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.