How to tell a purposeful story

Have you ever let out a small groan when one of your colleagues has started a presentation by saying “I’m going to tell you a story”? Or maybe its when their poorly thought-out anecdote doesn’t seem to be coming to an end? 

I know I have, and quite frankly, this lack of preparation gives storytelling a bad name, when it is one of the most powerful ways to persuade and get your message across. So I like to make the distinction between purposeful storytelling and just sharing as story.

Don’t get me wrong, both have a role, sharing an unprepared true story is a great way to create an authentic bond with someone, it also helps us to make sense of the things that have happened to us. But it should not be confused with the kind of storytelling we need to employ in business or leadership communication. 

If it sounds like it’s a lot of work to prepare this that’s because it is (a bit). So here are some tips on the process of creating a purposeful story: 

1.     Identify the purpose of your story

Start by deciding what you want your story to communicate or show.  This could be the key message of your presentation or speech or a smaller point you want to drive home. Remember to think about how you want to make your audience feel.

2.     Think of all the true stories that might fit 

Then take a moment to reflect on true stories from your life that might fit this purpose. It’s vital that the stories are really true stories from your life not borrowed from others or telling someone else’s story, because the impact of storytelling lies in creating empathy through authentic connection, and that requires true stories. Once you have a few options, choose one or two to move forward with. 

3.     Get the parts clear 

Make some clear notes on the parts of the story. What is the basic plot: what happens in the story? Who are the main and supporting characters? What conflicts do they face? What change do they go through (this is the part that usually illustrates the purpose of the story). 

4.     Apply a story structure

Then choose a story structure to apply. Most business stories are told using the Hero’s Journey: The idea that the main character leaves their comfortable reality and sets out to achieve some yearning they have, along the way they come up against many obstacles and may also encounter a mentor, the tension rises as the main character over comes these obstacles until finally there is a climax and we have a resolution. For a clear explanation of this see the Pixar story structure. Also consider other structure types.

5.     Colour and advance the story

Now you need to give the story some colour. Add in descriptions and emotions, try to be aware of when this is important for the story and when it’s better to move things forward. Think strategically. If we watch a series on Netflix and the camera focuses on a knife, we can be pretty sure that knife is going to be important for the story in one way or another. Do the same, add description and emotions to key characters, objects, and locations. In other parts advance the story.

6.     Test it out

The more you tell a story, the better it will get, especially if you share it with others. You will see their reactions, hear their feedback, and incorporate it. You are not changing the plot or what happened but developing the way you tell the story to make it as engaging as possible.

So if you follow this process, you’ll be able to tell powerful purposeful stories without boring your audience and even if someone groans at the very start, you will have them hooked and interested in the story in no time. 

How to tell a purposeful story? The quick answer, prepare it properly. In this video Katie Annice Carr shows you the stages of developing your true experiences into impactful stories for use in business and life. We suggest the following process: 1) Have a clear purpose 2) Brainstorm possible stories and choose one or two 3) Get the components clear: Plot, Characters, Conflict, Change 4) Choose a structure and apply it. 5) Add description and move the story forward. 6) Go and tell it, edit it and adapt it.

About Katie Annice Carr

Creativity, Communication and Leadership facilitator, coach and consultant.