Storytellers Make Choices Before They Start Writing



John Lewis, a UK-based retailer has used storytelling in its annual Christmas adverts since 2007. In this post, we deconstruct one of them by studying the storyteller’s choices.

First, watch the following John Lewis 2011 Christmas advert called The Long Wait.



The Long Wait’s foundation was built upon five story-choices:

  • Story-choice #1: What’s the message? The purpose of any story is to deliver a satisfying ending that inspires an audience to do something. The storyteller chose to achieve this through delivering the proverbial message: It is better to give than to receive.
  • Story-choice #2: How should we deliver that message? The storyteller chose to deliver the message through the pre-Christmas actions of a little boy.
  • Story-choice #3: How should we order the events of this story? The storyteller chose to tell the story through a linear series (A,B,C) of events that demonstrate the slow passage of time. Such events include drumming fingers, staring at a clock, tossing and turning in bed, and the boy’s unsuccessful attempt to make the clock move faster.
  • Story-choice #4: How should the audience interpret the little boy’s motivations? The storyteller chose to obscure the boy’s true motivation by relying on the audience’s preconceived notions about a child’s anticipation of receiving Christmas presents.
  • Story-choice #5: How will we reveal the boy’s true motivation? By having the little boy prioritize his parent’s gift over his own, the storyteller simultaneously reveals the little boy’s true motivation and delivers the main message: it is better to give than to receive.


Storytelling is a series of choices that determine what to say, when to say it, all while being cognizant of how the audience will interpret those things. When done correctly, it’s magic.

Lastly, if you have a copy of The StoryHow PitchDeck (if you don’t, why not?), here’s a list of the cards represented within this story:

The StoryHow Method begins with the following definition: A story is the result (events) of people (roles) pursuing what they want (influences.)



  • Protagonist (#2): Little Boy
  • Antagonist (#3): Time (#5) plays the role of antagonist
  • Minor Characters (#4): The boy’s parents and sibling
  • Time (#5): Time doubles as the role of antagonist (#3)
  • Setting (#6): Little boy’s home at Christmastime



  • Response: Instinctive (#36): The audience’s instinct to assume that the little boy’s motivation is selfish
  • Throughline (#40): The boy’s altruistic motivation to give his parents a Christmas present
  • Who Knows What (#42): The storyteller knows the little boy’s motivation, but hides it from the audience until the very end



  • Recurring Event (#18): Scene-after-scene reveals the slow passage of time
  • Conflict: External (#20): Time is the only thing separating the little boy from the joy of gift-giving
  • Conflict: Internal (#21): The little boy must demonstrate the discipline to wait until Christmas day
  • The Twist (#27): The final revelation that the boy’s motivations were altruistic all along

And finally, the storytelling techniques that accompany the roles, events, and influences.


  • Context (#45): By showing the boy’s actions in the context of Christmas, it’s easier to misdirect the audience from his true motivation
  • Purpose (#46): Deliver the message while attaching it to the John Lewis brand
  • The Big Idea (#48): It is better to give than to receive
  • Scenes (#50): Show events that demonstrate the slow passage of time
  • Challenges (#53): Little boy enduring the slow passage of time
  • Shared Experiences (#55): The storyteller used the audience’s preconceived notions of children at Christmas to obscure the boy’s true motivations
  • Symbolism (#57): The little boy represents youth; snow, presents, and decorated trees represent Christmas; and clocks represent time


Five Minutes to Describe the Story Details of a 38-Second Video

I designed the StoryHow™ PitchDeck to help convert ideas, messages, and presentations into stories. But what if we turned the process around and used it to deconstruct an existing one? Watch this 38-second video and then we’ll use the StoryHow™ method to break it down.


Stories consist of three components: roles, events, and influences. This little story has three roles, eight events, and a slew of influences.


  • Boy in a sports car
  • Girl passenger in the sports car
  • Man in a muscle car


  • The sports car pulls next to the muscle car
  • The boy revs his engine
  • The man ignores
  • The boy flips the bird
  • The girl smiles
  • The man flashes his badge
  • The girl laughs then winks
  • The cop pauses then pulls away slowly

Roles and events reveal the facts of a story, but research suggests that audiences are most interested in the motivations of the characters. So, let’s take a closer look at the influences affecting each event.

The sports car pulls next to the muscle car

A sports car enters the frame with two people. It pulls next to a muscle car that contains a single occupant. What can you tell me about the characters?

The boy: Did you assume that the boy is from a wealthy family? Such an assumption would be consistent with the type of car that he’s driving and the way that he’s dressed. What about his personality? Did you think he was cocky, arrogant, or just being a jerk?

The girl: What’s the girl’s relationship to the boy? Sister? Girlfriend? Based on the situation and information provided, did you assume that she was his girlfriend?

The man: Did you make any assumptions about the man? Perhaps you thought that he was a working-class guy? What about his marital status? Since he’s in a muscle car instead of a minivan, perhaps you assumed that he’s single? What about his age? Since he’s not old enough to be experiencing a midlife crisis, perhaps you thought of him as a “car enthusiast” who does his own mechanic work?

Humans make assumptions. It’s in our nature to interpret the world around us. We can’t help it. So, if you made any of the assumptions listed above, be mindful of the fact that you fabricated each one based upon your prior knowledge of similar situations. In other words, your Neural Story Net manufactured implicit “facts” to augment the explicit ones.

Let’s continue with our implied facts.

The boy revs his engine

Why did the boy rev his engine? Was he just being a jerk? Perhaps he believed that his light Porsche could outrun the man’s heavy Camaro? Maybe he was bluffing? Either way, audiences understand that Vroom! Vroom! is the colloquial sign for “Hey, you wanna race?”

The man ignores

Why did the man ignore the challenge? Perhaps you assumed that he has the wisdom to know better than to street race?

The boy flips the bird

Why did the boy use such an inflammatory gesture? Was he trying to goad the man’s inner caveman into reacting instinctively?

The girl smiles

Why did the girl smile at the cop? Perhaps she knows that nothing threatens the male ego more than a  challenge while in the presence of a pretty woman? Or, maybe she’s sending a message, “So, what are you gonna do, big fella?”

The man flashes his badge

Why did the man show his badge instead of defending his honor (and peeling out) or eating his pride (by letting the punk win)? Was it to make a point? Embarrass the boy in front of his girlfriend? Give him a fair warning?

The girl laughs then winks

Did the girl’s laugh add insult to the boy’s already injured ego? And why did she wink at the man? Was it a private communication of her approval or another message, “So, what are you gonna do now, big fella?”

The cop pauses then pulls away slowly

The cop paused before his slow departure. What was he doing? Contemplating his options to issue a warning, write a ticket, or impound the boy’s car? Or, maybe he remembered the last time he did something stupid to impress a girl?

Finally, what did he accomplish at the end of the story? Did he score a double goal, essentially teaching the boy a memorable lesson while simultaneously maintaining the girl’s admiration? Do you think he felt satisfied as he drove away? How did you feel about his solution?

Storytellers deliver just the right amount of information to convey meaning. Had the storyteller decided to include all of the implied details that we’ve discussed in this article, this video would have been painfully too long to watch. However, by considering the audience’s role in telling the story, the storyteller has maintained a perfect balance between explicit and implicit information.

This video illustrates how one can use both explicit and implicit information to create stories that are rich in detail even if the story is poor on time. How rich, you might ask? This little story employed 23 of the 60 StoryHow™ PitchDeck Cards:

Role cards used in the story:

  • Card #2: Protagonist: The man in the muscle car who is minding his own business until the Porsche shows up
  • Card #3: Antagonist: The boy who decides to challenge the man
  • Card #4: Minor Characters: The girl in the passenger seat, the sports car, and the muscle car
  • Card #6: Setting: Two cars at an intersection
  • Card #9: Catalyst: The girl who’s influencing two guys who want to impress her
  • Card 11: Fatal Flaw: The boy’s immaturity in thinking that impressing a girl is more important than his or her safety.

Event cards used in the story:

  • Card # 16: Initial Impulse: The boy challenges the man to a road dual
  • Card #17: The Ending: The man teaches the boy a lesson while simultaneously maintaining the girl’s admiration
  • Card #20: External Conflict: Street racing is dangerous
  • Card #27: The Twist: The man is actually a cop
  • Card #28: The Mismatched Response: Rather than stepping on the gas pedal passionately, the man flashes his badge matter-of-factly
  • Card # 30: Backstory: Although not explained explicitly, the storyteller left enough clues for the audience to assemble multiple backstories for themselves.

Influence cards used in the story:

  • Card #31: Jeopardy: External: Street racing is dangerous. Internal: A bruised ego
  • Card #32: Emotional Choice: The male ego in the midst of a female
  • Card #33: Logical Choice: The man’s decision to flash his badge. Both the boy and man’s decisions to back down.
  • Card # 40: Throughline: Although the motivations of the characters weren’t explained explicitly, enough clues were left for the audience to figure them out on their own. The boy wants to impress the girl. The man wants to teach the boy a lesson while retaining the girl’s admiration.
  • Card #42: Who Knows What?: The storyteller chose to hide the cop’s identity from the boy, girl, and audience.
  • Card #43: Mistaken Identity: The boy mistook the cop as Joe Shmoe.

Technique cards used in the story:

  • Card #47: Meaning: The moral of the story: Be careful when picking a fight…you never know with whom you’re challenging.
  • Card # 54: Timing/Order: Consider how the story changes if the storyteller had chosen to let the audience in on the joke that the man was a cop. The audience would have felt different about the boy…seeing him as less of a punk and more of a dumb kid about to get his comeuppance.
  • Card #56: Irony: Of all the people the boy could have challenged, what are the odds that he pulls next to an off-duty cop? Fate? Karma?
  • Card #57: Symbolism: A boy in an expensive car screams youth and privilege. The badge represents authority. The girl’s wink communicates a shared moment.
  • Card #60: Contrast: The contrast of youth vs. age, inexperience vs. experience.

Remember that there are always two stories: the story being told and the one being heard. The best storytellers focus on both.

So, what about your own business stories? Think about the roles, events, and influences. Ask yourself about the story being told and the one being heard. Use the StoryHow™ method to deconstruct it. And if you have a copy of the StoryHow™ PitchDeck, identify the cards that are applicable to the story. Perhaps you can learn something to make your story better?


Note: The original movie clip is 1:06 long. Through the magic of YouTube embedding, though, I cut the first 28 seconds because they did nothing to advance the story. Feel free to watch the whole thing to see what I mean.


StoryHow™ PitchDeck

“It’s a deck of playing cards.”
“It’s a business storytelling coach in a box.”
“You’re both right!”

The Comet of the Century

Writing a story for audio is different than one intended for text. Here’s story told each way. Ron presents a personal story through both his 15-year-old podcast (Griddlecakes Radio ®) and a blog post with photographs.

Meaning is Negotiation


Have you ever stated your case so clearly that you knew with certainty that you nailed it? And while you were celebrating your superior communication achievement, have you ever found yourself standing in front of someone who just didn’t get it…at all? If so, you’ve probably fallen victim to a metaphorical mismatch.

Humans use metaphor–the ability to define one thing in terms of something totally different–to understand complex ideas. Essentially, we build upon the concepts learned through the human condition.

Think about the concept of time. Everyone knows what time is because we experienced it everyday. However, if I pressed you to define it, I bet you’d struggle. Exactly how does one describe something we can’t see, hear, smell, touch, or taste?

That’s where metaphor comes in. Rather than describing time directly, we represent it metaphorically through the various ways it affects our lives. For example, we know that time has:

  • Inevitability: There’s nothing that we can do to stop it
  • Motion: Time moves from the past, through the present, and into the future
  • Direction: We can look back in time to see where we’ve been and forward to predict where we’ll be
  • Duration: We’re accustomed to waiting for a process to finish
  • Distance: We describe long time durations in terms of distance, such as looking far into the future or way back in the past
  • Physical effect: We are born young and small, then grow up to become big and old
  • Value: We know that our time is limited, and therefore is a precious commodity.  We’re even paid for our time.

Try finding a few of your own.

The concept of time is so deep, it’s highly likely that all metaphorical references won’t be shared among all people. For example, an old person with less time in front of them may disagree with the statement that “There will be plenty of time to do X, Y, or Z.” . Or, no matter how much truth contained in “Don’t worry, things will get better with time,” someone who’s just suffered a tremendous loss won’t react well to the statement.

If your audience doesn’t believe in the metaphorical bricks that you have built your premise upon, your idea will not only be dead on arrival, but your ability to share your concept will suffer a setback. Consider the worldviews of our example old and young people. By definition, the former has more life experience than the latter, yet many of those life experiences don’t align. While the older person has lived through their twenties, they didn’t live through the twenties in this century. Thus, by choosing to communicate using 20th-century metaphors on 21st-century belief systems risks instant slap-backs, as in with the trendy “Okay, Boomer.”

Metaphor is a negotiation because it requires speakers to understand the worldview of their listeners before stating a case. Without understanding your listener’s metaphorical belief structure, it’s easy to step into a hornets nest of misinterpretation.

The conveyance of meaning is fickle because we each interpret information differently. Your goal as a communicator is to find the best metaphor through testing and conversation. If you can find a similar–not necessarily identical–life experience to build your complex concept upon, you’ll have found a successful frame of reference to base your argument.


Photo Credit: Benjamin Franklin and Richard Oswald discussing the Treaty of Peace Paris. , 1898. Photograph.