Storytelling in Three-Part Harmony

Recently, while preparing a Leadership Through Storytelling workshop, I looked up the famous I Have a Dream speech of Dr. Martin Luther King. If you have never watched this speech all the way through, do so. It’s worth the 11 minutes and 30 seconds. In fact, watch it now.

This is strategic storytelling at its finest – i.e. a great leader using stories to paint a vision of the future and, in the process, compel people to embrace that vision and make it real. There are so many things that work with this speech that it would be impossible to list them all out and still keep this post within a respectable word count. Accordingly, I will focus on just three things: more specifically the three components that every great story has. These are…


This is the environment, situation or framework in which the story exists. It sets the stage, linking your story to the world around your audience, establishing context, relevance and ideological common ground. The premise often builds from collective sentiment, beliefs or knowledge. One of the ways Dr. King sets the premise early in his speech is by citing foundational elements of American history, such as the Declaration of Independence and the Emancipation Proclamation.


These are the series of events that unfold in the story. The plot depicts what is happening today, has happened in the past or will happen in the future. In Dr. King’s speech, he harkens back to the days of slavery and talks about the injustices that were currently taking place in the South. But what is clearly most moving about the plot of Dr. King’s story is what he dreams can happen, what should happen in the future.


These are the people involved in the premise and affected by the plot. Great storytellers make themselves part of the story. Better still, they make the audience a part of it. In turn, people feel a profound connection to the story being told and are therefore more likely to remember it. What is so brilliant about Dr. King’s story is that he inspires “all of God’s children” to see themselves in it. This was not a story solely about African Americans. This was a story about all Americans: in fact, about all mankind.

Great storytellers, communicators, and leaders always put these three components into play in the stories they tell, blending them together to work harmoniously with each other. Think about this the next time you need to address a group of people. How can you use Premise to make it relevant, Plot to make it compelling, and Person to make it personal? Use all three of these notes in your storytelling, and the hearts and minds of your audience will truly sing.

TagsCommunicationsDr. Martin Luther KingLeadershipPersonPlotPremisePresentationsstrategic storytelling

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