The Story Factor

Inspiration, Influence, and Persuasion through the Art of Storytelling


By Annette Simmons

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Fully revised, updated, and expanded, this modern classic will teach you to use the art of storytelling to persuade, motivate, and inspire in life and business

Anyone seeking to influence others must first know their own story, and how to tell it properly. Whether you’re proposing a risky new venture, trying to close a deal, or leading a charge against injustice, you have a story to tell. Tell it well and you will create a shared experience with your listeners that can have profound results.

In this modern classic, Annette Simmons reminds us that the oldest tool of influence is also the most powerful. Fully revised and updated to account for new technology and social media, along with two new chapters on the role of stories in the development of civilization and how to adjust your story to your specific goal, Simmons showcases over a hundred examples of effective storytelling drawn from the front lines of business and government, as well as myths, fables, and parables from around the world. Whether writing a screenplay, or announcing a corporate reorganization, Simmons illustrates how story can be used in ways that cold facts, bullet points, and directives can’t. These stories, combined with practical storytelling techniques, show anyone how to become a more effective communicator and achieve their goals.


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I AM DEEPLY INDEBTED to Doug Lipman for teaching me so much about storytelling. For years he has been my coach and mentor. This book would not have been possible if it weren’t for Doug Lipman.

Thank you, to all the other wonderful people who have contributed to my education: Jenny Armstrong, Cheryl De Ciantis, Jim Farr, Cindy Franklin, Stephen Gilligan, Ray Hicks, Kenton Hyatt, Pam McGrath, Jay O’Callahan, Ed Stivender, and so many others.

People who have generously shared their stories include Robert Cooper, John Kristoff, Cindy Franklin, David Finch, Dick Mueller, Marti Smye, Steve Wirth, and all of the wonderful workshop participants who gave me permission to share their stories.

Thank you to Pam Wilhelms for taking a risk on teaching storytelling as a leadership skill and to Alan Downs, who tenaciously insisted I write this book.

Many of the stories in this book came from a few very special books: Wisdom Tales from Around the World by Heather Forest and Peace Tales by Margaret Read Macdonald have been major resources, and I highly recommend both of these books.

In addition to those listed above, I am very grateful to Milbre Burch, Karen Dietz, Elizabeth Ellis, David Hutchens, Millie Jackson, Loren Niemi, Delanna Reed, Jo Radner, Laura Simms, Kiran Singh Sirah, Brian Sturm, Jimmy Neil Smith, and Joseph Sobol—all vital contributors to the storytelling community. I give my undying gratitude to my editors Sherry Decker, Stephen Brewer, Leah Stecher, and Claire Potter. And to all of the people who encouraged me to tackle the tough stuff in this third edition: S. Max Brown, Lisa Bloom, Michele Carter, Robin Clawson, Christina Columbo, Peter Fruhmann, Margaret Goodacre, Laura Guyer, Michael Gushue, Frances Kelley, Kathy Klotz-Guest, Valerie Loridans, Jim May, Michael McCarty, Cassie McDaniel, Julie Mundy-Taylor, Ted Parkhurst, Jim Pekar, Thaler Pekar, Kay T. Miller, Neil Stockley, Randall Trani, and all the rest. Thank you.

Annette Simmons


IN 1992, I sat in the cool October breeze, surrounded by four hundred others in a tent in Jonesborough, Tennessee, waiting to hear the next storyteller. The group ranged from rich to poor, city types to country folk, professors to sixth-grade graduates. Next to me was a gray-bearded farmer type in overalls with an NRA button on his cap. As an African American man got up to speak, this man turned to his wife and whispered something in an irritated tone that included the word “nigra.” I mentally dared him to say it again. Instead he folded his arms and started examining the construction of the tent’s roof. The African American storyteller began to tell us his story of a lonely night during the 1960s deep in the heart of Mississippi. He and the six other activists feared the dangers they would face by marching the next morning. He described how they stared into the campfire as one of them began to sing. The singing calmed their fears. His story was so real we could feel the fear and see the light of the campfire. Then he asked us to sing with him. We did. “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” vibrated out of our throats like a four hundred pipe organ. Next to me, the farmer man sang, too. I saw a tear roll down his rough red cheek. I had just witnessed the power of story. If a radical African American activist could touch the heart of an ultraconservative racist farmer—well, I wanted to know how to do that, too.

This book is what I have learned over the past three decades about story and about the power of story to persuade and influence. My personal story is to learn, share everything I’ve learned, and earn the right to learn some more. You will find here everything I know about using story to influence others.

Along the way I learned that I can’t share what I’ve learned in the traditional manner of “how to” books. In order to learn about influence, we must leave the comfort of models, linear sequences, and step-by-step recipes. The magic of influence is less in what we say and more in how we say it and who we are. This “how/who” stuff defies categories, definition, and rational analysis. Influence results from how others feel about you and your goals. In the realm of feelings and emotions (by definition, irrational), ideas aren’t organized in the traditional sense. Attempts to organize ideas about communication and influence only create step-by-step, one-size-fits-all models that sound good but don’t work. They don’t adapt well and are too hard to remember under stress (which is just about all the time).

Explaining storytelling is like explaining a kitten. We all know about kittens. We have wonderful memories of kittens—children holding kittens, watching kittens play, petting a kitten. Our memories are a meaningful whole. Trying to break them down into pieces is like cutting a kitten in half in order to understand it. Half a kitten isn’t really half a kitten. Breaking storytelling down into pieces, parts, and priorities destroys it. There are some truths that we just know; we can’t prove them, but we know them to be true. Storytelling moves us into the place where we trust what we know, even if it can’t be measured, packaged, or validated empirically.

This book provides your rational left brain with enough structure so it will relax a bit. However, most of this book speaks to your right brain. The secrets of storytelling and influence reside in the creative side of you that understands the nebulous truths about kittens, stories, and influence. This side may have been tyrannized by the false assumption that if you can’t explain what you know, then you must not know it. Not true. In fact, there is wisdom in you that you don’t even know you know. Once you begin to trust your wisdom, you can use it to influence others to find their own wisdom.

Your wisdom and power to influence are waiting for you, like a bag of magic beans you shoved in a drawer and forgot. This book is designed to help you rediscover that bag of magic beans, to rediscover the oldest tool of influence in human history—telling a good story. Storytelling is not limited to fairy tales or traditional folktales. Telling a good story is like giving a mini-documentary of what you have seen so others can see it, too. It is a way to mine deep down and touch the tender heart of the most defensive adversary or power-hungry scoundrel currently obstructing your path or withholding the resources you need to achieve what you want to achieve. If you don’t believe that the scoundrel has a heart, then your first assignment is to go watch How the Grinch Stole Christmas one more time. Everyone has a heart. (There aren’t nearly as many sociopaths as you think.) Everyone, deep down, wants to be proud of their lives and feel like they are important—this is the vein of power and influence you can access through storytelling.

In this book I frequently use my own stories and myself as an example. I’ve tried to minimize the “I” word, but storytelling is personal. My hope is that by talking about my stories, you will start thinking about your own stories. You will find that your best stories will be about things that happened to you. All choices are ultimately personal choices, and if you want to influence people’s choices you will find that the most powerful form of influence is always personal. Don’t buy the BS that your issue isn’t personal. If it is important, it is personal. You don’t have to amputate part of your soul to be influential. In fact, your soul tells the most moving story of all. Go tell your story; the world needs it.



To be a person is to have a story to tell.


SKIP LOOKED into the sea of suspicious stockholders and wondered what might convince them to follow his leadership. He was thirty-five, looked thirteen, and was third-generation rich. He could tell they assumed he would be an unholy disaster as a leader. He decided to tell them a story. “My first job was drawing the electrical engineering plans for a boat building company. The drawings had to be perfect because if the wires were not accurately placed before the fiberglass form was poured, a mistake might cost a million dollars, easy. At twenty-five, I already had two master’s degrees. I had been on boats all my life and frankly, I found drawing these plans a bit… mindless. One morning I got a call at home from a $6-an-hour worker asking me, ‘Are you sure this is right?’ I was incensed. Of course I was sure—‘Just pour the damn thing.’ When his supervisor called me an hour later and woke me up again and asked, ‘Are you sure this is right?’ I had even less patience. ‘I said I was sure an hour ago and I’m still sure.’

“It was the phone call from the president of the company that finally got me out of bed and down to the site. If I had to hold these guys by the hand, so be it. I sought out the worker who had called me first. He sat looking at my plans with his head cocked to one side. With exaggerated patience I began to explain the drawing. But after a few words my voice got weaker and my head started to cock to the side as well. It seems that I had (being left-handed) transposed starboard and port so that the drawing was an exact mirror image of what it should have been. Thank God this $6-an-hour worker had caught my mistake before it was too late. The next day I found this box on my desk. The crew bought me a remedial pair of tennis shoes for future reference. Just in case I got mixed up again—a red left shoe for port, and a green right one for starboard. These shoes don’t just help me remember port and starboard. They help me remember to listen even when I think I know what’s going on.” As he held up the shoebox with one red and one green shoe, there were smiles and smirks. The stockholders relaxed a bit. If this young upstart had already learned this lesson about arrogance, then he might have learned a few things about running companies, too.


People don’t want more information. They are up to their eyeballs in information. They want faith—faith in you, your goals, your success, in the story you tell. It is faith that moves mountains, not facts. Facts do not give birth to faith. Faith needs a story to sustain it—a meaningful story that inspires belief in you and renews hope that your ideas indeed offer what you promise. Genuine influence goes deeper than getting people to do what you want them to do. It means people pick up where you left off because they believe. Faith can overcome any obstacle, achieve any goal. Money, power, authority, political advantage, and brute force have all, at one time or another, been overcome by faith.

Story is your path to creating faith. Telling a meaningful story means inspiring your listeners—coworkers, leaders, subordinates, family, or a bunch of strangers—to reach the same conclusions you have reached and decide for themselves to believe what you say and do what you want them to do. People value their own conclusions more highly than yours. They will only have faith in a story that has become real for them personally. Once people make your story their story, you have tapped into the powerful force of faith. Future influence will require very little follow-up energy from you and may even expand as people recall and retell your story to others.

Whether your story is told through your lifestyle or in words, the first criterion people require before they allow themselves be influenced by your story is, can they trust you? The story above demonstrates that even a zillionaire can have trouble influencing others. If influence were simply a function of power or money, Skip would have it made. He has power and money. But there are times when being rich and powerful is actually a disadvantage. Is his story a form of manipulation? Possibly. If it were purely manipulation, it would begin to unravel as soon as Skip stopped talking. When a manipulator isn’t maintaining his web of influence, the web falls apart. Manipulation (getting people to believe a story that isn’t true) demands constant energy to maintain the scam, and the lack of ethics becomes a new norm. Frankly, manipulation is an inferior method of influence for long-term results. There is a much more powerful source of influence available to anyone with experience as a human being—telling an authentically persuasive story.

There are six types of stories that will serve you well in your efforts to influence others.

1. “Who I Am” Stories

2. “Why I Am Here” Stories

3. “The Vision” Stories

4. “Teaching” Stories

5. “Values in Action” Stories

6. “I Know What You Are Thinking” Stories

Those you wish to influence begin with two major questions: Who are you, and why are you here? Until these questions are answered, who can possibly trust what you say? The stockholders Skip wanted to influence wanted to know who the hell he was before they were willing to listen. Most of them had already decided he was just a rich kid playing at being a businessman. Skip had to replace the “we can’t trust him” stories that his listeners were already telling themselves with a new story that inspired faith in him and his ideas.

Skip could have said, “Yes, I’m rich, young, and I just bought controlling interest in your company, but don’t worry… I’m not a know-it-all. I can be trusted.” Technically, those words send the same message as the story he told. Yet the difference between the impact of his story and the impact of simply assuring them that “I can be trusted” is vast. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a story is worth a thousand assurances.

Before you attempt to influence anyone, you need to establish enough trust to successfully deliver your message. Increasing trust in “who you are” amplifies the volume of your message. Announcing “I’m a good person (smart, moral, ethical, well connected, well informed, savvy, successful—whatever they trust)… and therefore trustworthy” is more likely to activate suspicion than trust. People want to decide these things for themselves. Since you usually don’t have time to build trust based on personal experience, the best you can do is tell them a story that simulates an experience of your trustworthiness. Hearing your story is as close as they can get to firsthand experience of watching you “walk the walk” as opposed to “talk the talk.” A story lets them decide for themselves—one of the great secrets of true influence. Other methods of influence—persuasion, bribery, or manipulation—are push strategies. Story is a pull strategy. If your story is good enough, people—of their own free will—come to the conclusion they can trust you and your message.


Before anyone allows you to influence them, they want to know, “Who are you, and why are you here?” If you don’t take the time to give positive answers to those questions, they will make up their own answers—usually negative. It is human nature to expect that anyone out to influence others has something to gain. Most people subconsciously assume your gain will mean their loss. This is human nature. We instinctively erect barriers and suspicions to protect ourselves. With trust levels now at a record low, you need to tell a solid story to demonstrate you are the kind of person people can trust. This will be different in different situations. (To take one extreme, I can imagine that a clique of office bullies might feel more inclined to trust a new hire after she told a convincing story about winning a job away from “some loser.” But I am not writing this book for bullies; helping you find stories that demonstrate your moral and ethical character as well as your ability to turn a profit is my goal.) Whatever simultaneously connects an audience to values that are relevant and meaningful while giving them a taste of who you are and why you are here are the most effective stories.

Think about your own experience with anyone who ever wanted to influence you—boss, coworker, salesperson, volunteer, preacher, consultant. Think of one person who succeeded and one who failed. How connected did you feel to each? Did you feel connected because this person influenced you, or did they influence you because you felt connected to this person? What made you trust one and not the other? Chances are that it was important for you to know what kind of person they were and what they stood to gain from your cooperation. Sure, your potential gain counted, but your judgments about their believability heavily influenced how much you trusted their assurances about your potential gain. No matter what people say about “what’s in it for you”—potential self-interest, reasons why, or logical justifications—we filter every word through a believability index based on our judgments about who these people are and why they are here.

A consultant selling an idea wastes time extolling benefits if he or she has not first established a strong connection. If a group believes most consultants are more interested in billable days than client success, they won’t hear a thing until they decide for themselves that this consultant is different. The chairman of a volunteer committee need not address one agenda item until the board members see her as more than just another “do-gooder,” politically motivated social climber, or resident control freak. A minister who is not seen as compassionate cannot successfully deliver a message of love and forgiveness. And a quality manager’s impassioned appeal to employees to improve customer service is lost if the employees believe that “this guy doesn’t live in the real world.”

Think about our language: “He’s okay, I know him,” or “It’s not that I don’t trust her, I just don’t know her.” For most of human history, the subjective feeling that you know someone well enough to trust them reflected personal experiences of behaviors that signaled shared intentions and values. For years, learning which neighbors we could trust was a matter of looking out the window. No one can be sure if the past twenty years of increased digital interactions and decreased face-to-face experiences have eroded trust. But there is no question that trust has eroded. Despite research that blames technology for decreasing intimacy or shows that the presence of digital devices decreases empathy, anti-technology rhetoric is itself divisive and distracting. It’s not rocket science to understand that trust cannot happen without a minimum sense of familiarity. As the frequency of face-to-face interactions decreases, stories that deliver proof of trustworthiness must compensate for fewer interactions by improving the quality of those interactions. Superficial connections can gain depth with experiences and stories that illustrate solidarity, shared purpose, and shared values. The catch is that this magic is based on daily trust-building behaviors so individuals and brands can tell stories that ring true because they are true.

How can we expect people to trust us, to be influenced by us, when we hide important aspects of who we are? Brené Brown’s research on the power of vulnerability (check out her TED Talk) spotlights how risking uncertainty and emotional exposure are the first steps to igniting a reciprocal dance of trust. Someone has to go first. If you want an audience to take a risk on you, it’s a good idea to go first and take a risk on them. Those who choose to skip the vital self-examination stage of storytelling that asks, “Is this story true?” in favor of making up stories steal from the well of social trust that powers storytelling for all of us. Those who create relationships using stories that could be true but are not create relationships that could be trustworthy but are not. Likewise, when we spend too much time talking to a person’s rational brain, we neglect their emotional brain. Emotional brains are very touchy about being neglected. Without proof of trustworthiness, the emotional brain would rather be safe than sorry and will tend to conclude that you bear watching.

Additionally, storytellers who chase temporary wins with stories that generate mutual outrage to build a simulation of trust sabotage future collaboration on mutual goals. Based on blame and disdain, this kind of trust has brief rewards—but serious long-term consequences. Investing in mutual trust, faith, and hope takes more talent, but it stimulates reciprocal generosity (aka ethical behavior) that is far more efficient and productive than shared outrage. When we invest in true stories that illustrate people doing the right things without coercion, groups learn to expect good intentions and better adhere to core principles that avoid the infighting that ultimately results when people play blame games. Undermining trust with stories based on blame and outrage is wildly inefficient for achieving long-term goals that depend on collaboration. True, a good blame story may crush your opponent, but it also crushes someone who might be your potential collaborator. Investing time and resources telling stories of mutual positive intentions and best-case scenarios forges the kind of trust that expands future opportunities to find collaborative solutions when we need them.


The first question people ask themselves the minute they realize you want to influence them is: “Who are you?” A story helps them see what you want them to see about you. Public speakers who start with a genuinely funny joke answer an easily anticipated question: “Is this guy boring?” Once you make me laugh, I conclude for myself that, at the very least, you aren’t boring, so I relax and listen. However, if you began by bluntly asserting, “I’m a very interesting person,” I start scoping out the exits. If you demonstrate who you are, rather than tell me who you are, it is much more believable. A story demonstrates who you are using our original virtual reality tool—the imagination.

Public speakers face a challenge every time they stand before a crowd. I had the privilege of listening to Robert Cooper, author of Executive EQ, address an auditorium of nine hundred people. The audience greeted him like just another consultant who had written book. Crossed arms and cynical looks indicated suspicious opinions about his topic being “a bunch of touchy-feely stuff” or that he might be yet another consultant jumping on the emotional intelligence bandwagon. However, the story he told in the first ten minutes of his speech answered unspoken questions, demonstrated his authenticity, and told these nine hundred people at a very deep level who he was, what he believed, and why.

He chose to tell us who he was by telling a story about his grandfather, who died when Robert was sixteen years old. His father’s father had four major coronaries before he succumbed to the fifth. During that time, he had taken great care to assist in Robert’s development as a young man. He invested long talks and personal time with him. We could see the love Robert felt for his grandfather when he used words to help us see this man as Robert saw him back then. He said, “If you could measure intelligence in the quality of intensity in a man’s eyes, he surely must have been a genius.” He described the decline in his grandfather’s health and how after each major heart attack his grandfather would call Robert to his side, burning to share his latest near-death insight. He had us leaning forward in our seats, as he recounted his grandfather’s words: “I’ve been thinking about what is most important in life, and I’ve concluded that the most important thing in life is…” At that moment, we wanted to share this great man’s insights. By the fourth time, he had us laughing at the old man’s revisions and the effort of remembering which “most important thing” was the most recent.

As we continued to smile, he told us about his grandfather’s last revision: “My grandfather said to me, ‘Give the world the best you have and the best will come back to you.’ Then my grandfather said, ‘I have asked myself—what if every day I had refused to accept yesterday’s definition of my best? So much would have come back to me… to your father… to you. But now it won’t, because I didn’t. It is too late for me. But it’s not too late for you.” I held my breath along with everyone there at the somber power of a man’s regret at the end of his life. “It is too late for me.” Our common humanity means that we, too, will die. Every person in that audience had a flicker of awareness toward our own deaths and potential regrets. He didn’t pull any punches with this story; he didn’t hide the flawed humanity that made it so powerful. Only a cynical, bitter person could have heard that story and continued to doubt that this speaker was a man you could trust.

Personal stories let others see who we are better than any other form of communication. Ultimately people trust your judgment and your words based on subjective evidence. Objective data doesn’t go deep enough to engender trust.

Personal stories allow you to reveal an aspect of yourself that is otherwise invisible. However, there are many ways you can reveal who you are to your listeners.

You don’t have to tell a personal story. Throughout this book are fables, historical stories, stories retold from a friend, current event stories, and parables. Any of these can become a “who I am” story if you tell it in a way that genuinely reveals a part of who you are on a personal level.

If a person tells a story about Mother Teresa that reveals that he understands gratitude and the humility of learning from others, we can conclude he is not bound by ego and can be trusted to listen to what we have to say. If the story he chooses to tell reveals that he understands self-sacrifice, we feel he can be trusted to blend compassion with desire for self-gain. When we see through a story that someone has learned to recognize her own flaws and not hide in denial, we assume she can be trusted to deal head-on with tough issues rather than pretend things are “just fine.”


  • "Annette Simmons was my guiding star when I was looking for a way to work with stories. The Story Factor paved the way for me to do rewarding work building communities and broadening education. With this third edition Annette proves once again that her knowledge and insights are alive and more relevant than ever."—Peter Frühmann, Founder of
  • "The Story Factor remains required reading for anyone working at the intersection of communication and culture. For better or worse, the future requires storytellers willing to imagine what is truly good for humans and wield their power thoughtfully. I'm grateful that Annette's wonderful book is confronting the ethical aspects of the stories we tell. I hope that many will pick it up and do the same!"—Zack Bryant, Creative Director, Journey Group
  • "After 20 years of reading every book written on storytelling, the Story Factor still stands out as the most comprehensive, the most inspiring and the most useful of any book I've found. This new release includes a much-needed deep dive into the morals and responsibilities of storytelling. The Story Factor is not only a book you need, it's a book that the world desperately needs."—LisaBloom, Founder, Story Coach
  • "Simmons beautifully captures the role stories play in solving human problems. Her invitation to expand our circle of moral concern through storytelling gives hope for restoring our social fabric in divided times."—Jesse Scinto, Lecturer and FulbrightU.S. Scholar MS Programs in Strategic Communication,Columbia University
  • "We in the story listening/story sharing business have many sages, many authorities, many folks that give us new and effective ways to stir the pot of story into something delicious, but we have only one encyclopedia of story, her name is Annette Simmons."—Joe Lambert, Chief Listenerand Convener, StoryCenter
  • "Nearly two decades ago, Annette Simmons sent a shockwave through the world of leadership thinking with a curious proposition: That by telling stories, a leader might exercise deep influence. She's back, surveying the industry that has grown from her groundwork, and her message in this updated edition is more fierce and more urgent than ever before: As weavers of narratives, ours is a deeply moral calling that carries great responsibility. Simmons' voice is more essential, prophetic, and convicting than ever. Her message demands our attention."—David Hutchens, Leadership Storytelling
  • "Re-reading my dog-eared, marked-up copy of The Story Factor makes me nod my head in both agreement and epiphany. In this new edition, she holds supreme as our most important thinker in applied narrative."—Thaler Pekar, Thaler Pekar &Partners
  • "Twenty years ago when it was first published, this book became an instant classic and spotlighted Annette Simmons as one of the pioneers of organizational storytelling. Now she updates and expands her foundational work, offering us a strong voice on behalf of staying awake to both the power and the pitfalls of story work. In this time of competing and conflicting narratives, where the future of our world hangs in the balance, The Story Factor continues to chart a path for everyone who seeks to influence with integrity."—Mary Alice Arthur, Story Activist ( co-founder of Story the Future (
  • "Once again internationally recognized genius in business storytelling, Annette Simmons, captivates us with her writing, her wisdom, and her deep understanding of the human spirit. She takes us on a journey about the critical importance of storytelling and how to do it filled with sage advice, wonderful stories, and practical how-to. If you want to be a better leader or manager, with better business results, follow Annette's wisdom. You'll be glad you did."—Dr. Karen Dietz, co-author Business Storytelling for Dummies

On Sale
Oct 8, 2019
Page Count
368 pages
Basic Books

Annette Simmons

About the Author

Annette Simmons is founder of Group Process Consulting, specializing in helping organizations build more collaborative behaviors for bottom-line results. A popular speaker, community activist, and author of Territorial Games and A Safe Place for Dangerous Truths, she lives in Greensboro, North Carolina.

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