thought about the stories we tell and retell about our children. Then I thought about the handful of stories I remember from my childhood, namely the ones my parents told again and again. The stories they chose to tell about me have somehow become part of how I see myself now. This means the stories I choose to tell my children about themselves now could impact how they view their life and themselves in years to come. A powerful responsibility!

    • http://mattragland.com/ Matt Ragland

      Whoa, Michele, you really defined the long-term impact of the stories we tell, both consciously and unconsciously. “the stories I choose to tell my children about themselves now could impact how they view their life and themselves in years to come.” So true

    • KathySchwanke

      Mark Batterson says in The Circle Maker that parents are prophets to their children. Your words have me thinking over the stories from my childhood! I am using one in a Christmas message I am giving coming up because it has been told over and over, I remember it and I am using it because of how it has impacted my life. :)

      • http://www.MicheleCushatt.com/ Michele Cushatt

        Oh, wow … prophets to their children. So true! Wish you all the best in your upcoming message. Let me know how it goes!

      • http://mattragland.com/ Matt Ragland

        That in itself is a great story and reminder that powerful tales never die! God Bless your stories this Christmas season!

  • Jim Martin

    What an excellent post!  As I read your words, I thought about specific stories that I have heard which were life changing.  Several are about members of my family.  Others I heard through sermons and other messages.  

    About 25 years ago, I was staying at a hotel in St. Louis.  I got up early one morning and was reading William Martin’s biography of Billy Graham with a cup of coffee in the downstairs coffee shot.  At one point, I read a story about Graham that really moved me.  I have never forgotten the story or the setting in which I first heard it.

  • Cindy Rhudy

    I’m not a writer, but I do appreciate the impact of a good story. Maybe next time you can help us non-writer types craft our stories for maximum impact! ;)

    • http://mattragland.com/ Matt Ragland

      Thanks Cindy, I really appreciate it! You should check out Nancy Duarte’s TED talk on crafting powerful stories, she’s incredible – http://www.ted.com/talks/nancy_duarte_the_secret_structure_of_great_talks.html

  • http://www.danerickson.net/ Dan Erickson

    Thanks for getting this comment back into the discussion.

  • http://www.danerickson.net/ Dan Erickson


  • http://mattragland.com/ Matt Ragland

    Thanks for sharing your own tips and thoughts Dane, good luck on your journey as a writer, and congratulations on your 1st book!

    • http://www.danerickson.net/ Dan Erickson

      You’re welcome, Matt.  As a writer I like to contrast and compare others’ posts and examples with some of my own experience and writing style.  I think it helps to keep both bloggers and commenters thinking with fresh perspectives.

      • http://mattragland.com/ Matt Ragland

        That’s a good technique, I’m sure you learn a lot and stretch yourself!

  • http://JaredLatigo.com/ Jared Latigo

    Stories do play a very vital role in our society. I think it goes hand in hand with integrity and today that is more important than ever. The stories we tell must be, in truth, who we really are. 

    • http://mattragland.com/ Matt Ragland

      I’m so glad you brought this up Jared, the stories must reveal our authentic, true selves. 

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  • Shelly Immel

    Matt, I am highly aligned with most of what you wrote, resonating as I type.
    But I tripped on one point you made. “Our stories define us.” [Yes!]
    “How do we tell stories (including our own) that allow people to develop their life story, and be unafraid of what defines them?” [YES!!]
    “People will not align with what is a lie.” [Uhhhh…]I certainly wish that last line were true. But some lies are so comforting, people flock to them. That is the power of scapegoating. We saw variations on this frequently (from multiple parties) in the recent elections here in the States.
    I believe passionately that telling our true personal stories can be a form of self-acceptance that approaches self-creation. It can be truly transformative, for self and for others. Thanks for your focused and powerful post on the subject.

    • http://mattragland.com/ Matt Ragland

      Thanks Shelly, I appreciate your thoughts and great feedback. ‘Tis true, often people will align with lies when they believe it’s in their self-interest. What’s interesting is the realization that people are simply looking for a story to live and a cause to champion. We need to be sure we are telling authentic, compelling stories that align people with the greater good. 

  • http://www.MichelleColonJohnson.com/ Michelle Colon-Johnson

    Very powerful lesson. Thank you for sharing.

  • http://www.tnealtarver.wordpress.com TNeal

    I think hope is an element we desire–hope that we can change, hope that we can make a difference. When people go to an AA meeting, they hear the struggles of others, but they also listen for a life changed for the better, of struggles overcome. That gives them hope.

    • http://mattragland.com/ Matt Ragland

      Amen, both aspects of shared experience and a brighter future are necessary for productive groups. Thanks for chiming in!

  • Wes Reitz

    I loved this post. It left me with the desire to find more books, ebooks or teaching on how to tell stories. 
    Can you post a list of good resources on how we can develop this story telling in our own lives??

    • http://mattragland.com/ Matt Ragland

      Wes, that’s a great idea, I will do that! To start, I would watch Nancy Duarte’s TED Talk http://www.ted.com/talks/nancy_duarte_the_secret_structure_of_great_talks.html and check out her book Resonate – http://amzn.com/0470632011

    • http://Thefieldgeneral.com/ Chris Coussens

      Save the cat by Blake Snyder is about screenplays, but I have found it to be a truely valuable story-telling resource.

      • http://mattragland.com/ Matt Ragland

        Cool, thanks for sharing this Chris, I’ll definitely check it out!

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  • prophetsandpopstars

    Great post, Mark. Loved the Gladiator reference. Also thrilled to see Nancy Duarte’s TED talk in the comments. I just got Slide ology and look forward to working through that. I’ll pass your post on.  Again, great work!

    • http://mattragland.com/ Matt Ragland

      Thanks for the encouragement! Slide:ology & Presentation Zen are great resources for storytellers, presenters, and public speakers! Have a great day

  • http://www.caitlinmuir.com Caitlin Muir

    Our stories define us. 

    A powerful reminder to stop being passive in our own stories. After all, it’s ours and we get to choose how to respond to plot twists. 

    One of the other elements to our story is our character. Our roles in our story (are we a hero or a victim?) and how we act when no one else is looking – the other kind of character. 

    • http://mattragland.com/ Matt Ragland

      You make a great point Caitlin, how we respond to the inevitable twists of life is crucial, because one of the biggest lessons to learn is that we are not in control.  

  • Stanl3yn

    Powerful stories also have a way of changing a person’s thought about a particular topic. Powerful stories provide an “ah ha” moment.

  • http://www.watertowinemarriage.com/ Roy Davis

    I have found your point to be so true.  Powerful stories pack a punch.  Also, when a story is from our own experiences, people can connect.  We become real, human, and someone other than an internet writer.  Great post!

    • http://mattragland.com/ Matt Ragland

      Amen, the trick to all of the social community options is learning how to cultivate a trusting, honest group without hiding behind our different user names. 

  • http://goalsetting-workshop.com/blog/ Jorge Blanco

    I love powerful stories. They make you think and reflect on life even when you aren’t the type to do that.

    • http://mattragland.com/ Matt Ragland

      Amen Jorge! A powerful story can engage you even when we don’t want to be engaged, because they are so compelling. We need to remember this when there is a challenge to the tale we are tying to tell

  • http://www.LeaderKnowHow.com/ Carol Norbeck Hines

    In my work with large corporations helping managers lead I always emphasize the need to communicate with their own stories. It helps them inspire and connect. People relate better and it’s always more memorable. Thanks for such a great story, Matt! I’m looking forward to passing it along!

    • http://mattragland.com/ Matt Ragland

      Thanks Carol, and good luck in your own work, so glad this is being implemented at the corporate level!

  • http://www.mondayisgood.com/ Tom Dixon

    Loved the intro story – I could relate…was holding off on doing some of the work I know I was meant to do based on what I thought others would think.  As far as stories go, you are absolutely right…what gets through to others  is when we are transparent and willing to share stories that make us vulnerable.

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  • http://twitter.com/DexKerma Dex Kerma (writer)

    Thanks for the article. I really liked the story about the desert monastery. I’ll have to try to remember that one ;-)

    • http://mattragland.com/ Matt Ragland

      You’re welcome Dex, the story is a good one. It’s tough not to be impacted by the kindness or curses of others, but the freedom we find in not listening too much to them is incredible.

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  • http://mattragland.com/ Matt Ragland

    Thanks Tracey for your input, and good luck with your own writing!

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    Thank you Michael Hyatt for this informative information on writing a powerful story. This one in particular will be very useful to my blog, http://itisagooddaytopraisethelord.blogspot.com/ I will also be very challenging, because I do have a powerful story to tell & a painful one. God is a wonderful healer & teacher. You are too! THANK YOU, TRICIA LUGO

  • @thestoryfactor

    What a great post! My favorite part is that stories show the dark and the light. When I teach storytelling THIS is the core issue business people find hardest to grasp. There is no need to pretty up a story, to hide the negative, or deny unpleasant truths. In fact, a story that includes the paradox of being alive – it is both terrible and wonderful – vents off some of the negative feelings of your listeners because you give voice to what is often unaddressed or undiscussed.

  • hash

    Dear Matt,
    Do you have any articles written on compelling story?