3 basic elements every good story needs – Security Catalyst | a Straight Talk Works

3 basic elements every good story needs

Stories are an important way to connect people to value. A popular topic during my keynotes and training sessions, I usually explore the importance with a simple question:

“What are the three essential parts a story must contain?”

I smile as I pose the question. People shift uncomfortably in their chairs. Eyes dart away. Confident business leaders don’t want to be called on. They don’t know they’re safe; I don’t call on people (who does that?).

As the silence builds, someone finally blurts out, “beginning, middle, and end?”

More question than statement, the relief in the crowd is evident. Heads begin to nod again as eyes return focus on me. I smile and thank them for the courage to answer and assure the audience it’s not a trick question.

While I’m not sure when answering “beginning, middle, and end” gained popularity, those aren’t the elements of good stories.

How did you answer the question?

Core to our existence, we are inherently familiar with the notion of a story. However, “knowing of” stories creates an odd situation where we struggle to define, let alone tell, good stories.

Want to tell a good story?

A few months ago, I sat in the audience at an event where two successful and admired business people shared insights and reflections. In both cases, I was disappointed that in place of stories, they simply listed a somewhat chronological sequence of facts.

They were polished and well spoken. But leaving out the stories missed the opportunity to connect, to inspire. It happens in business every day. Simply, we need more and better storytelling in business (read more here).

Story is important. There are excellent books dedicated to the structure, engineering, and craft of story. Folks point out the Kurt Vonnegut work on stories. Or the Pixar approach. Or other classic structures. They are great. Studying, copying, and learning from them is valuable.

That takes time. Get started by embracing, understanding, and including the three basic elements of every good story.

3 elements of every good story

While there are other structures, twists, and approaches, good stories boil down to three essential elements:

  1. Characters: introduce the people involved. Move past a listing of facts to provide the essence. Explain the context. Reveal emotions. They need to be real and relatable.
  2. Conflict: the lesson is often illustrated in how the character transforms through challenge. It’s not always adversity. Take time to describe what they’re going through. Include emotions, changes in context, and changes in perspective/understanding.
  3. Resolution: how did the character(s) change? It may not be a happy ending. Provide the necessary context and emotion for the audience to make the connection and process the story.

Take a moment and consider this example of how to use these three elements to build a better business stories.

Building the story? Practice progress over perfection.

Most of the time it takes some exploration and discovery to uncover and distill the three elements. It’s a patient process that involves asking questions in a relaxed and conversational way.

I consider it the act of liberating stories. Some additional insights into the process are here.

Test the result by identifying the characters, conflict, and resolution. Good stories come in all shapes and sizes. In business, short stories work better. Something told in 2-3 minutes or less. It takes work to distill to the right elements. In the end, the right story, told the right way, is what sets people and projects apart.

Using the 3 elements to tell better stories

The key to better storytelling is building a better story. The ability to deliver a good story, however, is a skill developed with practice. The good news is that each day presents opportunities at work, home, and the activities in which we engage.

The key to practicing is to put the time in. Start by asking this one question.

A story is a story. I believe every one of us has a story. Teams have stories. Stories are universal and work in business as much as life. Each story is important.

By embracing the three elements to guide a loosely structured practice, each of us has the ability to craft and tell better stories. I look forward to yours. Let me know how I can help.

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Michael Santarcangelo

The founder of Security Catalyst, Michael develops exceptional leaders and powerful communicators with the security mindset for success.