Storytelling is one of the oldest and most powerful forms of communication. A good story well told not only increases audience attention, but is also better remembered than a list of items or facts.

Best Practices

The essential parts to a story — Every story consists of a few essential elements: an initiating incident, a protagonist, action, and an outcome. Unless your material comprises these elements, it won’t be perceived as a story.

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Just telling about an event is not always a story. Not all narratives are stories. A story contains four essential components:

1. Initiating incident. A story must have an impetus, a cause that drives someone to take action. In most stories, this is a problem — or an opportunity. Whether it’s negative (a problem) or positive (an opportunity), the more extreme this incident, the more compelling the story will be.

2. Protagonist. A story has one or more individuals (a team, organization, etc.) trying to achieve a goal caused by the initiating incident.

3. Action. The protagonist takes action to address the problem or opportunity. The story becomes more engaging if obstacles stand in the way of achieving the goal, and make it harder to obtain. The protagonist’s actions to overcome the obstacles can be the most instructive elements in stories.

4. Outcome. Once the problem or opportunity has been revealed and action taken by the protagonist, the audience will want to know what happened. Did the protagonist achieve the goal? Whether your story has a happy ending or not, the outcome must be clear.

Of course, simply having these four elements does not guarantee that a story will be memorable, instructive, or even interesting. It just means you have a genuine story. A story needs something more if it’s to stick.


Examples of effective storytelling — Exemplar video stories illustrating IBM’s core values.

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  1. Innovation that matters — for our company and the world
  2. Dedication — to every client’s success
  3. Trust and personal responsibility — in all relationships


Giving your story impact — But compelling stories need more than just the basic elements. Here you’ll learn storyteller “secrets” on how to make a story more powerful.

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Making your story memorable

We suggest you watch each of the video examples in the previous section (Examples of Effective Storytelling) before your review this section.

Each of the video examples had the four basic elements we identified earlier: initiating incident, a protagonist, action, and an outcome.

But these stories go beyond those basic requirement.
Below are story-strengthening elements that can raise a story’s impact. Incorporating any one of these elements can help — adding several can help even more. But whatever element you add, be sure it is genuine and appropriate, not artificially invented to try to increase your story’s power.

1. Something important at stake. A major risk will ratchet up audience interest in a story. In Dick Richardson’s “Mazel Tov” story, IBM attorneys discovered Dick’s omission of a required Sexual Harassment component in the manager program — his own career was in jeopardy because of his mistake. We want to learn what happened!

2Time lock. When a problem or opportunity has a definite deadline, it creates an urgency in the story, raises the tension and peaks audience interest.
3. Expectation violation. When audience expectations are dashed — for a good reason — the story soars.

4. Parsimony. Clutter is the downfall of an otherwise excellent story. A good story has just enough details to establish the situation and characters and move the story events forward. “Parsimony” is the absence of clutter. Aim for it.

5. Reveal information only when needed. One good way to ruin a story is to provide too much needed information all at once. Good storytellers “dribble out” the necessary background as the story is being told, usually just before that information is needed.

6. Obstacles. The initiating event causes the protagonist to take action. But if the goal is easily attained, the story won’t generate much interest. The story really crackles when a protagonist has to be clever or courageous or fortunate to overcome obstacles.

7. Abnormality. Stories stand out and are better remembered if there’s something unusual in them. In Todd Belt’s Katrina story the IBM technicians load their motor home with diapers and other items and head out on their mission. Afterwards they help dig out a homeowner’s possessions from four feet of flood sewage. These memorable descriptions send a striking and important message about this unusual endeavor for IBM techies.

8. Visual salience. A memorable story paints pictures in people’s heads by using visually descriptive phrases that connect with the audience. Dick Richardson begins by saying, “It was a pizza-box-in-the-hallway kind of project,” implying that it took the team an all-hours effort. In her Mentoring story Anne McNeill says the rural school teacher “literally had tears in her eyes” when expressing appreciation to IBM. Using visual description is a solid storytelling technique.

9. Formidable antagonist. In some stories the protagonist must face and overcome an adversary or “antagonist.” It could be a corporate competitor, an uncooperative colleague, or a force of nature. A formidable antagonist makes the story that much more compelling.

10. Underlying meaning. A story worthy of telling carries meaning. The more important the meaning, the more important the story. Sometimes that meaning is explicit and stated, sometimes not. But to lead and instruct, a story must have meaning, or else it simply entertains.

You’ve probably noticed that many of the requirements for good storytelling are the same as any good communications technique employed in a business setting. It must be concise, accurate, clear, impactful, and readable. In today’s world with remote management, virtual teams, and cross-border projects, communications is more important than ever.


Tools / Job aids

Story capture rubric (18KB PDF) A simple tool that will help you: establish the strength of a possible story, begin to outline the essential elements, and confirm what might be missing to build an effective story.

Storyboard template (111KB PDF) Storyboarding is a series of illustrations or images displayed in an order that shows the progression of a completed motion graphic or interactive sequence. The illustrations may be photos, film clips or rough sketches. Each illustration often has notes describing any dialogue, action and/or special effects (FX) that accompany the scene.

Video production outline.pdf (24KB PDF) Bare-bones list of steps to follow for producing video for learning

[Video Captioning Tutorial] Learn how to create a well structured, designed and impactful videocasts.


I don’t think I have any particular talent for writing or telling stories, but I can see situations where they could be effective. Are there ways to develop this skill?] Yes. Classes in creative writing are widely available, as are storytelling workshops. Toastmasters International offers an enjoyable and supportive atmosphere for improving your public speaking talents — crucial to effective storytelling. We all know people who seem to be “natural-born” storytellers. You are correct though in recognizing storytelling as a skill, and like most other skills, storytelling can be improved with knowledge and practice.

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