Legacy Educational Resources
Forum Blog Links About Us


Using People Stories to Change Lives


Introduction: My Passion for People Stories

"Something your dad said today changed my life." It was just a casual comment to my teenage son at school.  But it's comments like those that have spoiled me. After seeing lives changed because of my teaching, I can’t get a thrill by merely making a living. I want to make a difference.


For me, it all began as a 10th grader, when I attended a ski retreat with a campus organization for no better reason than to be with a girl I liked. The retreat speaker changed my life. Thirty years later, I’ve never gotten over it.


My 11th and 12th grade years, I became an incurable people changer. I was obsessed with seeing my friends find the purposeful existence I’d found. From “Ted,” the stereotypical nerd, to “Jessie” a class clown, to “Bart” a successful jock, we saw fellow students transform from crowd followers to crowd influencers.


Still a teen, I began speaking to groups. To sharpen my own communication, I listened to tapes of great motivational speakers, not only for personal growth, but to discover the elements that packed their messages with such power. I asked myself, “How do they grab students’ attention, keep them hooked, and leave many with changed lives? Although admittedly communication is a fine art with many pitfalls, I was overwhelmed with the way these communicators used illustrations. They were masters at choosing and presenting powerful people stories.


So, as a teenage communicator, I began to collect stories and illustrations to enhance my appeal and impact. After 30 years of speaking and writing, my momentum and drive to research and write illustrations has only escalated.


Whether you’re teaching in a classroom, on the speaker’s circuit, or seeking to influence your children, I want to inspire you to collect stories, show you how I find and craft the best ones, and show how to file them so that they’re there when you need them.



The Power of People Stories: Why use them?

They’re easy to prepare.

Although people stories may look like too many words on your lesson plan, they are so easy to remember that jotting down “Story of Mel Gibson” might be enough to remind me of the entire story.


They’re hard for students to forget.

My 10-year-old twins are dyslexic and have exceptionally poor rote memories, yet I’m amazed at how they come home from Sunday School excitedly repeating in detail the stories that their teachers use. Even your poorest students may have remarkable memories for stories.


We love speakers who use them well.

Have any of you heard Ken Davis speak? I once watched him take thousands of worn-out teens, hook them to his message, and hold them in the palm of his hand for 40 minutes. He’s as good a communicator as I’ve ever heard for teens. Here's what Ken says about illustrations:

"If we are to communicate effectively, we must realize that even the most logical speech in the universe will be of no value unless someone listens. Illustrations and anecdotes are the glitter and sparkle that make people want to listen to our message." (1)


"All great communicators master the art of using illustrations." (2)  


Chris King, editor/author of “Powerful Presentations,” wrote an article telling the difference between a good presenter and a great one. One of her five points is:

"Great presenters have and tell great stories. Become an excellent storyteller, and you will be ‘Great.’"

Think of your favorite speakers. What do you remember most from their presentations - their explanations, their outlines, or their stories? I always remember their stories.



Stories are vital in educating for character.

Educators are typically trained to move students from the known to the unknown. Thus, many character lessons I review excel at helping students, for example, to define lying and recognize lying. Yet, after the lesson, the students are no more motivated to stop lying than they were at the beginning of the lesson. Why? Because to successfully educate in character, we must move students past knowing the good into desiring the good and doing the good. People stories go beyond transferring knowledge to motivating students on the feeling and volitional levels.


As character education guru Thomas Lickona says:

“We can motivate students to think about character – and the sort of character they’d like to possess – by exposing them to persons of character.” (4)



Note how the most popular books use stories.

Great writers know that we love and respond to stories. For example, take the book How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. Proclaimed the mother of self-help books on relationships, it has sold over fifteen million copies. Although first  published way back in 1937, this publishing phenomenon is still ranked #125 in Amazon sales, almost 70 years after its original publication! What makes it so enduring and life changing? I believe that, to a large part, it’s his effective use of people stories.


According to Carnegie,

“Readers of my books are soon aware of my use of the anecdote as a means of developing the main points of my message. The rules from How to Win Friends and Influence People can be listed on one and a half pages. The other two hundred and thirty pages of the book are filled with stories and illustrations to pint up how others have used these rules with wholesome effect.” (5)

Thus, Carnegie advises speakers:

“The speaker should attempt to make only a few points and to illustrate them with concrete cases. Such a method of speech-building can hardly fail to get and hold attention.” (6)


Look at one of John Maxwell’s best-selling leadership books. If I highlighted the stories, you’d find that his books tend to consist of stories organized by an outline.


Why are the Chicken Soup books best sellers? They consist of short, readable stories.

Peruse popular magazines. People Magazine, Teen People, Readers Digest, Biography Magazine, sell people stories.



Note the power of the anecdote over the power of evidence and logic among students.

In case you haven’t noticed, the part of the teen brain that responds to logic must be roughly the size of a flea’s eyelash. This explains why, rather than acting on the scientific evidence that finds 13,000 lives saved each year by wearing seatbelts, many teens prefer to believe the one counterexample they’ve heard – “My uncle Otis died because he wore his seatbelt.” For teens, the power of the anecdote tends to win over the power of sound research.


Instead of acting on the overwhelming evidence that Marijuana is addictive (e.g., if it’s not addictive, why do tons of users exhibit all the characteristics of addiction; and why do over 150,000 people each year pay thousands of dollars to enter treatment facilities to try to get off of Marijuana, if they in fact aren’t addicted and can simply stop on their own?), teens prefer to trust the advice of a peer “expert” who says he smokes weed but isn’t addicted. Again, for most teens, the people story wins over sound research.


Does this mean that we should ignore research and use solely people stories? No! We’re responsible to move students toward understanding the value of sound research. So, let’s begin by showing statistics that honest people do better in the business world than liars and cheats. Then, follow those stats with examples from your own life and the lives of others.



Top educators employ great people stories.

William J. Poorvu, who heads Harvard Business School’s real estate program, notes that HBS:

“emphasizes the use of cases in the classroom – small “slice of life” stories about real people in real business situations.” (7)

No wonder! Case studies of real people are interesting, easy to remember, and guard us against the tendency to reduce life and business to a set of simplistic formulas.

Motivated to use more people stories? Let’s reflect next on the types of people stories that work best with our students.



The Characteristics of Life-Changing People Stories: Choosing Illustrations That Work

The difference between a decent illustration and just the right illustration is the difference between "lightning and a lightning bug." What are the qualities of great illustrations?


Accomplishes your purpose.

If my purpose it to clarify a truth, will this illustration make my students mentally respond, "Now I’ve got it!”? If my purpose is to motivate, does this illustration motivate? If not, fire it and recruit another.




My wife and I devour biographies. We note any stories that are interesting, even if we don’t at first see a way to use the story to promote character. Eventually, we always find some connection.




Students love and remember funny stuff. I went through a joke site and found that almost every funny joke could relate to some character trait. If it was clean, I added it to our database under the appropriate trait.



New information.

Studies on persuasion find that information already familiar to people isn’t persuasive. (8) Introducing information they don’t know can both arrest their attention and sway their opinions.


Although almost all students are familiar with actor Tom Cruise, most don’t know about his struggles in school. His broken home, severe dyslexia, reading problems, constant relocations, failures to attract girls and troubles finding his niche are startling to students, who assume that he was popular and successful throughout his life. A disconnected and troubled student might grab on to that story and realize that there’s hope for her own future.




"According to an authoritative report, here are three steps to repairing fractured  family relationships:…" Touch on student’s greatest felt needs, and you’ve got a winner.




"In 1929 seven of the world’s greatest financiers met. Collectively, they controlled more money than the U.S. Treasury. Yet, within twenty-five years, two committed suicide, two served prison sentences, and two died broke. Money is no sure guide to success and happiness.”




"Who would have ever thought that this model citizen would have become a notorious gangster?"




Get as specific as possible. Choose real events over hypothetical. Use names and places. Don’t just say, "Riches and fame don’t buy happiness." They won’t believe it. But paint a vivid verbal picture of that wealthy actress who took her own life, that Fortune 500 CEO who suffers from depression, or the famous rock star who voices her disillusionment with life, and you’re on to something.



Oriented to the Student Population.

Magazines like People or Biography or Sports Illustrated stay current about reader’s interests in order to stay in business. Discover who’s hot by browsing the magazine section or flipping through magazines at the check-out aisle.



Respected by your students.

People who are hot with student culture at large, may have no appeal at all to your students. Someone talked to my 18-year-old son, trying to make a point by appealing to the life of Michael Jordan. My son later told me, “What do I care about Michael Jordan? I don’t care anything about basketball?” .


Times were when student culture was more homogenous. Mention the Beatles or top athletes and you’d have the attention of 90% of your students. Today, think diversity. Even among my own children, one likes rap, another Swedish Metal, another 70’s era and another Frank Sinatra! None of them are enamored by athletes.


To find the interests of my students, I surveyed them, asking:

  • Who are your favorite actors/actresses?
  • What are your favorite bands/performers?
  • What are your favorite movies and books?
  • Who are your heroes, or those your respect the most?
  • What are your primary interests?
  • Is there a vocation you’re particularly interested in?
  • What do you do for fun?

To promote candor, I told them they didn’t have to put their names on it. The results were invaluable. Knowing that one guy loved guitars and played in a band, I could use a story of a great guitarist who exhibited endurance. Knowing a girl liked a certain band, I used an illustration of how a member of the band got fired for his drug use. Their present interests provided a bridge to promote character.


As a guest lecturer in a university class on New Media and Web Design, I first asked students where they were headed vocationally. Then, I oriented my lecture/discussion around using Web techniques to help them reach their vocational goals. Appealing to their interests transformed an otherwise boring subject into a hit.


Imagine you’ve got some skaters in your class. You want to illustrate the power of acts of kindness. Why not use this illustration of a famous skater?


When a student became interested in surfing, he lost interest in skateboarding. But rather than put his skateboard away in storage, he was thoughtful enough to pass it on to his little brother Tony, and showed him how to ride it. Who could have imagined the impact of that one act of kindness. That little brother would become one of the most creative and innovative forces in skateboarding, Tony Hawk.


What does this tell us about the power of acts of kindness? Do you have a little brother or sister or younger neighbor whom you could help in some way?


The better we understand the world of our students, the better we can illustrate truth from that world.


Frankly ask your students occasionally, "What types of illustrations do I use that you like best? What do you like least?"


By the way, there are many people who are of no interest to our students currently, but would be of interest if we introduced them properly. Even household names to us (Bill Gates, Franklin Roosevelt) may be unknowns to many of our students. Without a sufficient introduction, students won’t understand why they should emulate this person’s strong point. Note how I spend the first paragraph introducing Stan Lee in the following illustration.  By introducing him, I build interest and respect for a person they probably don't already know.



King of Comics Shows Diligence

Stan Lee is the most recognized name in the history of comics, a modern myth-maker who created such colorful heroes as Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Hulk and Silver Surfer. At the age of 20 he became the editor and chief writer of what would become Marvel Comics. But it wasn't always an easy road.


When the comic book industry came dangerously close to folding in the late 1950's, it is said that artist and collaborator Jack Kirby walked into work one day and found Lee ''sobbing while movers took the furniture out of their offices.'' They were failing big time. When their competitors (DC Comics) scored a big hit with their ''Justice League of America'' superheroes, headed by Superman, Lee’s boss demanded new characters in response.


The characters he and Kirby invented ''revitalized the industry and revolutionized the form,'' allowing Marvel to dominate the industry. His writing is compelling. In his stories, the characters develop and you see them, not just as super-heroes, but as real people with real problems. We identify with his characters as they struggle with the same issues in life that we do. Just think of Peter Parker, the high school science nerd who became Spiderman. He loved a girl who didn't love him. He was rejected by his classmates. He faced difficult moral choices. As Lee put it, ''Everybody has problems, and everybody has secret sorrows.'' Lee invented superheroes we could all identify with.


He became a cultural icon in the 60's and early 70's, lecturing in colleges where students might ask if ''Silver Surfer'' was modeled on Jesus Christ. Novelist Ken Kesey said that Marvel Comics had as much to say about life as any of today's literature.


But his great success didn't come without hard work. One artist who worked under Kirby said that Lee ''wrote one book a night for 10 years.'' Now in his latter 70's he's still unstoppable, as Spiderman and the X-Men have both come to the big screen. Today he's pursuing the Internet, attempting to tell stories in an original multimedia style. According to Lee, ''I have always personally felt that all of us, every living being, gets one shot at life.'' Let's make a splash while we're here. (Written by Steve Miller, Copyright Dec. 20, 2002. Source: Salon.com , August 17, 1999)



When I surveyed my students to ask what they liked best about our character sessions, many replied that they liked my stories, particularly the personal stories of my life.


Again quoting Carnegie,

“…audiences are tremendously interested in the personal stories speakers tell. They are the surest means of holding attention; don’t neglect them.” (9)


Students are interested in your life. Although we can go overboard telling stories of our children, they generally do want to know our personal experience in areas of character. Has dishonesty hurt you in the past? Has honesty helped? Has pride kept you from repairing critical relationships? An appropriate level of transparency can make character education come alive.



Real event that happened to a real person.

“Romeo and Juliet” can illustrate how lies get out of hand. Yet, it lacks life-changing punch because “it’s only fiction.” To connect it with real life, say, “Think about a time that a lie, either your own or a friend’s, got out of hand. I'll tell you one from my own life to start the juices flowing…."



Finding and Filing People Stories

So where can we find good illustrations? In general, don’t just look for illustrations for next week’s lesson. Consistently gather illustrations for a lifetime of messages. Become a scavenger for wisdom on character and practical living.


The Internet.

Those interesting circumstances you encounter.

Where does master communicator Ken Davis get his illustrations?

"…the resource of everyday life. As communicators dedicated to excellence, we must train ourselves to see and absorb these experiences rather than letting them pass us by." (How To Speak To Students, p. 52)


Sometimes using borrowed illustrations is like serving warmed over food. We encounter interesting circumstances every week. Pray for eyes to see how these can become illustrations!


Always carry 4x6 cards in your scheduler or in your pocket. I can whip them out when reading the news, watching movies, or whenever an illustration pops into my head. Years ago, a couple of illustrations came to me as I prepared breakfast for my three-year-old twins. I spotted my scheduler within range, whipped out my cards, and captured both illustrations between second helpings of cereal. (Unfortunately, one twin promptly threw up on one of my cards. I never said it wasn’t a battle!)



Books, magazines, and newspapers.

Newspapers contain recent studies, tragic stories, and heroic stories. Rip out interesting articles, note the source on the back, and file it under the appropriate character trait. As I read books, I underline illustrations, flip to a blank page in the back and write, for example, "Forgiveness, p. 38," "Tolerance, p. 52". Some books end up with scores of illustrations noted in the back. I keep them stacked in one place until I can write up the illustrations and put them in my file.


Hint: Don’t think of this recording time as drudgery. I’m so eager to get to the next book that I often hate taking the time to record the illustrations. But we remember so little of what we read. I’ve come to see my time recording illustrations as time to review the story, for better recall later.



Sermons and speakers.

Jot down compelling stories as you listen. When writing more than one illustration, use only one side of your page (to avoid recopying to file separately.) I often come home from church with a couple of illustrations scribbled on my bulletin. If your church or public library or school library has a good tape lending library, listen to tapes when you are doing other things. If you have a 20 minute commute to work, bring a tape and a little recorder (I use the small dictaphone recorder) so that you can save the illustration without having to write. Keep a recorder in the kitchen while you prepare and clean up from meals. You can catch top speakers on the radio and find some great material. (The dictaphone also helps me record random thoughts on messages when I travel alone.) I can type pretty well, so I use a dictaphone to type the illustrations whenever a convenient time comes around. If your typing stinks, consider using voice recognition software to let your computer record it.



Illustration and Quote Books. Some are helpful and some are worthless.

Organizing Your Illustrations

Go ahead, gather thousands of great illustrations; but without a storage and retrieval system, you’ll never find them when you need them. I store mine in two places:

  1. Letter Size File Folders
    Take a very specific list of virtues, like the 30 we use on our site. Simply label a folder for each character trait or life skill. Great for dropping in newspaper clippings, articles, raw ideas and your actual lessons.
  2. Computer Database
    A simple way to do this is to keep a file on your hard drive for each trait. For example:
    My Documents/ Character Traits/ Honesty
    My Documents/ Character Traits/ Integrity
    Another way is to use a database program. If you type well, or have a secretary, there are advantages to setting up a database. One advantage is that I can search for illustrations more effectively. "What topic did I file that Sean Connery illustration under?" In my database, I simply go to "Find" and type "Sean" to find all my illustrations about him. I can also give several titles to illustrations that may illustrate several truths. One story may illustrate "perseverance" as easily as "commitment". I simply put both topics at the top, and can access the illustration through either topic.
    If you prepare lessons on your computer, you can easily copy from your file or database and paste into your message.

Over time, your wealth of illustrations can become a repository of wisdom that you will constantly draw from, not only for your teaching, but for conversations with your children as you pass your life lessons on to them.




Don’t get me wrong. In addition to people stories, I use activities, clips, discussion, debate, etc. But don’t forget the awesome power of the people story.


As you read this, thousands of students are ruining their lives because of character deficiencies: credit card debt, drugs, mismanaged anger, etc., etc.  Even those who pass Algebra with “A’s” may be flunking life. Find, craft and use compelling people stories. Record your life stories. Share them with passion.


As Henry Brooks Adams said,

"A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops."



End Notes

  1. Ken Davis, How to Speak to Students...and Keep Them Awake at the Same Time. Group Books, Loveland, Colorado, 1986, p. 53.
  2. Ibid., p. 60.
  3. From “Good” to “Great” – What Makes the Difference?, by Chris King, found at: http://www.creativekeys.net/PowerfulPresentations/article1078.html
  4. Thomas Lickona, Ph.D., Character Matters, A Touchstone Book, New York, New York, 2004, p. 201.
  5. Dale Carnegie, Effective Speaking, Association Press, New York, 1962, pp. 71ff, 98ff, 125ff.
  6. Ibid., p. 75
  7. William J. Poorvu, with Jeffrey L. Cruikshank, The Real Estate Game, The Free Press, 1999, p. xiii.
  8. J.C. McCroskey, A summary of experimental research on the effects of evidence in persuasive communication. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 55, 1969, pp. 169-176. Referred to in Building Communication Theory (Fourth Edition), by Infante, Rancer and Womack, Waveland Press, Inc., 2003, p. 113.
  9. Carnegie, Effective Speaking, p. 75.


Steve Miller is a self-styled wisdom broker, collecting and writing materials for Legacy Educational Resources.



Copyright August 14, 2004, Legacy Educational Resources, All Rights Reserved.