The Role of Storytelling in Communication

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Made to Stick" by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is the role of storytelling in communication? How can storytelling help you get your message across more effectively?

Stories have the power to motivate and teach. They are interesting and memorable. That’s why storytelling communication is an important aspect of making your message stick.

Keep reading to learn about the power of storytelling in communication.

Stories Make Ideas Sticky

The “S” in the SUCCESs formula for creating “sticky” messages stands for “stories.” Storytelling communication inspires action. Stories motivate people to act and they tell people how to act.

Storytelling Communication as Inspiration

In the late 1990s, Subway introduced a line of seven healthier sandwiches, each with under 6 grams of fat. It touted them in an ad campaign with the message “7 under 6.” That wasn’t a very sticky message by the standards of this book, but it caught the attention of college student Jared Fogle, who, at 425 pounds, had developed disabling health and mobility problems. He resolved to lose weight and started by trying one of Subway’s low-fat subs. He liked it and developed a diet of a 12-inch veggie sub for lunch and a six-inch turkey sub for dinner. 

Over three months, he lost nearly 100 pounds, so he continued. He also began walking. A former roommate was so impressed with Fogle’s transformation that he wrote an article for the college paper. A writer for a national health magazine saw the article and mentioned the Subway diet in an article on crazy diets.

The story took a circuitous route to national fame after that. A Subway franchise owner tried to get the chain’s national ad agency to pick up the story, but they weren’t interested. So he pushed the idea at the regional level, and an ad campaign was launched on Jan. 1, 2000, coinciding with the annual interest in New Year’s resolutions. USA Today and the networks soon called, followed by Oprah. Suddenly, Subway’s national marketing arm woke up and rolled out the ad nationally. The chain’s sales went up 18 percent that year.

A Sticky Success

A comparison to the SUCCESs checklist shows why the Subway diet story went big and stuck.

  1. Simple: The message was, lose weight by eating subs.
  2. Unexpected: You can lose weight by eating fast food.
  3. Concrete: The pants Fogle once wore, with their 60-inch waist, made the story concrete.
  4. Credible: Fogle spoke from experience.
  5. Emotional: Fogle’s story made people care about him.
  6. Stories: His success against the odds is an inspiration.

How to Spot an Inspirational Story 

While Subway’s national marketing agency missed the Fogle story at first, you can learn to spot inspirational stories to help your messages stick. Just as the majority of effective advertisements draw on a handful of sticky templates, inspirational stories have templates as well.

The popular Chicken Soup for the Soul books are collections of inspirational stories that have been around since 1993. The authors analyzed hundreds of them to understand what makes an inspirational story successful and found that more than 80 percent feature one of three basic plots.

The most common plots for inspirational stories are:

  • Challenge—People overcome obstacles.
  • Connection—People develop relationships across gaps.
  • Creativity—People solve problems and inspire new ways of thinking.


In a challenge plot, the protagonist overcomes a major challenge. The story of David and Goliath is a challenge story—David brings down a giant with only a slingshot. Variations include the rags-to-riches story, underdog story, and the persistence story. Jared Fogle’s weight loss is a challenge story.

Starting with the American Revolution, U.S. history and culture are replete with challenge stories including the moon launch, Seabiscuit, and sports triumphs like the U.S. hockey team’s victory over the Russians in the 1980 Olympics. They’re lessons in perseverance and courage.


Connection stories are about people who bridge race, class, religious, ethnic, or other divides. They’re about building relationships. Romance stories such as Romeo and Juliet and the movie Titanic are connection stories, but the classic connection story is the Bible’s story of the Good Samaritan, about a man who was attacked by robbers and left lying along a road. Several people passed without helping before a Samaritan stopped, treated the victim’s wounds and took him to an inn so he could recover. The Samaritan bridged a divide by caring for a Jew despite hostility between the two cultures.

The connection plot is the most common format in the Chicken Soup series and is also the basis for many advertisements.


The creativity plot features someone solving a problem in a creative way or having an epiphany as Isaac Newton did when an apple fell on his head and sparked his theory of gravity. The MacGyver TV series of 1985 (resurrected in 2016) was built around a creativity plot: the title character had a talent for unconventional problem-solving, which he applied in each episode.

Another example of storytelling communication that included creativity involved a team at Ingersoll-Rand, a manufacturer of industrial grinders used in auto shops. The team, which was tasked with developing a new grinder in less than a year, came up with a novel way to test whether plastic would make a sufficiently durable casing for a grinder (usually the casings were metal). The team tied pieces of plastic to the bumper of a vehicle and dragged them around, which demonstrated that a plastic composite would work.

If you find a story following one of the three templates that aligns with your goal, don’t hesitate to make it part of your message. If you know what you’re looking for and can spot it, you don’t need to invent your own story.

The Springboard Story

Former World Bank official Stephen Denning used what he called springboard stories to inspire colleagues and others to help develop solutions to problems. In his book, The Springboard, he describes a springboard story as one that creates buy-in on problems and opens up possibilities for change.

For instance, while at the World Bank he was assigned to study the organization’s information management, an abstract topic difficult to grasp or be enthusiastic about. So, whenever he talked to executives and colleagues about information flow, he told the story of an aid worker in Zambia who spent time desperately searching for information to help combat a local outbreak of malaria—information the World Bank could have easily made available. Whenever Denning told the story, colleagues offered ideas for better information sharing.

Denning contended that when you present information with statistics or assertions, you implicitly invite your audience to analyze and debate your ideas. But with storytelling communication, you open their minds and enlist their help.

Storytelling Communication as Simulation

Besides inspiring people to act, storytelling communication tells them how to act and even let them mentally practice responding to a situation. In this way, stories are simulations.

For instance, medical personnel and firefighters often tell each other stories about how they handled crisis situations. The stories are inspiring, but also share information about what works and doesn’t work in such situations. 

For example, in his book Sources of Power, psychologist Gary Klein tells the story of a critical care nurse who noticed an infant’s breathing problem and summoned emergency help. As the staff started the standard emergency procedures, something didn’t seem right to her. She realized the heart monitor was wrong—emergency staff had misdiagnosed the problem and were starting to treat the baby’s lungs instead of his heart. She intervened by knocking a syringe from the neonatologist’s hand and starting heart compressions, which saved the baby’s life.

The story was an inspiring tale of courage and risk on the nurse’s part, but also warned against relying too much on machines and illustrated what to do in a situation like this.

Shop Talk as Simulation

People in other professions also use storytelling communication to inspire and educate coworkers. However, in some cases, the stories go a step further by allowing listeners to mentally practice solving a problem.

For instance, in one study, a pair of Xerox copier technicians told coworkers a story of how, step by step, they diagnosed a difficult problem and fixed it, despite being distracted by an incorrect error code message. As they told the story, their fellow technicians mentally walked with them through the problem, considering the options and steps to take. The story was a mental simulation in which they could practice their own response. 

Studies show that mental rehearsals or simulations lead to more effective responses to real circumstances. For instance, researchers at UCLA asked two groups of students to think about a problem that was stressing them. The first group was told to visualize success, while the second group was asked to simulate the problem, or mentally walk through it from beginning to end. When the groups reported back on how they had coped with their problem, the simulation group members were more likely to have taken steps to solve the problem. They were also more likely to report that their mood had improved and they’d learned from the experience. The lesson is that simulation or practice is more effective than a positive mental attitude in solving problems.

Mental simulation is powerful. Other studies have shown that it can even trigger physical responses, meaning that mentally simulating an action can be much like actually doing it. For instance, when people are given water to drink and told to imagine it’s lemon juice, they salivate more, as if they were actually drinking lemon juice. Similarly, stories act like mental flight simulators, allowing listeners to practice actions they can take. Including these kinds of stories can make your message stickier.

Storytelling communication is a powerful way to make your message stick because of its ability to inspire and educate.

The Role of Storytelling in Communication

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Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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