How To Tell A Story People Will Never Forget

[Photo by Very Quiet.]

5 rules for deep storytelling that go beyond the obvious.

I already write a lot about what makes a good story. Equally as important, however, is how you tell it.

If you’ve ever told a good story but failed to get an engaged response, it’s likely because you weren’t opening the world of that story wide enough so that the audience could step inside of it.

The stories we carry with us are carefully wrapped and sealed memories in our minds. We create mental frameworks and language structures around them in order to preserve what’s inside.

But if you want others to experience that story the way you did, you’ll need to pry away some of those layers in order to let them in.

The stories people remember — whether they are brand stories, personal tales or cultural narratives — are the ones that reveal something about the listener, and you can’t do that if you‘re stuck in the perspective of the teller.

Memorable stories also follow some common patterns:

  • Repetition: Themes, poetry, recurring feeling… these are the things we are often left with in a good story. If you ever read Love You Forever as a child (or parent), I guarantee the repetition of that book stayed with you for years later into life.
  • Surprises: Emotional or otherwise. The surprise character, the surprise twist, the surprise ending… but nothing comes close to the surprise realization. Think of the epiphany you experienced watching The Matrix, Jurassic Park, Philadelphia or Super Size Me for the first time. We all walked into the theater one person, and out another.
  • Proof: The proof is in the delivery. If the story tells me something, then the delivery demonstrates its validity. Whether it’s the simplicity, passion, poeticism, authority or conviction of that delivery, it’s how it’s told that matters. Look at any popular TED Talk and you’ll see why.

From these patterns come 5 rules for deep storytelling that we’ll dive into in the next section:

1. Make the first sacrifice.
2. Trade the lesson for the theme.
3. Create pockets of emotional contrast.
4. Don’t give them a chance to ask.
5. Make your claim, then explain it.

As you read, you’ll notice they’re not so much about communicating a story to your audience, but rather creating a shared experience with them.

That shared experience dissolves the separation between you and the listener/ reader/ spectator, so that they may be able to walk inside the same universe you’re revisiting.

If done right, you will cause a small change in others, just as the story created a change within you.

Effective stories leave both you and the audience as different people by the end.

Know where that end point is, and then use these principles to help get them there.


1. Make the first sacrifice.

Storytelling is an exchange where one offers something, and asks the other for their attention in return.

It‘s a clear give and take, just as you might feel in a conversation with a stranger on the subway or a sales clerk — through their intonations and reactions, you will quickly know just how willing they are to exchange with you.

Your first words are the invitation to an intimate trade.

The sooner you can sense the willingness coming (or not coming) from the other side, the sooner you’ll be able to control how the trade plays out.

Conventional wisdom says to open with a personal anecdote in order to create a connection with your audience, but that’s not good advice.

We all have anecdotes, and just because they are personal doesn’t mean the audience will care.

What people do care about, however, is the gesture of sacrifice.

A sacrifice is an intimate piece of yourself that reveals how you view the world.

Scott Galloway consistently makes the first sacrifice in his No Mercy/ No Malice blog. Each post masterfully raises the stakes at the top of the exchange.

In the opening for his recent post ‘What Is Heaven?’, he surfaces an unmistakable emotional fingerprint:

Read the full post (highly recommended) here.

This could have easily been a two-dimensional personal anecdote, but instead, he ventured into personal thoughts that expose his view of the world as it was formed. We were actually given something beneath the surface of the story, and that gesture compelled us to move deeper.

In such a moment of vulnerability, you’re offering something of true value — your emotional fingerprint and unique context that signals where the exchange may go.

It is this gesture, not the story or personal anecdote, that communicates your willingness to trade. Your audience can either rise to meet your willingness or shy away from it, but the one thing they cannot do is remain indifferent.

The first sacrifice works because it operates on persuasion.

A recent study by a team of research psychologists in Texas found that when it comes to persuasive communication, framing your relationship with the other party can be enough to sway someone to your will.

A group of dating couples was recruited in order to see if different communication styles yielded different results in relationship negotiation.

The act of framing the relationship worked significantly better than coercion or even rationalization.

…there was a third set of communicators who employed a breathtakingly simple and successful procedure that we term the relationship-raising approach. Before making a request for change from their partner, they merely made mention of their existing relationship.

They might say, “You know, we’ve been together for a while now” or “We’re a couple; we share the same goals.” Then, they’d deliver their appeal: “So, I’d appreciate it if you could find a way to change your stand on this one.” Or, in the most streamlined version of the relationship-raising approach, these individuals simply incorporated the pronouns “we,” “our,” and “us” into their request.

Similarly, storytelling is a negotiation for time and attention.

Framing it in the context of a human relationship can tip the negotiation in your favor… and there is nothing more human than a revealing gesture or intimate offering.

When Galloway says he’s “pretty sure she’s standing in a corner in hell”, he is framing our relationship in a common empathy. Yes, we agree with his worldview, and we want more.

Saying you had a bad early experience with religion is a common refrain with little to offer. Describing how that early experience changed your childhood, your view of your mother in the corporate world, and your relationship with your own children is a true offering.

You can’t just tell the story. You have to give it.

2. Trade the lesson for a theme.

Most people don’t understand how a theme can transform a story, but look no further than some of our favorite cultural narratives and the effect is undeniable.

If we look at recent Pulitzer Prize winning novels and ask ourselves, “what was the point of this story?” it might be hard to immediately say. There may have been no real point or moral to the story to begin with.

If, however, we asked for themes, then the answers jump right out.

Narrative themes come from undeniable human truths that drive every outcome to the same place.

To give your story a theme is to give it an irresistible human depth. Themes reveal themselves over and over again, in different forms, but always constant.

We internalize themes more readily than lessons or morals to the story because instead of learning them, we rediscover them.

Narrative themes are a device we see a lot in television, too.

Have you ever noticed that some of your favorite episodes show different character arcs all revolving around the same thematic message?

In the Parks and Recreations episode End of the World (S4 E6), every character is living out the undeniable life theme of “having to let go of the past in order to move into the future”.



Leslie and Ben finally confront the reality of their breakup as Shauna Malwae-Tweep begins to enter the picture, Tom and Jean-Ralphio shutter their entertainment startup with a massive party where Tom gets closure with an ex, April and Andy finish off Andy’s bucket list as a newly wed couple, and it’s all couched in the story of the Reasonabilists — a cult that is celebrating the end of the world in a Pawnee park.

Everyone is exploring the same theme, but in different ways.

There may be no lesson or point, but the show’s story moves forward in a deeply satisfying way.

The same thing happened in most episodes of The Office, as it does each Sunday night in Westworld.

Themes thread a story together. They create a rich bedrock of feeling that everything else is built upon.

Even when we can’t remember the details of a good story, the theme helps us remember how we felt when we heard it.

3. Create pockets of emotional contrast.

We remember moments of heightened emotion more than other memories.

That’s why stories that compel an emotional response are the ones we tend to remember and repeat. It’s because scientifically speaking, emotion helps encode the story in our brains.

But other than following the conventional advice to communicate with passion and use strings of emotive words, how do we effectively draw out emotion in our audience?

By focusing on the distance between emotional states in the progression of a story.

Emotion is created in the contrasts.

Emotional responses are relative, and you can craft your story in a way that highlights the emotional fluctuations of your narrative as it moves forward.

In his 2014 speech to the graduating class of Maharishi University of Management, Jim Carrey created great distance between emotional highs and lows, one after another, in quick succession.



When he begins to tell his personal story about halfway through the speech, Carrey steadfastly traverses loss, glee, fear, silliness, irreverence, pride and sobering vulnerability without losing a beat.

He deliberately paired together contrasting emotions to create deep pockets of contrast.

Any time the emotion changes in a story, you can create a pocket that invites the audience in.

This goes for brand stories as well.

D2C (Direct to Consumer) brands have to be especially smart in how they position their stories because it’s often the story, not the product, that they’re actually selling.

Biossance, like many upstart beauty brands, has a social cause tied into their business model. But unlike most other brands, they turned that do-good message into an effective emotional spark point:

“A world changed” isn’t about doing good or donating to a cause. It’s about a very tangible epiphany. A new truth.

Brand-led companies like this have a specific point of view, and their stories demonstrate their commitment to it.

Others create emotional contrast through similar ‘aha’ moments — where once life was one way, and now it’s not.

Hims has a very lighthearted story and tone, but their ‘aha’ moment is quite evocative:

“We call bullshit” reverses generations of harmful gendered stereotypes.

You can move the pivot points of your story forward by using ‘aha’ moments, epiphanies and pockets of emotional contrast.

These are great devices for creating the spark that makes a story stick in peoples’ minds.

4. Don’t give them a chance to ask.

One of the most important principles we work into our branding and sales strategies for clients at Concept Bureau is to answer the question before it’s been asked.

Any time you’re telling a story — whether it’s regaling friends at a party, pitching a client, winning team buy-in or soft selling an idea — it’s imperative to anticipate the needs of your audience so that no questions arise.

If you give your listener a chance to ask, “wait, how did that happen?” or “hold on, didn’t you feel scared?”, you’ve lost control of your narrative.

And chances are you won’t even be able to answer the questions in the first place. Most people ask in their heads, but never out loud. Then they zone out and you have no chance at owning their interest again.

I listened to Howard Stern during a year of free Sirius XM that came with my new car, and despite my ambivalent feelings on the nature of his content, I couldn’t deny just how masterful an interviewer he was.

There was one interview so good, I sat in my parked car for 20 minutes after my bootcamp class had started, and nearly missed my session altogether:



Gossipy indulgence aside… why was it so good?

Because Howard Stern pushed Franco to answer the burning questions in our minds when he sensed Franco wasn’t giving them to us.

Howard Stern, not Franco, made the story emerge.

He gently guided the conversion so that no question lingered in our minds for more than a moment.

We’ve all been on the other side of that conversation where someone may be talking in detail, but fails to anticipate the things we are curious about. That makes for a frustrating and un-memorable experience.

You can certainly build tension with the plot of your story, but don’t create tension with the details.

Memorable stories anticipate the things we will be curious about.

There’s an old political adage that says “If you’re explaining, you’re losing.” That’s basically all you need to know on this point.

If there is a lingering question, you’ve created distance between you and your listener.

Even if your story is written or presented asynchronously with your audience, imagine your listeners are in the room with you. Let them interrupt you and guide how to move forward.

When there is nothing to ask, people can give themselves fully to the narrative.

5. Make your claim, then explain it.

Most people do this in the reverse order.

We often explain and explain until we finally arrive at our point.

Confident people make their bold point up front and then follow with an explanation. It’s not only more satisfying for the listener, it’s also an effective way to convey authority.

Making your claim first is like putting your flag on a map.

It’s like saying, ‘This is where I am taking you. Now let me show you how we will get there.’ If you reverse that sentiment, it loses all of its power.

Warby Parker does exactly this with their About page (red underline added):

The story first plots each point with conviction, and then explains how they arrived at that point.

Although it may seem a bit stilted and counterintuitive in practice, writing a story this way creates an authoritative voice that much easier to trust and follow.

Compare that to the story of the Australian eyewear label Pared:

This is just as true a story as Warby Parker’s, but notice how different this chronological telling is when there is no mapping of strong points for the audience to tether themselves to.

Not only is there no structure, but there is no memorable anchor to internalize. If there are meaningful points, they are buried in a stream of consciousness.

To tell a strong story, lay out your claims at the top of each arc.



Many of the keys to being a good storyteller are the same things that make you a good communicator.

Unforgettable stories are the ones that make people realize something about themselves.

Make them take a side.

Force them to reconcile something in their heads.

Change their worldview (no matter how slightly).

Stepping outside of yourself, making the memory come alive and creating a shared experience with your audience are, more simply put, just ways to lower the barrier between you and another person.

If you have a great story to share, make sure you’re sharing it in a way people can truly experience.


The Magical Art of Making People Move with Brand Tension

A pinch of salt can make things sweeter. A dose of discomfort can make your brand stronger.

When Nike first told us to Just Do It in 1988, they weren’t telling us to follow the biggest athletes of the time — the very athletes in their commercials — and plan a life of greatness.

No, they were saying something quite different.

Nike was telling us to stop paying attention to the rules and go against conventional wisdom. Ignore the proven models. Ignore the winners and losers. Ignore if you should or shouldn’t. Ignore the superstars on Nike’s payroll.

Don’t use your brain. Just do it.

Nike was the first major brand that told you to do something without rationally thinking about it.

Do you feel that?

It’s tension. It forces you to stop and make a decision.

It pulls you close to the message or pushes you away from it, but it never lets you stay where you are.

Seth Godin talks a lot about the value of tension in a brand, and I credit him for making the concept a holy grail of modern brand storytelling.

But where does tension come from?

And how do you delicately create tension that pushes your customers to move without pushing them so far that their connection to the brand snaps?

I define brand tension as a sense of discomfort that pushes target customers to convert, and non-targets to walk away.

Tension turns a group of neutral people into die-hard lovers and haters.

It’s the polarizing element that suddenly makes your brand matter.

….and most importantly, it forces action.

Tension happens when something is pulled by opposite forces, and can manifest in many different ways:

  • Uncertainty of the unknown
  • Pushback against the norm
  • Juxtaposition of what is vs. what could be
  • A unique or remarkable opinion

Don’t confuse it with shock value or stunt marketing, which may look and feel like tension, but is instead a form of short term emotional highjacking.

When Kendall Jenner bought the world a Pepsi, it didn’t feel good. Don’t do that. Positive tension is, above all else, genuine and speaks to a larger reality.

In the art of creating tension, there’s just one important truth to keep in mind: If you want to create tension, you have to come to grips with the fact that you must, by definition, not speak to everyone.

Nike may have mass appeal today, but the Just Do It slogan didn’t speak to everyone in the beginning. Moreover, the concept of doing without thinking — which has propelled the widely accepted notion that “thinking about what you are doing, as you are doing it, interferes with performance” — may not be entirely true.

(Fun fact: it was recently revealed that the phrase was inspired by a murderer’s famous last words. Even the origin has tension.)

However from today’s perspective, Nike is an easy example.

Let’s dig into some more current brands that achieve tension in different ways. Watch this video for an overview, and then continue with the article for even more examples:



You’ll see there’s different paths to getting there and, with some time and observation, you’ll likely start seeing a treasure trove of invisible tension in the branded world around you.


Tension Hotspots In Today’s Brand Landscape

Dyson’s Higher Ground: Permission to care about the mundane

Five to ten years ago, Dyson was synonymous with vacuums in America, and for many people, a vacuum is a vacuum.

So when they first started airing dark, moody, near-spiritual ads for their new ball technology, featuring Sir James Dyson, not everyone got it. Certainly not my family, who laughed at the TV every time it came on.

But Dyson wasn’t speaking to them.

They were on the leading edge of a new message that created tension between what is vs. what could be.



This was a vacuum that stood as a remarkable piece of engineering.

There was a science behind it. An inventor. Something so beautiful and noteworthy, that Sir Dyson literally signed his very name to the product like an artist would.

Back then, this wasn’t even really about the vacuum. What we didn’t realize was that it was about the motor inside of it.

As Benedict Evans has recently pointed out:



That means every chance they had, Dyson doubled down on the motor story. They constantly pushed that position until we came to see Dyson not as a vacuum company, but something much, much bigger.

Dyson quickly became a brand that we’d happily pay a steep premium to for everything from air purifiers to electric cars.

They knew motors… and if you need a piece of elite equipment with a motor in it, you go to Dyson.

Tension frees you from the limits of your industry.

The 4-Hour Anything: We’ve been doing it all wrong

From the 4-Hour Workweek, to 4-Hour Chef, 4-Hour Body and now Tribe of Mentors, Tim Ferris’ point of tension comes from the silent narrative that underscores all of hacking culture – “we’ve been doing it all wrong this whole time.”

This story is especially effective today where the disillusioned masses are looking for both a new truth they can believe in, and control in a world where they feel let down by old social systems, cultural constructs, and corporate control.

Just as the world of wellness (Moon Juice, SoulCycle, Goop) has popped up to supplant traditional medicine… the 4-Hour series is the new standard of self-improvement.

The real power of all of these platforms, including Ferris’s, is that they prime the user for a very different kind of experience.

I personally wouldn’t put Ferris’s body of work in the same category as something like Goop, but on a branding level they operate in a similar way— “Forget what you were taught. We’ve discovered the new truth.”

When you come into an experience like that, you leave your old biases at the door and use the product with fresh eyes.

I can tell you that for me personally, the 4-Hour message is what made the 4-Hour Body such a unique and rewarding experience. That inherent tension changed my behavior, and results, from Day 1.

You drop old metrics. You forget past disappointments. Your brain doesn’t even call this a “diet”.

That’s what tension can do for you.

Opencare’s Health Proposition: It was never about the illness

When we started working with Opencare in September of this year, we had an interesting challenge before us.

How do you get healthy millennials to understand the value of preventative care, and prime them for a very different kind of experience, with a very different kind of doctor?

We realized that there was a hidden bias sitting on top of an interesting tension point.

We invincible millennials believe that doctors are only for bringing us back to a baseline in times of illness. Doctors aren’t there to make us stronger or superhuman. They’re there to stop making us feel sick.

Because Opencare Activated Doctors are specially enabled to make patients feel better than they ever have before (from the moment they make an appointment to years later when they’re living an elevated life), we knew we had to put pressure on that tension point in a simple and eloquent way.

Thus came the concept of:

“Doctors that see your true health potential.”

Opencare’s target market rarely realizes just how powerful the right doctor can be — not merely in treating illness, but rather as a partner for life.

It was a drastic departure from the current health narrative that surrounds us, and created a valuable tension that forced consumers to move. Health was no longer about loss prevention. Now it was about value creation.

As rollout begins with Opencare’s dental vertical, we’re seeing the tension-driven position already start to change the way people engage with the platform.

Which would you rather do? See a doctor when you feel sick, or collaborate with a doctor who can design a new level of health you never imagined before?

Tension changes the story.


The Truth Of Tension

You know a tension-driving message when you hear one. They tend to be simple. They tend to be big. They will always cause movement in the consumer.

…and they have a special super power where they can live and evolve in meaning over time, without necessarily changing in language.

Nike could have just copy+pasted their original positioning into the Chinese market, but they were very smart not to. The Just Do It that we are familiar with would not have resonated with young Chinese consumers who define themselves within a very different cultural construct than Americans.

For China, they took a subtly (but powerfully) different approach:


Just Do It, as introduced to the Chinese market.


As Helen Wang has pointed out, Nike took the same words and imbued them with an alternate meaning:

The ad seems to be about sports. But it is more than that. It addresses the internal tension that the Chinese are experiencing everyday.

In a society of Confucius tradition, young people are expected to “glorify” their families with academic advancement and financial success. They are constantly under pressure to fulfill family and society’s expectations. In addition, Chinese culture is very collective. People tend to do what their peers think is cool and trendy.

The lyrics of the video inspires a defiant attitude toward conventional wisdom. “You don’t have to do it for the glory. You don’t have to do it to be famous… You don’t have to do it to be like others…. You don’t have to do it this way or that way.” As it turns out, there isn’t a right way to do any of it at all. All you need is to “Just Do It.”

Similarly, Tim Ferris’ 4-Hour brand has grown beyond the concept of work to include food, diet, leadership and life hacks.

The 4-Hour language may not perfectly map on the surface — apparent in something like the title of his book The 4-Hour Body — but on a deeper level it actually does.

If you engage with his master brand you quickly understand that 4 hours is not about linear time. It’s about shifting one’s focus so that time becomes less and less relevant.

That concept can grow to cover just about anything. If Ferris wanted to release the 4-Hour Relationship, it would still work.



The Connections We Feel But Don’t See

Here are some questions to ask yourself, which can help guide you toward a good point of tension in your brand:

  1. What truths or realities are my consumers internally struggling with? What new truth does my product reveal to them?
  2. If my product is the hero, who (or what) is the enemy?
  3. What immovable rules do my target customers abide by every day?
  4. Is there an ‘aha’ moment in the customer experience that changes them internally?
  5. What other experiences or products create a good tension for my users?

Most importantly, pay attention to the signals around you and see where you begin to feel an interesting unease. Sometimes someone else’s model for tension can inspire something in your own endeavor.



The concept of tension reminds me of an Isaac Asimov quote:

The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny…’

People want solutions. That’s important. But when you force them to make a new connection on a deeper level, that takes them somewhere interesting.

That tension forces them to see something that they either didn’t want to see, or were unable to see before. It’s a moment that makes them stop and consider what they took to be true.

If you can be the brand that gives them that moment, you‘ll be the one that matters.

You can watch a video where I go deeper into the topic of tension, here.