The Storytelling Formula (Part 1)


storytellin part 1


(Elements of this post adapted from The Mystery of Storytelling: Julian Friedmann at TEDxEaling)

I’m delighted to tell you there is a formula for storytelling. Many actually. But they boil down to the same rhythmic cadence that we want to take the reader or listener through.

First, a brief look at why storytelling is important: For our ancestors, we believe storytelling began with picture drawings in caves and dancing around fires. These pictures of lions and saber tooth tigers helped to prepare their minds for the hunt. For today’s hunters and gatherers, I argue the same is true. It’s to prepare our minds…for action.

Here are several formulas for storytelling. While they all follow the same cadence, each is described with a different nuance that may apply better in certain situations.

Grade School Formula: Beginning, Middle, and End

It’s simple and basic. But, it’s the most essential component and pattern. In a business environment, I’ve heard this described as: Context, Action, and Result

Aristotle’s formula: Pity, Fear, and Catharsis

Aristotle offers several insights on storytelling. At it’s core, he proposes these three essential elements:

  1. Pity: Developing the characters and building an emotional connection with the audience. This emotional connection gives the writer control.
  2. Fear: Using the emotional connection, as we describe the core challenge and climax, so the audience can empathize with the fear/emotions of the characters.
  3. Catharsis: Releasing the audience from that fear – by giving characters back the control – to provide relief for the audience.

Beethoven’s Formula: Suffering, Struggle, and Overcoming

Particularly during his “middle period” of composing music, Beethoven focused heavily on struggle and heroism. (note: This was also the period when Beethoven suffered an accident that caused deafness.) Found in the program notes for a series of Beethoven concerts given by Maurizio Pollini, “Beethoven’s preference for happy endings is a musical style akin to Schillers philosophy of suffering, struggling, and overcoming.”

The three-part storytelling cadence is crucial. When done right, scientist acknowledge that your brain and body respond by releasing phenylethylamine into the blood stream. This bio-chemical is said to enable peak mental and physical performance, slow aging and make us happier. Think about this the next time you go see a (good) movie. At the end, your heart is racing, you’re inspired, and more alert. So, we can thank Hollywood for making us happier, sharper, and younger.

We all want this, though, don’t we? We want our team to leave the meeting we’re facilitating feeling more inspired, energized, and focused. We want that huge research project to lift people up out of their seats to take action. To do this, we need to use story.

My next post will offer some additional tips, insights, and suggestions for bringing effective storytelling into the office and board room.

How about you, do you have a storytelling formula? Or, a favorite story about storytelling?


Will Krieger