What’s A Story, Anyway?

Stories are powerful. They connect with something deep within us.

They help us make sense of the world and our place in it.

The kinds of stories that motivate tribes and ignite movements define the cause. They illuminate our ideas and actions and make them memorable.

They change things

When done well, they transcend mere messaging.

They engage the tribe’s emotions and senses. Powerful stories reflect their hopes, dreams, and desires.

They take them on a journey of discovery and self-reflection.

In fact…

But there’s a problem

Stories are hot.

Stories are powerful.

So the corporate world has snuggled up to storytelling with all the subtlety of a starving calf at its mother’s utter. And as a result, all the meaning is being sucked out of the word.

For example, Fortune 500 companies hire “chief storytelling officers.” Retailers and store designers describe their establishments as “story experiences.” Nonprofits pepper their ranks with people who claim to be tellers of stories.

That’s the rub

Every organization, tv spot, video game, theme park, and outlet mall now claims to tell a story.

Storytelling has become a meaningless buzzword. Everybody does it. Everyone now fancies himself or herself to be a “storyteller.”

Unfortunately, most of those “storytellers” don’t know what a story really is.

Or how it works. Or how to tell one.

To put it bluntly…

Seven things that make a real story

You can always count on Mr. Stagmeister to tell the truth so diplomatically.

But he’s right. If you want to tap into the benefits of storytelling you need to actually tell a real story.

Which brings us to the first characteristic of memorable and engaging stories.Real stories. Stories that appeal to the brain’s subconscious, emotional decision-making centers. Stories that drive tribe action.

1. A real story is not just anything you call a story

Your speech at the conference is not a story. Your mission statement is not a story. Your elevator pitch is not a story.

If you start with, “Our vision is to do four things this decade . . .” or even, “These six attributes define our mission. . .” then whatever you’re doing is not storytelling.

As a matter of fact, those aren’t stories at all. They’re lists. And hey, yours might be a great list, but don’t kid yourself. It is not a story. No matter how smoothly it rolls off your tongue.

A news report is not a story. Even though a lot of newspaper people lump pretty much everything they write into the term.

A press release with a fact sheet about your organization is not a story. Your carefully formatted problem / solution case study is not a story.

2. A real story is a narrative

Stories are narratives about something that happened to someone. Period.

They have a beginning, a middle, and an end.

So if you start out with —”Saturday morning, our biggest donor called me at home in a panic … ” – you’re on your way to telling a story.

“The first time Janet volunteered to work with us, she . . . ” or, “I got the idea to start this place when I got fired from my last job, and here’s what happened . . . “—now you’re telling a story.

Narrative stories have a time, a place, and a main character. Most important, they tell something interesting that happened.

3. A real story is aimed at a specific tribe

Great stories are rarely for everyone.

Average people are good at ignoring them. Average people have too many points of view about life. Average people are pretty much satisfied.

If you need to water down your story to appeal to the average everyone, it will appeal to no one.

That won’t spread

The most effective stories match the worldview of a tiny audience – a tribe. And then that tiny audience spreads the story.

Most of all, great stories agree with your tribe’s worldview.

In fact, the best stories don’t teach people anything new.

Instead, they agree with what your tribe already believes. They make the members of the tribe feel smart and secure when reminded how right they were in the first place. They connect with them emotionally and then connect them together.


  • Who is your story designed to reach?
  • What do they believe?
  • What do they think needs to be changed in the world?
  • What are they passionate about?
  • Do they trust you?
  • Are they inclined to take action?

You can’t tell a good story without a deep understanding of the passion and purpose that drives your tribe.

But when you have empathy for them, and you reflect it in your story, something special happens. They actually take part in the story. They see themselves in it and use their imaginations.

4. A real story has characters

All good stories are about someone.

Even if that someone is a professional monster or a talking toy.

The biggest mistake organizations make is thinking that they are the heroes of the story. This self-centered chest beating makes for selfish, easily ignored attempts at messaging.

And as we’ve discussed more than a few times, messages don’t work anymore.

Who’s the hero?

To tell a compelling story, members of your tribe or the people they help must be the heroes.

And what defines a hero?

The hero of the story is the one who is transformed as the story progresses.

In other words, they morph from an ordinary person into someone extraordinary.

Then who are you?

If your tribe is the hero, where does that leave you and your organization?

You are the mentor.

You give the information, experiences, and platforms that enable the hero to reach her goal.

As a result,  good stories find a way to emphasize that the hero’s journey results from her own effort and work.

Think of it this way. If your tribe is Luke Skywalker, you’re Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Ultimately, you and your organization exist to guide, coach, mentor, and help the hero.

 5. A real story has intention, obstacle, and resolution

Obstacles are what make stories interesting.

The gap between where the hero is today and where she wants to go (her intention) is the meat of a compelling story.

There are often external obstacles to the hero’s eventual victory. But the most interesting ones are nearly always internal.

It’s a question of structure

Therefore, the key structural questions of a story are:

  • What is the hero’s goal? What does she want?
  • What’s keeping her from attaining her goal? What external elements are standing in her way?
  • More important, what emotional and psychological roadblocks has she created for herself? What inner limitations must she overcome to meet her goal?

6. A real story contains change

Real stories are about changing things. Transformation.

As participants in the story, we need to understand where the hero is today, and where she wants to go.

That means that the storyteller needs to understand the change she wants to make in the world.

  • What transformation is she seeking?
  • What will things look like when the transformation has taken place?
  • What will she be able to do that she can’t do now?
  • What will she have?
  • What will she believe?
  • What new connections or relationships will she have?
  • Who will she be?

Until you understand the hero’s goal, you don’t have a story.  You just have a collection of anecdotes.

7. A real story has a moral

Every story that has the power to change people makes a strong value statement. A moral, if you will.

So when you’re telling a story, it’s always wise to communicate the moral.

Go ahead. Tell stories about people just like the hero overcoming obstacles and reaching their goals. Show how you mentor and guide your tribe to become better versions of themselves. Tell the story of how tribe members overcame obstacles to gain what they were searching for.

But then circle back around and spell it out

Let the audience know what they should do next, or what their main takeaway should be.

Of course, the most powerful and sophisticated stories let people come to their own conclusions about the moral of the story.

That’s great, if you can do it. It encourages participation in the story. It allows people to use their imaginations.

But it’s a fine art

Not everyone can structure and tell a story that leads people to draw the conclusion you want them to draw. Even if the word “storyteller” is in their title.

That’s one of the things that make stories so powerful. Not everyone knows how to tell a good one.

There’s an art to it.

But that’s just my opinion. What’s your take?