How to influence through story

Nancy Duarte

Written by

Nancy Duarte

Story is a powerful and persuasive communication device that can move people to dream big dreams, embrace big ideas, and accomplish big things, like transitioning to a new normal.

Stories simultaneously engage our sensxes and trigger thoughts, memories, and emotions. They engage us, so we’re more likely to remember what we’ve heard.

The power of story transcends the individual listener. When we share stories together, the minds between the storyteller and their audience become synchronized. This “neural coupling” brings our minds together and aligns our emotions too.

When we feel connected to another person through stories, oxytocin, the love hormone, is released, flooding our bodies with positive affection for other. A story has the power to influence us to want to act.

So, story is more than entertainment and for kiddos at bedtime; storytelling is an essential skill for anyone who wants to connect with other people and get them to act. It is a potent persuasive communication device that can help you, your teams, and your entire organization make things happen.

That’s why it makes sense to invest in building the storytelling capabilities of your employees.

Breaking down story

As a first step, it’s important to understand the mechanics of stories. For instance, what is a story, and how do you build storytelling as a professional capacity?

First, all stories follow a basic three-act structure.

  • Act I is the Beginning, where we are often introduced to a likable hero who is called to action.
  • Act II is the Messy Middle, where that hero encounters roadblocks and challenges.
  • Act III is the End, where the hero overcomes those challenges and emerges transformed.



Notice how transformation is built into the structure of story. Every story has the potential to change us. Since we all have stories to tell and each can be told from multiple vantage points. We all have the potential to use stories to make change happen.

Duarte has 30+ years of experience in the storytelling business and from our work with the best-performing brands and leaders, we’ve observed that story can be used in four powerful ways.


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1. Stories communicate our identity

Because the stories we tell about ourselves describe our experiences and the kinds of challenges we’ve had to face, they define how we see ourselves and how we are perceived by others.

The experiences we are living through right now are affecting us in profound ways.

In fact, the messy middle part of the story is where we experience the most transformation. As we grapple with and overcome obstacles, tests, and trials, we develop new muscles and learn new skills that change our core identity.

We need to tell those stories so others can learn from them and be changed too.

2. Stories communicate insights

Stories can help us find meaning in data that allows us to make decisions quicker and take action.

Data insights are mission–critical and how we use them will make or break our businesses in this season. Whether it’s market share, employee headcount, or a company’s financials, data can signal a problem or an opportunity.

No matter how much data your business has at its fingertips, however, the value is lost if people can’t communicate insights effectively.

By creating actionable recommendations that follow the three act story structure, you craft a DataStory. This framework helps you communicate insights in a way that accelerates decision-making.

People who successfully make the leap from simply exploring data to explaining it effectively will quickly climb the ranks in their organizations; these data storytellers earn their place as trusted, strategic advisors.

3. Stories make ideas stick

By wrapping ideas in a memorable and emotionally charged package, such as a story, they are more likely to get talked about and gain traction.

Stories have structure, tension, and a form that has contrast built into it, which allow us to point out the differences between our current realities and our desired state.

That gap—the contrast—between now and the future allows us to see new possibilities and imagine how our world might be changed by your idea. By contrasting where we are and where we need to go, you can create longing for that alternate future and make people more open to transformation.

4. Stories drive actions and influence

Stories communicate our most important concepts, from identity, to insights, and to ideas. But stories can do even more; they can be an influential tool to drive change.

In researching transformations, we’ve found that change efforts—across both social movements and organization shifts — also mirror the classic three-act structure.

In the beginning, leaders communicate a dream and ask people to take a leap with them. In the messy middle, people will be asked to fight past obstacles and climb closer to the goal. In the final act, they all arrive and take a moment to reflect on the journey—before preparing to repeat it over again.

At every stage of this transformation journey, it’s important for leaders to communicate well using storytelling principles to illuminate the path forward. Whether it’s with speeches, ceremonies, or symbols, story helps create galvanizing moments that give people the emotional fuel to spark and sustain change.

We are living through a defining moment right now, in our companies, our careers, even our society. It couldn’t be a more important time to influence people—and story is a powerful tool to do just that.




This post was inspired by Nancy and Patti’s talk at the ATD20 Virtual Conference.

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