May 24, 2017 / Esther Choy

Woman holds pages, ready to write business story.

At 12:30 on a Friday afternoon, the last entrepreneur stood up at the business plan competition and started her slide deck. Eyes began to glaze. Stomachs growled. But as the presenter unfolded a suspenseful story, the audience’s attention was riveted. Heads nodded. Laughter rippled. The half hour sailed by.

Storytelling clearly produces measurable results. Cognitive psychology tells us that information is up to 20 percent more memorable when delivered as story. Neuroscientists have even shown that listeners’ brains start to mirror the storyteller’s.

It’s tempting to believe that telling stories well is a talent, something you have or don’t. However, I’ve discovered that storytelling is really more of a science than an art. Crafting good stories is a repeatable and reliable process – experimenting, making tweaks, trying again. When you have the right tools and methods, you can repeat your system over and over again.

Regardless of whether you consider yourself a ‘born storyteller,’ let’s experiment a little together by taking a peek at one of my methods for creating better stories. Of course, for even more information and templates to guide you to tell better stories for business success, look into my book Let the Story Do the Work.

Three principal elements of stories

Good storytellers transport their audiences, making them feel what the characters feel. For audiences to bond with characters in this way, there has to be “some sort of stressor, some sort of arousal response in the brain,” says Paul Zak, director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University. To save the intense resources this neurological arousal response requires from us, our brain will only “give attention to something when it matters,” Zak explains in The Atlantic.

Zak says the stories that grip us most are stories in which tension increases incrementally as the hero faces a stressful challenge that demands the audience’s total attention. This means there’s a tool for creating absorbing plots: the three-act story.

Act 1: Scene / Hook
Act 2: Journey / Setback / New Challenge / Climax
Act 3: Resolution / Take-away

Think of the familiar plotline of The Sound of Music.

Act I: First you see Maria singing in the gorgeous scenery of the Alps. She realises she’s late for prayers at the abbey. As the scene quickly shifts to her talk with the Reverend Mother, the hook becomes apparent: Maria thought it was God’s will for her to spend the rest of her life as a nun, but the convent leaders don’t think Maria’s cut out for it. What will happen to her? What is her calling?

Act II: Maria takes a job with the Von Trapp family. She’s on a journey entirely based on the hook: figuring out where she belongs. After numerous setbacks ranging from naughty kids to love triangles, to the Nazi occupation of Austria, Maria eventually discovers her true calling.

Act III: The Von Trapps escape the Nazis. Love triumphs, defeating evil. This conclusion gives the audience a sense of resolution.

Of course, you don’t typically have three hours to unfold a gripping story. The same structure works for 30-second ads, and anything in between. The Sussex Safer Roads Partnership’s “Embrace Life” campaign and P&G’s “Proud Sponsor of Moms” commercial are two short, effective examples.

The Hook

To keep the reader’s attention throughout the three acts, you have to start by promising that the tension is about to increase. You can create this promise in three ways, as illustrated by three of my former clients:

Conflict: “Things started badly on June 21, 2002, with England losing to Brazil in the World Cup, and they had steadily been getting worse; that fateful day ended up with us being finally rescued by the Navy.”

First, the fact that only one soccer team can win creates conflict. Second, there’s conflict related to personal safety – what happened to the narrator that the Navy needed to be called in? Conflict doesn’t always need to be epic. Often, a conflict between two people’s ideas is enough.

Contrast: “I was born and raised in New York City. I consider myself a New Yorker before I call myself an American. Yet, several years ago, my job brought me to a small desert village in Sudan.”

The contrast between bustling New York City and an isolated Sudanese village makes us curious: “How will the author adjust?”

Contradiction: “On my second day at a new job, Chris, a software developer, was explaining the company’s technology. In the middle of our conversation, he received an instant message. He quickly got up and told me, ‘It’s time for a cupcake run!’”

The abrupt, out-of-the-norm announcement about the need for a cupcake run contradicts the audience’s expectations of how the narrator’s day is going to go – so we want to know more!

The sense of an ending

Stories don’t have to end happily ever after. Open endings work well when you want to engage your audience in discussion or reflection. Endings where everything resolves are best when you want to be sure you’re communicating a clear message.

Stories can be applied to a variety of modern communication settings: interviewing, presenting, pitching, selling, and more. Telling good ones involves a reliable and repeatable process for hooking the readers’ attention.

Need to learn the science of storytelling? Give us a shout! Schedule a complimentary communication training consultation today. For more tips and insights on storytelling, sign up for our monthly guide.Esther’s book, Let the Story Do the Work (published by HarperCollins Leadership), is now available!

This article by Esther Choy originally appeared on

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Esther Choy

Esther Choy founded Leadership Story Lab in 2010 to help others leverage the art of storytelling to create extraordinary opportunities.
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"This is an amazing and insightful post! I hadn’t thought of that so you broadened my perspective. I always appreciate your insight!" - Dan B.

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