Tell Me a Story

By Steven A. Hitz, Founding Director
Author of Launching Leaders

April 12, 2019

It’s not just a Millennial or Gen X or Z dilemma; the art of story telling is fading as a sunrise in the west. Does it matter that many of us are losing the ability to communicate in other than texts or tweets?

As an author, I study great writers in depth to glean some of their wordsmithing as well as their ability to tell a story that captivates. Who doesn’t love to sit down with a good book? And yet, that companionship is also fading. It has to do with the world we live in, where we are owned by the ding of a cell phone and can’t make space for such things as a good book, let alone pondering and storytelling.

And yet, it is imperative that we marshal the art of storytelling—-not to be the most popular voice around a campfire, but to be able to tell our own story of life and leave an interesting story of our life for our loved ones.

For many of us, storytelling does not come naturally. In fact, in our family, one member tells stories so slow and disinteresting, we will use the line “Good story Hansel” from the famous movie Zoolander. We ought not to make fun of each other, but the point is, there are good story tellers and poor ones—-and which would you rather listen to?

The good news is that this is a skill that can be developed. I have a good friend who is perhaps the worlds best presenter; I really mean it, he is legendary. He practices speaking in front of a mirror all the time. He rehearses over and over again, focusing on all aspects of his delivery. He practices facial expressions, his gestures, the timing of powerful lines, where he’ll add a little well-spaced humor, and the lessons he’s trying to get across. He didn’t become the best in the world by just winging it, he did so through dedicated preparation and practice. And where did it get him? He created a billion-dollar training enterprise that blessed the world a million times over.

We can’t cover the basics in 1000 words or less, but you can find more detail on this topic including the science behind in my book, Launching Leaders: An Empowering Journey for a New Generation.

Why learn and practice the art of storytelling? It will move all of your dreams forward and help you maximize every possible success. Is that reason enough?

Here are the four basic elements of great story telling:

  1. Your story must include likeable and recognizable characters that your audience will identify with or empathize with.
  2. There must be some sort of drama, some uncertainty, or some anticipation involved. Something out of the ordinary needs to happen to create tension and uncertainty about the outcome of the story. You want your audience to wonder what will happen next and be concerned with how things will turn out in the end.
  3. Your story needs a “Eureka moment” in which the central character breaks through and does something great. Your story has to deliver its payload.
  4. You need a “me-to-we” factor—something that will help your listeners realize that the story you’re telling actually has relevance to their own lives. As the listener makes an emotional connection with the story, they will suddenly realize that their life somehow shares some of the same dynamics as the narrative they’re listening to. A meaningful story always tells listeners what’s in it for them, and will give them something they can use as they move forward with their life.

To show you how these elements play out in an actual narrative, here’s a true story often told by my mentor, and fellow Launching Leaders founder, Jim Ritchie:

John Oryang and his brother David grew up in the hills of Uganda, in central Africa. The two brothers, about ten and eleven at the time, would arise early in the morning and trek their way into the foothills, protecting their growing goat herd and making sure they had food and water. This type of sustainable living (raising goats) is a key way to get ahead in Uganda; as the goat herd grows, so do the family opportunities. John and David assumed they’d spend the rest of their days performing these worthwhile labors until a disaster unexpectedly struck.

A deadly disease originating in Europe invaded Uganda, and quickly devastated the country’s goats. Nearly every goat in Uganda died from the disease, including all of the Oryang family’s small herd. The disease left the family without any chance of financial success; they were destitute and desperate.

In the middle of this incredible setback, John decided to strike out on his own as a young teenager and see what was on the other side of the mountain. With his meager belongings strapped to his back, he walked the many miles to the “big city,” where he somehow got himself enrolled in a school and worked hard to obtain a high school diploma. He did so well academically that he was awarded a scholarship to attend a university, which in turn paved the way for him to eventually attend Oxford University in England.

Graduating from Oxford with honors, he returned to a good paying job with the Ugandan government, which made him a man of influence and privilege. He married and began raising a family. His son David grew up under a very different set of circumstances than John had, and after finishing high school, he was admitted to the University of Washington, where he received a degree and landed a prominent job in Washington D.C.

Upon reflection of his and his family’s good fortunes, David thought back to the days of his youth, and wondered aloud “What if the goats had not died?”

Let’s break down this story by highlighting how each of the four elements of a powerful story are present:

  1. Likeable and recognizable characters. Who doesn’t love a family of goat herders working hard to make an honest living? Who can’t relate to this family, working together to sustain life? This story is full of characters that it’s easy to root for.
  2. Drama, uncertainty, or anticipation. The disease that killed the family’s goats created the tension and uncertainty around which the entire story revolves.
  3. Breakthrough moment when main character does something great. The teenage boy venturing out from his home, going over the mountains to attend school and make his own mark is the story’s breakthrough moment.
  4. Emotional connection. Readers and listeners can easily relate to the way John’s act of courage dramatically altered his family’s fortunes. The reader can reflect on her own life and identify a challenge that’s kind of like her own “dead goat story.” After hearing how John turned his trial into a blessing, listeners gain new insights into their own life difficulties and can find motivation to confront them.

I hope we can all propel our success by learning the art of effective storytelling.

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