A Software Engineer's Guide to Driving Change With Story-Telling

A Software Engineer's Guide to Driving Change With Story-Telling

What is a Story?

A story is an account of imaginary or real people and events often told for entertainment. However, you may not have realized the power of story as a functional means of influence. The inspiration for this article comes from a really well-written book by Lisa Cron, Wired for Story : The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence. This book goes into great detail about the anatomy of a compelling story, and the psychological reasons why stories are such incredible tools of influence for marketers and leaders. Since this is an article about story, I'd originally intended to lead off with a story as an example. However, after writing it, I realized it was a compelling story about leadership and communication, so I turned it into a standalone artice. If you are interested, it's titled The Role of Communication in Becoming a Great Leader.

Why Tell A Story?

Think of the most talented and influential leaders you know. The chances are pretty good that they told a compelling story (or a number of them) during their latest talk. The chances are also pretty good that you found the story entertaining. While you may not have remembered all the technical details of the speech, you likely can remember the story, or a series of them. If you think deeper, you will probably find that none of these stories were random. Each story was carefully chosen to illustrate a particular lesson or idea the leader wanted to impart on the audience.

People are continually evaluating their life for meaningful patterns, and are quickly able to discern patterns within the context of a story. A compelling story is an effective tool to get your message out in a way that resonates with your intended audience. The use of story is not unique to leaders. This tool is also heavily used by marketers. Behind each marketing message is a carefully crafted story that is intended to resonate with the targeted audience. These stories heavily influence our decisions to buy, recommend, suggest, and promote a wide range of products, concepts, and ideas.

Basic Anatomy of a Story

While there are a number of elements to a compelling story, at their core, they all come back to three simple concepts.

  • Whose story - Who is the story about.
  • What's happening - The plot illustrates the details of what happens and the outcome of the story. This usually involves an accounting of how the protaganist overcomes numerous challenges to reach the desired outcome.
  • What's at Stake - This is the story question, which usually describes the protaganist's need to change in some way to reach their desired goal.

Basic Story Telling Tips

While the book Wired for Story : The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence goes into great detail on a number of important points regarding the telling of a compelling story, the list below contains the condensed version of a number of these ideas.

  • Storytelling Trumps Writing - A common misconception, especially concerning stories in written form, is that you need to be a great writer to tell a great story. However, it is not great imagery and prose that makes the story compelling. It's the storyline that keeps your interest. You want to see how the main character is going to endure conflict, and what changes he/she will make to resolve the conflict.
  • Focus in on the Point - Extra details that aren't necessary for the story disengage the reader/listener and cause confusion. Information should be provided on a need-to-know basis. Beware of unimportant details that may distract your audience from the message you are attempting to convey.
  • A Story Answers a Single Question - All the details in a story are designed to answer a single question. While there may be numerous supporting details, they are still there to answer the single story question. Stories that lack focus aren't really stories, they are just a collection of events that happen.
  • A Story Must Evoke Emotion in the Reader/Listener - Emotionally, the audience must have a horse in the race. If the audience doesn't care what happens in the story, they won't care whether they finish it or not. More importantly, they won't care about the message that is being conveyed through the story.
  • The Protagonist Must Have a Clear Goal - If it is not clear to the reader/listener what the goal of the protaganist is, then the protaganist has nothing to figure out, and nothing to do. This makes for a very boring, unengaging story.
  • The Story is in the Specifics - While the theme of the story may be abstract, the details used to illustrate the point must be specific enough to represent a real-life scenario. It is the specifics that allow the audience to relate, empathize, and become emotionally invested in the story.
  • Vivid Details Provide Credibility - Vivid details improve credibility. However, they must support the story's core idea, or they become meaningless. A story about a car theft might mention the make, the model, the year, and the color of the car in question. These details help the audience better envision the story, and make it seem more real than if the storyteller had generically described just "a car".
  • Conflict as an Agent of Change - The brain is wired to resist change, so it usually takes conflict of some sort to create a need for change. If there is no conflict, there is no reason for the protogonist to change, and thus, no story. All compelling stories involve large amounts of conflict and change.
  • Suspense and Surprise - Withholding too much information for the purpose of creating suspense often creates confusion for the audience. The storyteller should have revealed enough "hints" for the audience so that when a "surprise" - or big reveal happens, the audience will think "Oh, that makes sense." A big reveal during a story without any hints being provided prior will usually be dismissed as unbelievable.
  • Brains are Wired for Cause and Effect - A story must maintain a logical flow of recognizeable cause and effect relationships. Stories that don't follow this type of relationship often confuse the reader, and the point of the story is lost.
  • Why is More Important Than What - The plot simply supports the story. Why is the reason for the story. The reasons why the protaganist must change to accomplish a goal is more compelling than what they actually do to change.
  • What Can Go Wrong Must Go Wrong - Have you ever read/listened to a story where everything goes right? All good stories have an abundance of conflict, and usually the protaganist creates significantly more conflict in the process of trying to resolve an existing conflict before achieving the story objective.


Story-telling is not just for writers. There are numerous practical applications of story telling that are leveraged every day in the workplace. Story-telling is a great way to influence others or help them recognize the value of your point of view. While some individuals are naturally great storytellers, even those who are not genetically predisposed to this activity can become quite expert. Like anything else, it begins with the process of learning some fundamentals, and then continually practicing and improving until you've achieved your desired level of skill.

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