How to tell a story
“…the world needs your story because the world needs your voice.”
Want to persuade someone, sell a product, increase donations to a charity or pitch your idea?
Tell a story. A good anecdote has been proven to be so powerful that it can change the chemical balance in your brain.
I’ve hit a few story slams: nights where you volunteer to tell a story on a theme publicised in advance.
As a hat is passed around a crowded basement pub with sweat dripping off the walls, I dropped in a piece of paper with my name on. I then irrationally hope I wouldn’t be picked to do my 5 minute piece that I slogged into shape for 3 nights.
I hear “Welcome to the stage…Frankie Kemp.” My head says “oh shit” while my heart bangs through the rib cage. I wedge myself through the crowd, grab the microphone to talk about…smut, fitting for a Smut Slam.
Turns out, I’m quite good at talking about the bawdy and indecent because I walked away with an award, which was almost as filthy as the story.
I still can’t work out how to use the prize. I think I’ll use it to unblock the sink although I’ve a feeling it’s not meant to be inserted there.
What I learned about telling a 5 minute story that captures a crowd is right here, and applies equally to stories of 30 seconds to 30 minutes.
Need help with structuring your story?
Ingredients of a good story:
- Detail but be selective where you put the detail. Put it where it matters. Want to describe the slightly threatening atmosphere surrounding your childhood private tutor? Describe the wallpaper decorated with pictures of guns and the display rack of rifles over the lacquered drinks cabinet.
- Don’t throw in a spoiler, by telling us the ending. This undermines the need for tension in a tale (see below for structure).
- Describe instead of judge: We need to see what people do or have done. For example when I’m talking about my micro-managing boss, I’ll replace “He was a petty little despot,” with a description of how he logged loo breaks and scanned everyone email ‘Sent’ folder every 30 minutes. This way you leave the emotional impact to resound.
- Describe feelings physically and sensorily, not by naming them. For example, I wasn’t ‘relieved’ but I felt as if someone had lifted me free from dangling over an abyss.
- The story could be yours or someone else’s but, preferably, a real one. You don’t have to stick to the exact truth if it serves your point.
- Stories need to follow the dramatic arc of rising action/climax/denouement. If they’re just a jolly through happiness and joy, they don’t count as a story. It doesn’t mean you need to have an anecdote with car crashes and sniper fire. Rejection, a physically arduous task or emotional trial would generate the tension you needs
How to find your story
- Take it from the key message. The key message is the ‘What’s in it for me’. This is from your audience’s point of view. A key message in this example here is ‘this software will help us increase our bookings and, therefore, profits’
Suggested story: old to new; resisting what you think is a fad.
- What action do you want your audience to take at the end of your talk? For example, we need to change our packaging to increase our market share:
Suggested story: how packaging has changed
(for this particular client, I ‘loaned’ the story of my grandmother and her siblings dragging home milk, from a cow kept at the back of the local grocers’ shop, in a huge container.)
How to structure your story:
Stories need to follow the dramatic arc of rising action/climax/denouement. If they’re just a jolly through happiness and joy, they don’t count as a story.
It doesn’t mean you need to have an anecdote with car crashes and sniper fire.
Rejection, a physically arduous task or emotional trial would generate the tension a tale needs.
A basic story structure would be along these lines, more suitable for shorter anecdotes:
If you have a bit longer and what to go into more detail, you could go for the dramatic arc, a classic in film, theatre and any form of storytelling. This is what it looks like:
The dramatic arc is also referred to as ‘The Story Mountain’. Each stage in the arc above is explained further below:
Transposed to the children’s tale of ‘The Three Little Pigs’, you have this:
To hear a good story, well told here’s Matthew MacArthur telling of ‘A monkey meets a seal meets a monkey” at The Moth (check out their story slams around the world as well as their podcast). Listen to how he tells it authentically, laying out the exposition so clearly.
It’s also possible to have the structure right but kill it in the telling. Here’s how.
Pitches and presentations are the natural habitats of a good story. See how I work with clients here.