5 min read

Storytelling principles

The ability to tell stories is a superpower. But, for one reason or another, this meta-skill is highly underappreciated.
Storytelling principles
Credit: Mike Erskine

We rarely discuss storytelling in combination with other essential skills of highly successful people, such as intelligence, attention, and creativity.

Those are treated as "keys to success" while completely neglecting the role that narrative may play in the lives of great women and men.

This is so wrong! I would argue that storytelling is one of the most crucial "tools" to have in your life. It is the key to unlocking completely new levels of growth in your design, writing, marketing, business, and life.

Furthermore, anyone may become a great storyteller because it's a skill that can be learned. You don't have to be a genius or be born with the right genetic trait.

We all enjoy hearing stories. However, most of us are terrible at telling them.

Storytelling as a technique came to me far too late in my career. But my intuition was always leading me in that direction without me even understanding it.

When I began writing in public, I began to lean into storytelling. I learned that it doesn't matter how precious your content is if it doesn't tell a story to the reader.

While I still don't feel qualified to speak to you about storytelling, I chose to write it down for myself to extract my insights. I hope it can be helpful to you as you strive toward improving your storytelling talents.

Here are some of the things I've learned so far.

Clarify the Goal

Before developing their story, the most exceptional storytellers always specify a clear objective.

What is the story attempting to accomplish? What does success in this story look like? Do you feel compelled to share this story? If so, explain why.

If your responses to these questions are awkward or changing, you'll have trouble capturing your audience right away. Your commitment and clarity are contagious to the audience. They will notice if you are weak in either.

Before you do anything more, make a commitment to answering these fundamental questions.

Define the Audience

Like in design or marketing — everything starts with the end-user in mind — a great story begins with a well-defined audience. The narrative you tell must be tailored to the audience to whom it'll be delivered.

Who is the intended audience? What do people seek from the story, consciously or unconsciously?

Take your time with this one. It will influence how you address the structure, emotion, novelty, and many other story elements we'll discuss later in this article.

Being brutally honest with oneself is essential. The audience may not look like you expect.

Here are some questions to help you figure out your audience:

  1. Do you want to inform readers about an issue?
  2. Do you want to persuade them to do something?
  3. Do you want to entertain them?
  4. Who would be interested in this topic?
  5. What is the meaning behind the core message?

Establish Structure

"People have forgotten how to tell a story. Stories don't have a middle or an end anymore. They usually have a beginning that never stops beginning." — Steven Spielberg.

The structure is essential in stories. Consider your narrative to be a house, with the structure serving as the foundation.

A fragile foundation results in a weak house; a robust foundation results in a solid house. Furthermore, knowing that the ground will hold allows the architect to be more imaginative with what goes on top.

There are structural archetypes you can utilize and leverage. Clear narrative arcs (such as the "hero's journey" popularized by Pixar) perform effectively.

If you're having trouble establishing structure, try adopting "the story spine" framework, first developed by playwright Kenn Adams. This is how it works:

Once upon a time, there was [fill in the blank]. Every day, [fill in the blank]. One day [fill in the blank]. Because of that, [fill in the blank]. Until finally [fill in the blank].

It has come in handy more times than I can count. Fill it out and watch your story come to life.

Add the Emotion

Great stories are remembered because of their emotional impact.

Consider your favorite stories. What effect did they have on you? They almost certainly generated a robust emotional response, whether favorable or adverse.

Let's take it a step further. Play your favorite film. Map out your feelings (and the intensity of each) that you feel at different moments during the film using emojis in a note. Your note might look like this:


Pay attention to this. The best stories inspire a wide range of emotional reactions. When it comes to your personal storytelling, make sure to incorporate emotion into the underlying fabric of what you create.

Introduce Novelty

Every excellent story is filled with a sense of uniqueness.

Novelty can take various forms, including fresh, new perspectives. Surprising revelations. Awe-inspiring moments. Unexpected turns.

The novelty of your message is what makes your audience respond, "Oh, wow!" It instantly indicates that this is unlike anything they have ever seen, read, or experienced. It's what throws them off the edge and breaks them from their traditional models of thinking.

Make Contrasts

Nancy Duarte, a storytelling guru, established the fundamental "what is vs. what could be" paradigm for building contrasts in your stories. This framework forces you to generate differences to write a compelling story.

Begin by describing reality ("what is"). Next, paint a possible future ("what could be"). The readers will want to lean in – to figure out why the world isn't what it could be. They will become engaged in the possibility of a future (because it is so separate from the reality you defined).

You have them; now, you may take them with you on your journey!

Keep It Simple

"Keep it simple but meaningful."

A good story might be complicated, but a great story is always simple.

Try to sell the story to someone who isn't familiar with it. Is it obvious to this person? Could they repeat it to you or share it with a friend in a similar manner? You still have work to do if you don't.

Simplify whenever possible!

Make It Shareable

Stories are supposed to be told and shared.

What you actually want to see is an audience that is naturally advocating your story in their own communities.

This necessitates a high level of shareability. To make your story more shareable, keep it simple and easy to "cut down" into shorter, alternate versions.

So those are the storytelling principles you may start employing right away.

If you take the plunge and begin using them, I guarantee you'll see progress in a variety of areas of your life.

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