Crafting Powerful Stories

open bookAuthor Candie Blankman

My father survived three and half years of brutality as a POW in WWII. In March I was asked to tell his story at the mayor’s prayer breakfast. At the conclusion over 300 people, including about 50 active US Marines, gave a standing ovation. I have told this story before in a variety of venues to widely different audiences. What happened here? What made the story so powerful?

I have learned that the power of storytelling is not only in the emotions they evoke or in the immediate response. The real power of storytelling is how they inspire others to act. Inspiration is a result of good preparation. And good preparation requires asking three questions about the story.

Why tell the story?

Stories told with a purpose go beyond moving people emotionally and move them to think and act differently. There are lots of good reasons to tell my dad’s story. This mayor’s prayer breakfast was intentionally Christian and so I determined my purpose in telling dad’s story was to demonstrate that the grace of God is greater than any human evil. My father’s story is full of this reality and it makes it very powerful. But I only had 20-25 minutes. How was I to honor the integrity of my dad’s story and inspire in the time allotted? Powerful story telling requires answering a second question.

 What parts of the story should I tell?

I could talk for hours about my father’s experience. But if my purpose is to demonstrate God’s grace then I will tell only those parts of the story that most clearly communicate this fact. My father encountered the depths of man’s inhumanity to man. But in several instances God’s grace in his life allowed him to rise above the treachery and grace triumphed over evil. In the time I had I told the parts of four stories demonstrating that grace is greater. This requires practice and timing. I do not want to run out of time and not finish the story! But how do I tell these stories in such a way that my purpose will be clearly understood? Powerful storytelling answers why and what, but it also answers how.

How to tell the story?

I have written a book about my father’s story so I know it well enough I could do it without even thinking much. But if I want to go beyond emotionally moving people and inspire them, I must think carefully about how to tell the story. Some stories speak for themselves and need little explanation. Other stories are more subtle or have elements of irony that we cannot always be sure people will understand why we are telling them. The importance of how we tell the story is in determining this fact. Does the story clearly and simply convey the purpose? Or, is some explanation needed. In this case, the dramatic nature of my father’s story was pretty clear. But to be sure the purpose was understood, after each of the four stories I told about my father I simply paused and said, “Grace is greater.”

I knew why I was telling the story. I chose what parts of the story that would most clearly lead to that purpose. Then I determined how to tell the stories. They needed little explanation other than a recurring reminder of why I was telling them—grace is greater! Bam! You could have heard a pin drop throughout the 25 minutes I spoke and at the end, a standing ovation, mostly for my father and others like him who served and sacrificed. More important, in the weeks since that talk, many people have taken the time to tell me that my father’s story inspired them to actually think differently or take a new course of action. Now that’s a powerful story!

Can you identify the last time you were moved to action by a story that you heard? What was it about the story or the way it was told that inspired you to do something? 

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Candie Blankman is a pastor, storyteller, speaker, painter, and speaking coach dedicated to excellence in communication and to inspiring audiences of one or a thousand.

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