Make Your Book Stand Out with Stories

Stories have the power to make your book unique.

By Virginia McCullough, Co-Founder, The Book Catalysts

Remember all those years ago when you gathered round a campfire listening to stories or sat cross-legged at the library story hour? You were spellbound. Stories have that power over us—then and now. That’s what makes them such powerful tools for all your training, but especially for the books you write.

Today neuroscientists can demonstrate what most of us intuitively knew: We’re wired for stories—we think in stories (also known as anecdotes, examples, and case studies). MRI tests show that stories make our brains light up in ways far more creatively than they do with just facts. Even more importantly, stories help make our messages stick.

Stories make you—and your book—stand out. Today’s book buyers are more likely to choose a book that includes stories, case studies, and even short anecdotes. That’s because these storytelling elements:

  • Grab—and keep—readers’ attention
  • Trigger memories and emotions (where we buy, and buy in)
  • Make your book uniquely yours because no one else has your stories or tells them the way you can

Stories Versus Information
Too many writers and authors still believe that only a formal style can make them sound “professional.” But the days of dry corporate-speak, legalese, and erudite academic prose are behind us, primarily because a “just the facts ma’am” approach presented in pages of dense text won’t grab the attention of today’s busy readers. Most of us suffer from a chronic condition called TMI—too much information—and stories offer a much-needed antidote. Not only do they provide valuable facts, but stories also can:

  • Illuminate and illustrate ideas and facts, systems, and methods
  • Apply information—taking it from the general to the specific
  • Guide the reader from a dry idea to an enriching conclusion, and then on to taking action

Stories have made a comeback in business writing, as well as in other areas of nonfiction from self-help to health, because of this overload of facts and their high-tech methods of delivery. It seems the more information we have, the more we seek connection, meaning, and wisdom. Sure, facts and analysis can bring us those qualities, but stories can do it faster and in ways that engage the heart (and the more creative right brain).

Aha! Now I See What You Mean
A story, with all its details and twists and turns, often leads to an aha! moment that provides the path to deeper meaning and wisdom. In a training book for construction workers, for example, a litany of safety rules is important information to help avoid injuries, but sharing the story of an injured worker grabs attention and engages the imagination as readers form a mental picture of an injured worker. Likewise, publishing a list of policies about delivering great customer service may reach some readers, but sending memos or newsletters with contrasting customer service failure and success stories gives this information emotional oomph. Here, too, each story, whether of dismal failure or exhilarating success, triggers images and pictures that breathe life into the words.

How to Tell a Good Story
Stories, case studies, and anecdotes come in many lengths, but they all share key elements. When you craft stories for your book, keep these essential components in mind:

  1. Hook—Grab readers from the get-go. To start your story, pose a provocative question or mention pain points your readers likely share. (The hook, by the way, is important for your book and all chapter beginnings, whether you start with a story or not. This technique will keep your readers turning pages.)
  2. Set the scene—Open the door to your topic. This step could have an “it all started when” quality, or plunk the reader into the scene—that day the airline personnel handled more than 100 weather-delayed flights and revealed weaknesses in the airline’s emergency procedures. Use the senses to bring the scene to life—let them hear the sounds of distressed travelers and see the frenzy of an overcrowded airport.
  3. Conflict and complications—Now dig deeper into the sticky, emotional issues your readers can relate to. Using the above example, explore the weaknesses in the emergency procedures and how they caused problems for management and passengers. In a short, personal story, you can illustrate a befuddled employee experiencing great frustration over her inability to handle the needs of stranded passengers.
  4. Development—You’ve shared the problem; now pull together all the details. Keep yourdevelopment simple and clear. Help your readers step into the situation with straightforward explanations and descriptions.
  5. Resolution—Offer swift action and clear conclusions. Spell them out—no guessing required. You’ve hooked your readers and described the problem; now offer answers, solutions, relief. Draw the curtain, just as a movie flashes “The End” when the story is over. (In a long story, told over many chapters or over the course of the book, you can create suspense—and keep the pages turning—when you withhold the resolution until later and finally satisfy readers’ curiosity.)
  6. Call to action—What now? In novels and movies, the resolution ends the story, but in nonfiction books, your story may lead readers to take action. In a chapter, for instance, readers simply could be encouraged to keep reading or they could be inspired to change their habits, improve customer service, or increase safety measures.

Take advantage of the lure of stories and start a story inventory today. Spend time recalling and cataloguing your experiences, observations, and anecdotes. Keep your inventory handy so you can easily refer to it when a relevant story would enliven your writing and reinforce your message.

Well-placed stories will hook your readers and keep them reading to gain the information and insights they came for. Along the way, your readers will remember your message—and by association, they’ll remember you.

Virginia McCullough is co-founder of The Book Catalysts. For more information, visit

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