Winning the Story Wars

"So many of the stories that have really stuck, that have shaped culture, are about one thing: people reaching for their highest potential and struggling to create a better world. If the test of time is our judge, stories with this formula have a near-monopoly on greatness."

- Winning the Story Wars, page 5

We love great stories. They engage. They provide an outlet or a relation point. Stories bring us in and, at times, change us. This is what Winning the Story Wars: Why Those Who Tell (and Live) the Best Stories Will Rule the Future by Jonah Sachs celebrates.

Our culture is pulled forward or changed through stories and the myths embedded in them. Myths are not lies; they hold us together around a set of common beliefs and values. “When myths are functioning properly, they bring us together and get us to act by using a specific formula that appears to be universal across all cultures” (pg 59).

Stories play a central role in our culture, our life, and our marketing, so we need to get them right and empower their value.  And “getting them right”, Sach tells us, is becoming more rare as stories are packaged as cheap marketing tools.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

The Story Test

"We can create patterns of stories that lift audiences up to become evangelists for our messages and call them to participation in a creating a better world."
- Winning the Story Wars, page 32

Stories are at risk. “Sins” are being committed. The sins include:

  • Narcissism – Stories become self-centered instead of being about “us.”
  • Authority – “Just the facts” lack emotional connection to the story.
  • Insincerity – Stories that try too hard to please lose their core.
  • Puffery – Stories with no substance fall flat.
  • Gimmickry – Pursuing “going viral” can create a “falsity” to a story.

The point is stories are in danger of losing their value and potential in engaging people. Marketers are guilty of attacking them in multiple ways, so we need to test our stories and ensure they are sin-free. We need to craft stories to engage honestly and personally.

The story test includes:

  • Tangible – Present information that people can “touch” and “feel.”
  • Relatable – Include characters that people want to see rewarded or punished.
  • Immersive – Develop the story so others can learn something of value.
  • Memorable – Add scenes and metaphors that make it easy for people to recall the core message.
  • Emotional – Elevate others in what they feel or learn.

To prevent stories from committing sins, they need to pass the story test. The more the above elements are in a story, the greater the opportunity for the story to be powerful and engage a community.

To create story evangelists, these elements need to be embraced fully in order to write a story that stands the test of time.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Tell the Truth

"Telling the truth – most importantly, the truth that human nature goes beyond our basest desires and orients to a higher potential – provides the foundation of a storytelling strategy that can build your next breakthrough communication – and your entire brand."
- Winning the Story Wars, page 115

Why is it challenging to tell the truth in stories? The reasons may relate back to the sins, but telling the truth should be at the center of our stories. It is just solid marketing.

Telling the truth needs to bring the brand to life and the author provides three tactics to do this.

The first is to tell a more resonant truth. In the 1950s, when Cadillac was telling the story of personal achievement and fine taste, Volkswagen Beetle took a “Think Small” approach, changing the truth to living within your means.

The second tactic is to emphasize the power of the audience. Nike launched a “Courage” campaign in which athletes tell their story of perseverance and overcoming the odds. The story is about the audience; it is a story about others that breathes life into the brand.

The third tactic is inspiration. Inspired customers become brand evangelists. Think “Yes We Can,” and you see the power of inspiration in the story.

Truth comes through in different ways – communicating what your product really is; bringing your audience into the story; or inspiring your audience to become partners. Telling the truth means living the truth, too. This approach needs to embody the elements in the story test as well as avoid the story sins.

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Know Your Values

"But the core strategy of empowerment marketing is not about magical fulfillment. It’s about values and inspiration."
- Winning the Story Wars, page 134

Brands have an opportunity to promote higher values. To do this, we need to understand them and make a commitment to them. Values need to be embedded into the story test elements. It is a powerful engagement point between the brand and the audience (i.e., customers, enthusiasts).

Some brands have values defined by who they are. Patagonia is about adventurers; it is the value on which it was founded. Amnesty International is about human rights; it just is who they are. If the brand doesn’t have ready-defined values, then there is a two-step process to select them:

Step 1: Review values and think about what you want to be. Try out different values and see what fits. The author lists out nine brand-defining values that come from Maslow’s hierarchy, and they include: wholeness, perfection, justice, richness, simplicity, beauty, truth, uniqueness, and playfulness. Again, the key point is to answer this question:  Where do you want to go?

Step 2: Narrow the values to three, with one or two being ideal. Selecting a value(s) that align across four areas – founding story, offering, leadership, and audiences – will be the best.

Alignment of values is critical, as it relates to authenticity of the brand and story.


Winning the Story Wars is full of character and advice on how to develop stories that can stand the test of time. Our culture is influenced by great stories, changing what we do and how we do it. Stories built upon the sins and inauthenticity, on the other hand, are quickly uncovered and rejected.

Building a successful brand is about sharing stories that engage and empower a community. As Jonah Sachs said, “Perfect alignment of your organization’s values and actions may be a destination you will never fully attain, but the moment you set out on the path, you begin generating compelling content perfectly aligned with your story strategy.”

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Jon Mertz

ABOUT Jon Mertz

Jon is a blogger who explores how life choices really define who we are. We dance on life’s edge with the choices we make, each taking us in intended and unintended directions...
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