Raise the stakes

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —December 6, 2023
Filed in Business storytelling, Communication, Corporate Storytelling

“The cat sat on the mat” is not the beginning of a story, but “the cat sat on the dog’s mat” is.

—John Le Carré

Scrolling through my YouTube feed, I found a lecture by Alan Alda on storytelling and science. I remember one thing from that lecture. Alda invited an attendee to the stage and asked them to walk across it with an empty glass. She did it without a problem or much interest from the audience. Then Alda asked her to do it again, but this time, he filled her glass with water to the brim and said she was on a mission. “If you drop a single drop, all the people in your village will die.” Now, her steps were tentative, and the audience leaned in. At one point, the glass tilted, and the audience gasped. She made it, and her village lives. The audience clapped.

That’s what it means to add drama to a story. You raise the stakes.

So, how does that work in a business story? Imagine you’re the CEO of a large water business in China. And last week you visited one of your factories and met an employee working on a new recycling system that will improve the local environment and save the company money. Told in this way, you get the effect of walking across the stage with an empty glass.

Now imagine the same scenario but with some added elements. The CEO might recount it this way: “Last week, I was at our Guangzhou factory and met Li Wei. He’s working on a new water recycling system. He showed me the inflow. It looks like the worst coffee sludge you’ve ever seen. Li Wei asked if I would like to drink the recycled water and handed me a glass. Everyone is watching. I nervously say yes. He fills my glass. It’s crystal clear. I raise it, take a long look, and then drink it in one gulp. Everyone cheered.”

Notice it’s not as dramatic as Alda’s murderous threat. It shouldn’t be. Good business stories contain some drama without being overly dramatic. But as you read the story, hopefully, you were wondering, “What will happen next?” “Will he drink the water?”

And along the way, I amplified the drama in three ways. The inflow wasn’t even mentioned in the first version, and I turned it into the worst coffee sludge you’ve ever seen. We like to hear analogies. It helps us picture what’s happening.

I then added an audience of people watching the CEO. This adds some social pressure, and we are thinking, “Will he do it?” Rutger Bergman, the author of Humankind, notes, “We prefer a pound of the worst kind of misery over a few ounces of shame or social discomfort.”

Finally, I inserted a pause as he took a long look at the glass of recycled water. We’re still wondering if he will do it. There might be some other things I did to raise the stakes. Can you spot anything else?

Now, I’m not saying you make elements up. Instead, you seek them out.

Keeping people wondering what will happen next keeps them engaged.

The great singer-songwriter Paul Simon makes a similar observation: “You don’t want to get to a point where the audience is ahead of you because they stop listening.”

In a famous brain-syncing experiment, three scientists from Princeton, Professor Stephens and his colleagues, showed that our brain signals match when we listen to the same story. But more remarkably, our brain patterns race ahead of the narrative when predicting what will happen next. When that happens, comprehension goes up.

So, in addition to engagement, you also get improved understanding and recall, probably because the listener is working to make sense of what they are hearing.

Therefore, somewhere in your story, it helps to include the equivalent of “Then something happened that changed everything forever.”

But it can be more subtle than that. 

The makers of South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, once said that when they review storyboards, they’d scrap those bits if the linking phrases between scenes are ‘and then’. Instead, they want their linking phrases to be ‘but’ and ‘therefore’. Let me explain.

Instead of writing, “this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened,” they would replace the ‘and thens’ with ‘therefores’ and ‘buts’ to get something like this:

This happened, BUT then this happened, and THEREFORE this happened.

Now tension emerges because there’s a clear cause and effect.

Humans love to know why something happened and are surprised when their predictions are upended.

Look for ways to raise the stakes. It might include adding,

– how the protagonist feels

– social pressure

– impact on people and other living things

– money saved or gained

– power gained or lost or

– possible death or injury.

Drama is your friend. But in business, avoid being dramatic. Leave that to Hollywood.


6 Days to Air: The Making of South Park. Directed by Arthur Bradford, performances by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, Arthur Bradford and Jennifer Ollman, 2011.

Bregman, Rutger. Human Kind: A Hopeful History. Kindle ed., Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020, p. 261.

Gladwell, Malcolm et al. “Miracle and Wonder: Conversations with Paul Simon.” Pushkin, 2023.

Plimpton, George. “John Le Carré, the Art of Fiction No. 149.” The Paris Review, no. 143, 1997, https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/1250/the-art-of-fiction-no-149-john-le-carre.

Shapiro, Alan. “Alan Alda’s Quest to Put Story to Science.” Scientific American, 2014.

Stephens, G. J. et al. “Speaker-Listener Neural Coupling Underlies Successful Communication.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 107, no. 32, 2010, pp. 14425-30.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

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