How to kill a story

I witnessed a murder.  Thankfully, no-one was killed.

It was the evening of the first day of my two-day Presentation workshop for a long-time client and they’d invited a highly experienced Technical Director to give a fireside talk to their upcoming Senior Managers.  He recounted how he’d had a heart attack while playing rugby and was saved by the fact that the rugby club had defibrillators in the grounds.  Hence his campaign to have public places provide them universally.

The tale had all the ingredients of a drama, with rising tension, and an unravelling that leads to enlightenment that radiates his new-found mission.

The next morning, I asked the workshop participants about their reaction to the story.

“It was a bit boring,” said one.

The general consensus was it read like a process.

The man almost died while playing rugby; his peers panicked trying mouth to mouth resuscitation, chest compressions, trying desperately to beat back death.  But even that moment was recounted like an instruction book for shelf mounting.

“So I felt a pain in my chest, collapsed and when I came to, I realised that the defibrillator had saved me.

The moment of being there had been squeezed out into a mere list of events.

So what makes a story uncompelling, even if the structure’s there?  There are 5 elements that will kill a well-constructed story, if you don’t pay attention.

5 reasons a well structured story falls flat

1. flat tone of voice – we convey meaning through tone.  For this reason, a flat tone squeezes the significance out of the moment.  Even a simple phrase like “I don’t know’ can sound completely different depending on how you say it.  Research shows that people perceive more information than the words themselves from a message.  You’ll also see great storytellers enact other characters.  For your listeners to participate in your experience, change vocal tone to distinguish characters or use a gesture they’d use.

2. lack of painting pictures  –  in the story above, whole chunks of information where missed out.  We need the detail.  Be careful, however that you don’t drown the story in detail.  Too much detracts from the ultimate message of the story and can overload us with irrelevant content.  Paint the picture in the key parts and the audience will feel the tension and resolution with you.

3. not reacting to reactions – someone said something absurd or unreasonable in your story?  Reacting to that with surprise or laughter pulls your audience into the emotions of the tale. You’re not recounting a chemical chart so feel free to show your feelings to the occurrences recounted.

4. lack of gesture –  Even when presenting virtually, use your hands to gesture in tandem with key words or phrases.  Not only does this make you look more emotionally involved with your content and therefore more engaging, but it also varies vocal tone.   In voice-over work, actors will at the very least be using facial gestures.  “But,” you protest, “I’m not doing Toy Story.  I’m talking about AI.”  Fair enough.  See how Gregory Stock’s low-key conversational style in his 2003 talk, ‘To upgrade is human’, uses gesture here to indicate someone else’s words at  6 mins 44 secs . 

5. no eye contact – “You talking to me?” asked Robert De Niro, in Taxi Driver.  He may have added, “You’re not looking at me.  Who are you addressing?”  It’s like a conversation with someone when they’re looking over your shoulder.  Ensure that you’ve got eye contact with each part of your audience some of the time and on video calls, you’re looking in the camera.

When you use these 5 principles along with a defined story structure, you’ll be taking your audience on a journey that drives your point forward, keeping your message memorable.

Your Actions:

  1. Next time you’re on a call, social or otherwise, make sure you use a gesture or voice change for other characters. A gesture change will impact on voice too.
  2. Use the detail at key points: what do we need to see, hear and feel?  Describing a moment to a friend gives you the chance to practise this level of detail.
  3. Watch 30 seconds of yourself on a video call to train your eyes on the camera. They don’t have to be there all the time, but you’ll have more impact if they’re there when you need most impact.
Storytelling is one (optional) part of what makes a great presentation.
If you need help to structure and deliver your message or boost the public speaking skills of your team, look here at my Presentation Courses and then get in touch with me, Frankie Kemp, for a 30 minute, free Discovery Call.
No strings attached.

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