What Makes a Great Story?

A communicator is in part a storyteller. The story you tell is the “package” into which your communication is placed. The content is what you want to say, the story is the way in which you say it. For the purposes of this article, I’m primarily talking about a story being promotional in nature for ministry, but these suggestions can apply to other areas as well.

Crafting a great story is part of great communication. And it is just that–a craft–a skill to be learned, honed and worked on constantly toward improvement. What make a great story?

The attention-getter. A great story engages you from sentence one. It compells you to listen further, to read on, to engage your attention so you can take in the whole thing. The way you introduce your story sets the tone for the rest of it.

Attention-getters reflect your energy level. In telling your story, are you excited, engaged, attentive to the reader or listener? In other words, do you think you are worth listening to? Are you enthused? That black-and-white flyer with no graphics about your upcoming church Fall Festival is telling a story, believe it or not. It’s asking readers to go to sleep and wake up again when spring comes. We live in a media-rich world. You cannot afford to overlook whether or not you have your audience’s attention. If you have to question whether they are listening–assume they aren’t. Your story must be worth their time. Is it?

Story Sleeper Attention Getter
“It was raining. The sun was down.” “It was a dark and stormy night…”
“Join us for our 32nd Annual…” “An all-new experience this year!”
“It isn’t like us to do this, but we’re going to try it…” “We’ve shocked everyone with this bold new move!”
“Come to worship.” “Don’t dare miss this powerful time of worship and praise.”
“Fun for the whole family.” “Strengthen your relationships like you never thought possible. Be a kid again–with your own kids!”

 The characters. Who are the people of your story? What are their names, where do they come from, what are they like? The characters of your story are those with whom your audience must identify. They form a connection that will make the reader care about what happens to them. Sometimes your character is the event itself–but far better to have a human face attached to it. What is more effective to tell the story of hunger in Africa: a statistic on hunger, or the face of a starving child?

In any ministry-related story, making people the focal point will make it more effective. When you’re telling the story of a ministry event, do you settle on the fact there will be shovels, rakes and hammers? Or do you focus on the people you will be serving? Characters–people–bring out the emotion of any story. Spend generous space in your story on the characters.

The narrative. What are you trying to say? The narrative of your story must make sense. Beginning, middle, end. The story’s plot is more than facts–it’s how the facts unfold. There is room for surprise and delight. Where the characters are a place for emotion, the narrative is a place for clarity. The audience must understand where you are going and why.

Often in ministry we share facts without reason. This frustrates the audience. “There will be no children’s church today.” This sentence in a bulletin would leave more questions than it answers. Instead: “Due to the Thanksgiving holidays, there will be no children’s church today. All children, grades 1-6, should worship with their parents in ‘big church’ this morning. Children’s church resumes on December 1.” Ah! Now it makes sense–and mom and dad know what to do. A fact has now become an explanation. Is this just common sense, or storytelling? Both, actually.

The climax. A great story must have a conclusion. More than an ending–a climax! But not a cliffhanger… In ministry, the climax is most often a call to action or involvement. Come! Do! Be! Enjoy! Experience! Engage! Try! Serve! Share!

Don’t leave the audience hanging. “Our annual community service day is next Saturday.” Great–so what do you want me to do with that? It’s a fact that has no conclusion. What if we add: “Every student and adult needs to be a part of this afternoon event, where your hands-on work will be a witness to those in the community. Come to the church at noon in work clothes, gloves on, and ready to put hand to plow!” Okay–now I have an invitation.

The climax of a good story begs a response. It’s not enough for the audience to “soak it all in.” They need to be pushed to do something with it. This “forced response” is not required in a novel, but in a promotional story, it’s essential. Even the choice to not respond is a response–it’s a choice.

The payoff. An effective story has a payoff. It may be awareness, involvement, “buzz” or interest. It may be emotional or sentimental. It may be challenging. It may even turn some people off. The payoff for a promotional story is that it “does something.” It must be considered by those exposed to it.

When you are promoting, you are writing. Storytelling is a function of communications. Consider each element of the story–start to finish–for maximum effect. It’s not enough to simply be a hose through wich information travels. Take the information, mold it, shape it, highlight it, pull out it’s thrilling side, delve into its emotional potential. Storytelling can make the difference between bland and extraordinary. A great ministry promotion, at the heart, is really just a great story.


Author: Eugene Mason, Communications Director for Cross Pointe Church under the leadership of Dr. James Merritt.