Powerful stories

How do you take an ordinary presentation about 3Q profits or the S-17 update and turn it into a powerful story? And why would you want to go to that effort; is it worth it?

Let’s deal with the second question first. Our minds remember stories, especially stories with emotions attached, much better than they remember lists, or even ideas. Our brains are constructed that way; something happens to us, and it hurts, or feels good, or moves us, or makes us deliriously happy, and so we remember it. Events stick. The emotions associated with them make them stick. Facts, lists, ideas, theories, and so on do not.

So, yes, it’s worth it to turn a presentation into a story, because you’ll greatly increase the chances that people remember what you say. A CEO who gives us a rational argument for increasing profits, backed up with all sorts of numbers, is liable to put us to sleep. He certainly is not likely to get us to put extra effort into the workday to make those profits happen. If, on the other hand, he links our efforts (somehow) to finding the Holy Grail, or beating the Evil Empire, or winning one for the Gipper, we’re far more likely to remember – and act – upon what he’s saying.

The question is, how do you do it? Once you understand the basics of powerful stories, you’ll get how to transform your presentation into one. Here’s how it works.

There are five basic stories in Western culture:

  • Quest
  • Stranger in a Strange Land
  • Rags to Riches
  • Revenge
  • Love Story

Lots of people have tried out others, but most often they turn out to be simply forms of the most fundamental story, the Quest. And just to clarify an issue right from the start, “comedy” and “tragedy” are not stories. They are story outcomes. The difference between Romeo and Juliet and Pretty Woman is that the former is a tragedy (both the hero and heroine die in the end) and the latter is a comedy (Edward and Vivienne will live happily ever after). Both are love stories. Similarly, “the burning platform” is not a story; it is the beginning of (usually) a Quest.

OK, so let’s look at each of those stories in a little more detail.


Star Wars Movie Poster

The Quest is probably the most fundamental way we have of shaping our own experience and ways of relating to the world. In a Quest, like Star Wars, a hero sets forth—often reluctantly—to achieve some difficult goal. Along the way, she encounters obstacles (dangers, enemies, roadblocks, and the like) that she has to overcome in order to reach the goal. She may acquire a mentor who helps at crucial moments with wisdom or advice to get around particular difficulties, or to close in finally on the real goal at journey’s end.

The overwhelming emotional condition is hunger or longing for the goal. The hero may be reluctant at first, but eventually does get caught up in the need to reach the end, the point, the prize. The Holy Grail is one of our society’s basic Quest stories. It is typical in nearly all respects—it has heroes, mentors, obstacles, and the like—except for one.

In the typical Quest, the hero achieves the goal and then returns to celebrate her victory and explain what she has achieved. In most versions of the grail story, all the knights but one die in the attempt to find the grail, and that knight often doesn’t return, but rather goes straight up to heaven.

One of the deep lessons of Quest stories is that you can’t go home again – or if you do go home, it’s to a different place, because you’ve changed. A cliché, to be sure, but precisely because there are so many stories that follow this form. The values that underlie the Quest story are pluck, determination, luck, courage in the face of overwhelming odds – in short, a celebration of the underdog. People love Quests.

Quest stories work well for all kinds of business situations. Whether it is trying to reach some sales figures, or bring out a new product, or open a new plant, Quests are everywhere in modern corporate life.

One great Quest speech came in 1997, when Steve Jobs explicitly tried to get his audience to lay aside the Revenge motif of conceiving of Bill Gates and Microsoft as the enemy, and instead focus on making Apple excellent (Macworld Boston, 1997).

Stranger in a Strange Land

Planet of the Apes Poster

The hero of a Strange Land story is in a different pickle altogether. She’s thrown into a new situation, literally a strange land or terrain. She doesn’t know the local customs, the language, the rules, the path forward, or all of the above. Her emotional state is one of loss and confusion. Her goal is not necessarily to get to someplace, but rather to achieve knowledge, understanding, or competence in this strange new place.

Once again she may encounter mentors who help her find her bearings. But her primary struggle is to begin to achieve mastery after having all her mastery stripped away. The best Stranger in a Strange Land stories involve recognition at the end that the strange land is in fact not strange, but one you’ve known all along.

Planet of the Apes is a great example of a Strange Land story. When Charlton Heston sinks to his knees at the end of the movie, recognizing this strange ape-country for an America of the distant future (after seeing the Statue of Liberty half buried in the sand), the story has come full circle. Heston’s character has not only learned the ways of this new land, but he now knows it, because he recognizes it. That is not to underestimate the importance of all the learning Heston’s character has undergone while among the apes. That is indeed the heart of the Stranger in a Strange Land story, where most of the fun and the challenges lie – and therefore the interest.

Strange Land heroes can be experts in their own arcane knowledge. The values celebrated in these stories have to do with intelligence, quickness on your feet, the ability to improvise, coolness and poise, and learning.

Businesses that are trying to master a new marketplace, or to grow overseas, or to react to new competitive situations in familiar markets are involved in Stranger in a Strange Land stories. A wonderful example of a Stranger in a Strange Land speech comes from Steve Jobs again, in his “don’t settle” 2005 Stanford Commencement Address.

Rags to Riches

Annie Movie Poster

Rags to Riches stories are relatively simple and straightforward. The hero begins in a state of privation, and by luck or hard work or some combination thereof wins security and riches. Power and fame can also be the prizes at the end of the rainbow and the story. The best Rags to Riches stories involve heroes who possess ordinary qualities and extraordinary luck. We can infer that, because these deep cultural stories usually have some form of an Everyman or Everywoman as the main character, we don’t like to reward our heroes for their skill as much as for being in the right place at the right time and having the wit and luck to realize it, or at least to capitalize on it. If the hero were truly exceptional, we wouldn’t be able to identify as readily with him or her. Bill Gates can’t tell one of these stories, because we perceive him to be extraordinary. Most of us couldn’t have done what he did.

The emotions involved in a Rags to Riches story are hunger, greed, loneliness, and alienation. The values associated with the story are similar to the Quest: pluck, grit, determination. And additionally, a few that are unique to this particular story: order, rationality, and hard (routine) work. Annie is a classic Rags to Riches story that most people know.

Entrepreneurs that aren’t on Quests are usually involved in Rags to Riches stories. These stories work well for small companies trying to grow big, and divisions of companies trying to get established. Quest stories have an end, so they have to be used with care. If you convince your listeners that they must achieve some goal, they will feel complete when they do so. The story, and their effort, will be over. It’s why successful start-ups have such a hard time sustaining their energy after the first success is reached. The advantage of a Rags to Riches story is that it doesn’t come to an abrupt end. Keeping and enjoying the riches can go on forever. One of my favorite Rags to Riches stories comes from Gurbaksh Chahal, an Internet multi-millionaire in his twenties, whose book detailing his Rags to Riches life, The Dream, came out in 2009.


The Social Network Poster

Revenge stories are universal. We all love a good enemy. Witness the success of The Social Network, a recent Revenge story. The structure of the typical Revenge story is again straightforward. There’s the wrong done to the hero, who loses everything, or almost everything, and then sets out to avenge the wrong. But the best stories involve not only simple revenge, but also a psychological component that involves not being able to achieve revenge until you fully know or understand your enemy.

Star Wars VI (The Return of the Jedi) is an excellent example of this kind of Revenge tale. Luke Skywalker is not in a position to take his revenge against Darth Vader until he learns the full identity of his enemy. Then, of course, the nature of the revenge changes entirely as he learns that Vader is his father – the recognition of the true nature of his enemy.

The underlying emotion of the Revenge story is of course the hero’s anger and the villain’s hatred. But those emotions can change suddenly, as in Star Wars, if there’s a recognition that the true nature of the villain is different from what the hero has hitherto believed.

The values of the Revenge story have to do with justice, right and wrong, the order of the community, and respect for individual human lives.

Many businesses (like Intel and every software company that takes on Microsoft) seem to have an affinity for Revenge stories. Apple got a great deal of initial momentum out of taking on the PC world in a classic Revenge story. In fact, whenever a company has a rival to take on (especially a bigger one) Revenge is a good story to invoke. We do love to see an underdog triumph over a larger enemy! What Apple will do now that it is no longer the underdog remains to be seen. It needs a new story. A Quest for clean, beautiful, elegant design, perhaps?

Love Story

Pretty Woman

Love stories need little explanation. The structure is circular, since the boy falls in love upon meeting the girl, loses the girl through misunderstanding or plot complication, and then finally wins her back in the end. Typically, though, the boy wins the girl by achieving a level of honesty or revelation that he hasn’t had before.

In comedic treatments of the story, for example, the boy will be concealing some appalling secret that, if revealed, could jeopardize the relationship. It is not until the secret is out, and the complications are worked through, that the two can get together. And the point is that they are both different because of the experience. The boy has learned (if the story is true to form) something about the importance of commitment and honesty. The girl has learned that her boy is not perfect, but still worthy of love. Community values are expressed or reestablished.

Of course, for “boy” and “girl” we can substitute “any life form” in this enlightened age, but the basic circle of love, loss, and love reestablished cannot be violated for the story to be satisfying. The basic emotional state is love and longing. The values underlying the story have to do with the importance of community, trust, and honesty, and the twin polarities of loneliness and longing, happiness and satisfaction.

The modern business world is full of mergers, partnerships, joint ventures, and the like – all of which are potential love stories.

Incorporating a story into your presentation

OK, so those are the five basic stories. You know these stories; they’re baked into us all by the time we’re out of middle school. How do they in fact relate specifically to transforming your ordinary presentation into something profound?

It’s simple really. The audience needs to understand what you, the speaker, are up to as quickly as possible. After all, listening to presentations is hard work. Research indicates that most people only remember something like 30% of what they hear. So you want to hook them with these mythic stories that they know already, deeply and powerfully, from their cultural understandings developed over a lifetime. You want to frame the information you have to give in a persuasive package of fundamental story. That way, they’ll remember what you’re saying, because they know part of it already.

And, of course, by drawing them in with these fundamental stories, you will increase their emotional investment in your presentation, as well as their retention of it.

A couple of examples.

Let’s say you’re making a presentation to the board about the new product you’ve got in the pipeline that’s going to revolutionize the marketplace and lock up profits for your company for some time to come. There are just one or two little glitches along the way – difficulties in production making it hard to achieve the volume you need, and quality control issues.

These are glitches, no more. If you’re on a Quest. Then every roadblock becomes something to overcome, go around, or think your way past. The focus is on the goal, the grail, the successful product introduction. You will get there. It will be worth the effort. The team will make the necessary sacrifices to achieve the goal.

The point is to frame your briefing in these terms, with these overtones playing throughout the talk. It will be more effective if you don’t say, “We’re on a quest,” but rather talk in terms of the conditions, features, and goals of a quest. Your anecdotes can be miniature quests, or pieces of them, and your call to action at the end can be a stirring paean to enlist the team in the fun, with grand allusions to your favorite historical quests, whether it’s Biblical, or Greek, or a drive for some half-remembered pennant.

Or let’s say you’re explaining to the troops how the changing marketplace has rendered half of your services irrelevant. A combination of new regulation, new market entrants, and global paranoia is making it very difficult to figure out how to continue along the successful path of rising profits that has sustained your company so well in the past decade.

What you want to tell them is that although the world has changed, it will be the disciplined application of the basic formula for business success that launched the company to begin with that will help the team now. So while conditions are different, and it appears that a whole new set of rules should apply, it’s really a matter of recognizing what hasn’t changed in the mix in order to point the way toward success.

That’s the classic Stranger in a Strange Land story. You’re suddenly surrounded by unfamiliar terrain and the going is rough. So you take a deep breath, and start to explore. As you get to know the new place you find yourself in, you gradually recognize that certain old skills will in fact stand you in very good stead. Other, newer habits you had picked up during your years of success need to be tossed away. It’s time to get back to business basics.

Once again, you want to focus on the confusion first; that’s the basic condition for a Strange Land story. Make it as disorienting as you can. Get lost in the new strange trees with your audience. Get them worked up with the confusion you’ve felt, and even the despair you’ve experienced as you watched the profit margins begin to erode and weren’t sure what exactly to do about them.

Then, you move to the recognition, and the compelling reminder to your audience of the timeless truths with which the business began, as you point out the new clarity you’ve achieved about the road ahead. There is no Holy Grail, no end point here as in a quest; what’s needed is a constant return to the basics, an ongoing effort to stay disciplined, focused, and aware of the changing new conditions.

For virtually every human situation, one of these basic stories can help frame how we understand it. The virtue of the frame is that it orients the audience quickly, and points the way forward to a particular kind of experience. Consciously framing your presentation in terms of one of these stories draws upon powerful cultural imperatives.

Your audience will begin to think about the outcome of the product launch, or the new threats to the marketplace, or the merger, or the threat from Microsoft, and the like, in certain specific ways that allow you to enlist them wholeheartedly to bring about specific outcomes. They’re programmed, in short, to think and act the way you want them to. That’s the power of telling one of these basic tales, and that’s how you turn an ordinary presentation into a powerful, memorable story.


  1. Nice article!
    Out of these five types of stories I find the last two more effective and impacting on audience.
    I have seen that as an audience you don’t remember each and everything, you can hardly remember 3 most important things you wish to. The best method of conveying your message to audience is to build a storyline which they will never forget. Before building a storyline all you need to do is research on your audience first and then go forward.
    Thanks for sharing these five types of stories we can write
    authorSTREAM Team

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