How universal truths can make your story matter
Why you should stop talking about yourself and focus on the bigger picture.
If you put yourself at the centre of your story, you’ll be heard – but not necessarily remembered. To tell a story with impact, you need to make people feel something.
The best stories are the ones we can relate to. We swap out the central character for ourselves. How would I tackle that challenge? Would I stay strong in this moment too?
We have those little ‘a-ha’ moments, where our world-view suddenly shifts and it feels like anything might be possible.
Using universal truths to elevate your storytelling
To build a story that is this powerfully received, you need to tap into universal truths.
Universal truths are messages or codes of behaviour that tell us what it means to be human*. They can feel painful or hopeful; heavy or uplifting. Whatever emotion is triggered, it feels relatable to the audience.
When you build a story around them, it becomes a metaphor for something bigger than you, the individual.
Drawing on human psychology to engage with your storytelling
There’s a little basic psychology at play in this technique.
Firstly – we’re social creatures predisposed to cooperate and look out for each other. We want to care about others. Secondly, and somewhat confusingly, we’re also wired to look out for number one.
We spend our lives shifting between the two states. Community. Me. Communal interest. Personal desire.
When we read someone else’s story, we want to see ourselves in it, so we can find a ‘foothold’ to help us make sense of the story. But we also want to see our relationship to ‘humanity’ – the bigger picture about what it means to be human (and to be us).
Finding the universal truths in your own story
Whether you’re writing a professional bio or a new business backstory, you can weave universal truths into your story to connect on a deeper level with your audience. As well as making your story a compelling read, these universal truths will also encourage your readers to care more about you.
Here are five of my favourites:
#1 Everything changes.
You’ve heard that there are only two certainties in life: death and taxes. But it’s not true.
The only certainty is that everything changes. Most of us crave consistency and stability, with an occasional dash of excitement on top. But life will always throw us a curveball.
What were the curveballs in your own story? When did you feel like everything was ticking along nicely, before life veered completely off course? What was the trigger that shifted your world? It could be a momentous event, like major illness, or a single, unexpected word from a loved one, like ‘goodbye’.
When you find that curveball in your story, people want to know how you dealt with it. Did you crumble, then pick up the pieces? Did you rage against the world, and find stillness again? Did you radically transform or quietly accept your new fate?
#2 You need to get back on the horse.
We’ve all been knocked down in work or life. Sometimes, it happens so many times that we don’t think we can pick ourselves up again. We try, and fall. We get up, try, and stumble again. Eventually, we push through the pain, fears and insecurities and find new strength to ‘stay on the horse’.
Getting back on the horse after it throws you off means attempting to tackle the same challenge every time you fail. Through this process, you find inner reserves of strength and courage. Ultimately, you ride that horse around the ring!
In your storytelling, you want to build tension each time you come ‘off the horse’. Create a sense of anticipation in your audience: will she or won’t she get back on? Raise the stakes with a particularly bad or heartbreaking ‘fall’. We’re right there beside you, balling up our fists and pleading with you to muster the courage to keep on trying. When you finally master the challenge and achieve your goal, we’re overcome with relief and pride!
#3 Walk your own path to find true happiness.
‘Choices are the hinges of destiny.’ Edwin Markham
For many of us, life is a series of choices. When that choice is taken away, we find we’re walking someone else’s path.
We often hold ourselves back from really making our own choices. We follow the crowd, or do what’s expected of us. We listen to external voices: parents, friends, colleagues, culture, church. It can feel easier and safer that way. We don’t risk rejection for being different. We know what to expect next.
When we start forging our own path through life, we’re hit with moments of revelation. We discover new things about ourselves. We inspire others.
Look back on the sequence of events that form your story. Were you walking a well-trodden path, before you found your true calling? What were your fears and who tried to hold you back? When did you find the courage to make your own choices, and how has life transformed since you started living it on your own terms?
#4 Knowledge is power.
A lack of knowledge can hold us back from our true potential. In fact, without knowledge, we may not even know that we’re being held back – we may feel that our current world represents the full extent of what is possible.
Being transformed by knowledge can happen suddenly or be a slow burn. A new revelation might spark immediate change in outlook or behaviour. Or an education can build knowledge and skills over time. The power of knowledge is that it’s lasting. Once acquired, it cannot be taken from us.
In the best stories, the moment a character acquires deep knowledge is the moment they are transformed and imbued with true power. It’s that small kid standing up to a group of bullies who were threatened by her intelligence. It’s the average guy transformed into a superhero, swooping in to save a city. Knowledge is most powerful when it’s used to fight injustice or to serve others.
Have you ever had a revelation that has opened your eyes to new possibilities? Did you develop your knowledge alone, or with the help of a supportive mentor? What new ‘superpowers’ did you gain as a result of your new knowledge?
#5 Take a leap of faith. You won’t fall.
Taking a leap of faith isn’t about blindly closely your eyes and stepping into the unknown. It’s a pivotal moment in your life, when you risked stability to aim for the thing your heart really desired. You didn’t know what the end result would be, but you trusted your instincts. Instead of falling, you flew.
Often, people’s lives tick along because they play it safe. But for you, there may have been a niggling doubt in your mind that your current situation represented all there was to life. You could picture something different for yourself. Even though you weren’t quite sure what it looked like, you were empowered to take your destiny into your own hands.
You may have felt fear. Friends and colleagues probably tried to talk you out of it. A leap of faith is a massive risk, and they were trying to protect you.
The leap of faith narrative is inspiring because we’ve all been standing in the same spot as you. Not close to the edge, but somewhere further back on solid ground where our life is familiar and safe. Even if we’re happy with where we are, the possibility of change is there in the distance. We might not leap, but we’re in wide-eyed awe of those who do. Your risk, and your success, are our inspiration.
If there was a time in your life or career when you felt compelled to take a massive risk, we want to know. What motivated you? What initially held you back? When you finally let go and leapt, what did ‘flying’ feel like?
*A final note on Universal Truths
Can there really be universal truths, applicable to everyone, when we’re culturally diverse? The answer is yes and no.
You may be surprised to know that research has found that all cultures share seven moral codes. Beyond this, the way we behave and think has been learned in a cultural context.
The universal truths presented here were inspired by my understanding of life and storytelling in westernised cultures.