Whether you’re a writer, a speaker, or a business professional, storytelling empowers you to connect successfully with readers, family members, colleagues, employees, and clients. This article explores the four elements of a good story: conflict, transformation, authenticity, and magic—and how you can use them to motivate and inspire.
Storytelling Element 1: Conflict
Stories are driven by conflict—challenges that must be overcome, obstacles that must be faced.
Cinderella’s jealous stepmother keeps her as a house slave to cook and clean. She is not allowed to attend the royal ball where the prince is to select a bride. Will she spend her life locked in a tower with only mice for friends?
When Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider, he obtains superhuman strength and speed, and the ability to climb walls. Parker witnesses a robbery in progress but does nothing to stop it. Later, the same criminal kills his uncle. Burdened by guilt, Peter must reassess his principles and priorities.
ACME Corporation faces competition from knock-offs and cheap imports. If it can’t convince customers that its higher-priced, domestic product is superior, it will soon be out of business.
XYZ Company’s employees are demotivated by layoffs and cutbacks, even though these tough decisions have kept the company afloat. Workers think management doesn’t see the “big picture.” Morale is low. Productivity and profitability are in decline.
Conflict gives us a reason to turn the page; it’s the gravitas that pulls us into the story. We want to find out what happens.
Storytelling Element 2: Transformation
Transformation is the second element of good storytelling. People face conflict to achieve a result—survival, wealth, love, happiness.
Cinderella makes it to the ball, wins the heart of the prince, becomes a princess, and lives happily ever after.
Peter Parker is galvanized by the tragic death of his uncle. He devises a costume and web-spinning technology, and dedicates himself to fighting crime.
ACME Corporation hires a famous comedian to film a silly commercial endorsing its product. Amused consumers connect the product to the company’s offbeat sense of humor and profits soar.
The CEO of XYZ Company hires a speaker who consults on business communication. She works with management and employees to develop programs that make everyone feel listened to. Her rousing keynote address offers perspectives that restore morale. Productivity increases and a year later, everyone gets a raise.
Transformation can mean “happily ever after,” or it can mean realizing everything you needed was right there all along. Transformation is physical, spiritual, and/or emotional change or awakening that represents attainment, enlightenment, or ascension.
Storytelling Element 3: Authenticity
Authenticity is a powerful element of good storytelling. Though it’s difficult to define, like art, God, and pornography, you know it when you see it. Authenticity is the degree to which a story, a painting, a piece of music, a spiritual path, or a person appeals to that grandest of literary themes—the universal search for meaning. When we assess a piece of art, we try to intuit whether the artist was inspired or merely trying to create “eye candy” for profit. Does the work look too much like that of another artist, or does it represent a unique vision? Does the work deliver an experience—or is it merely “pretty” or technically well rendered?
Authenticity has roots in truth and plausibility, but it’s more than that. If a story is presented as being true, we want evidence that it actually is true. If a story is fiction, we want it to be plausible; even imaginary worlds have rules and limitations. Cinderella and Spiderman are fantasy stories; they’re neither true nor plausible, but they’re authentic because they speak to our own human needs and struggles.
At surface level, the conflict in the Cinderella story involves a girl who wishes to realize her potential and find her prince. The transformation of that girl into a princess and a life of happily ever after completes the tale. Though it’s fiction, the story is authentic because it speaks to our own needs to express and expand ourselves, to be appreciated, to find partners in life and business who elevate and encourage us, and to reach a happy, comfortable state “for ever after.” We’re all unrecognized princes and princesses hoping to rise above the status quo, form partnerships that empower us, and master life’s challenges so we can be happy
The Spiderman story has captivated millions since Stan Lee created it in 1962. It presents moral conflict over whether or not we should act on behalf of others. It portrays the physical transformation of a science nerd into a superhero, but this story is as much about moral transformation: with great power comes great responsibility. The story is fiction—but it’s authentic. It speaks to every person’s wish for strength to overcome adversity. It speaks to our human struggle to balance our individual needs against those of others. And it speaks about leadership; authentic leaders assume the responsibility that comes with the great power conferred upon them, often reluctantly.
That ACME Corporation has become profitable again is neither interesting nor meaningful unless you’re a stockholder. The conflict and the transformation are unremarkable on their own, but the fact that ACME overcame its obstacles and survived by using humor to build relationships is heartwarming. ACME won by being more human than its competitors. Instead of using hype and spin, they decided to be authentic. Wouldn’t we all like to succeed in life and business by being ourselves and making people smile?
The XYZ Company story is authentic because it’s a metaphor for our own human tendency to get stuck in communication loops that kill friendships, marriages, deals, and businesses. We all want to cooperate, collaborate, understand, and be understood.
Storytelling Element 4: Magic
The fourth element of effective storytelling is magic—though reconciling magic with authenticity sounds counter-intuitive. Magic comes in many forms. It can be fantastic or real, and it’s as appealing to the most stalwart rational pragmatist as it is to a child. Magic is the catalyst that makes a potent story happen in moments or days instead of years.
The magic element in the Cinderella story is her fairy godmother. She’s the agent for change. She waves her wand and suddenly, Cinderella is dressed to kill, racing off to the prince’s hoedown in style.
Peter Parker is transformed by a radioactive spider that catalyzes his physical and moral transformation. This magic element magnifies the conflict as much as it does Peter’s potential. Without that magic spider, the story would become a mundane fable about a wimpy science nerd who learns why it’s important to act on behalf of others.
A famous comic actor rescues the ACME Corporation. ACME execs might have come up with a funny script on their own, but the famous comedian’s delivery and reputation bring about rapid change in the company’s circumstances. He’s the wizard who magically restores their brand.
A dynamic problem solver fixes XYZ’s communication conundrums. She’s not trapped in the corporate hierarchy so she’s free to speak without fear of being fired. She knows how to get everyone to talk and listen, and as a master storyteller, she knows how to deliver a presentation that motivates and inspires.
Magic suggests an important role for us as writers, speakers, mentors, entrepreneurs, leaders, and team builders. Not every story has a fairy godmother, but we don’t want to hear how Cinderella figures out an escape plan, finds a suitable gown, hitchhikes to the palace, and gets there on time. That might be more plausible, but authentically, that’s not what this story’s about. People follow leaders and hire speakers because they’re burdened by day-to-day struggles. They want a fairy godmother—a Merlin or an Obi Wan Kenobi—to wave a wand, say “hocus pocus,” and make it all better. People pray, cross their fingers, buy lottery tickets, and celebrate coincidences to open themselves to the possibility that a thread of intangible magic is woven through their lives. Even in the practical, day-to-day world where we must be our own agents for change, ideas, innovation, and inspiration can appear from nowhere and empower us to transform lives, businesses, and relationships. That’s real magic—inexplicable yet irrefutable.
The four elements of storytelling—conflict, transformation, authenticity, and magic—provide a useful formula for understanding and establishing leadership. If we are to empower others to succeed at transformation, we must understand what their conflicts really are—and rarely are those conflicts as surface-level as they seem. We must identify the meaningful challenges. The desire to make money is not a conflict because it carries no meaning. The desires to empower customers with a superior product, or to win over the competition with a clever strategy, or to convince customers that your product really can do everything you claim are authentic, meaningful conflicts because they echo our own human struggles. Life does not happen on a spreadsheet, but if we can identify conflicts in human terms and get readers and listeners to embrace those struggles, the power of shared story will keep the accountants smiling. We must turn pumpkins into coaches and mice into horses so our clients, families, readers, and employees can get to the ball and achieve transformation.
Once a goal becomes meaningful, no force in the universe can prevent its achievement. With insight and an understanding of their audiences, great writers, teachers, professionals, and speakers deliver the magic that helps individuals and businesses shape and understand their own stories, face their conflicts, and succeed. Leaders who understand the power of storytelling are transformed into magical, fast-acting agents for change.
Why not make that your story?