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Do you want to spice up your speeches or presentations? How can you be a better storyteller and hook your audience?
Whether you’re giving a presentation to employees or recalling a funny moment with a group of friends, being a good storyteller goes a long way. If you’ve got an idea or pitch that you want someone to hear, keeping them entertained is a great way to do so.
Keep reading to learn the fundamentals of a good story, and how to be a better storyteller.
What Makes a Story “Good”?
Humans are drawn to stories, whether we hear them from our friends, movies, books, TV shows, plays, or any number of other mediums. But what makes a good story so compelling?
In Story, Robert McKee argues that, contrary to popular belief, we don’t seek out stories primarily as a way to escape our boring or unpleasant reality. Rather, we’re obsessed with stories because they fill a core human need: We need to find meaning, truth about the world that influences how we live our lives. When we encounter new meaning, it’s an intense, emotionally satisfying experience, and it’s a craving for this experience that motivates us to seek stories. The best stories are rich in meaning.
Since stories are meant to fill the human need for meaning, McKee asserts that good stories are always true to life. This doesn’t mean that good stories have to be something that could realistically occur—rather, every detail in a good story reflects life as it truly is. For example, even though Pixar’s Finding Nemo is about a talking clownfish, it’s true to life in the way it reflects how a father traumatized by the death of his wife would truly react if his son was kidnapped. If, instead, the clownfish Marlin was to flippantly laugh about losing his son (perhaps a screenwriter’s attempt at a joke) the story would no longer be true to life.
McKee explains that even stories that are totally detached from reality convey the truth about life. For example, a surrealist film in which characters change form and random events occur may convey that life is fundamentally absurd and has no unifying meaning—yet this in itself is still a truth about life.
How to Tell a Good Story
Knowing the elements of a compelling story is just the beginning. Now you need to learn how to be a better storyteller. In only five steps, you’ll draw the audience in and keep their focus on you, all while delivering your main idea.
1. Collect Story Ideas
The first thing you need to know about being a better storyteller is to start cultivating a collection of stories that speak to your values and engage your areas of expertise. Telling a compelling story relies on having a bank of stories at your disposal and then pulling out the perfect story at the perfect moment. She recommends starting to build your story bank right away.
Coming up with a story in a pinch can feel difficult, so Rob Biesenbach’s book Unleash the Power of Storytelling recommends noticing the stories that play out in your everyday life. It also helps to stay alert to stories in the books, journals, films, and other narratives you consume—you never know when you’ll run across a story that perfectly illustrates one of your core values. You can also interview people about their stories or plumb your own history for stories that relate to the message you want to convey, like calling on a childhood memory of building a treehouse to talk about collaboration.
Stories That Stick by Kindra Hall also suggests brainstorming as many story ideas as possible without judging them or thinking about whether they’ll be useful. If you’re feeling stuck, write down a list of important people, locations, or objects, and see what comes up—many good stories are associated with them. Firsts or major obstacles are also often fruitful grounds for storytelling. For example, think about the first time you made a public mistake or a time you accomplished something that seemed impossible.
2. Make Your Main Idea Clear
In Amplify Your Influence, René Rodriguez notes that the second way to learn how to be a better storyteller is to make your main idea clear to the audience. Your main idea is the central lesson or information you’re trying to communicate to your audience, the idea you want your audience to remember.
For example, in the professional realm, you might give a presentation to your employees in which your main idea is how leadership changes will help the company. In a personal conversation with your significant other, your main idea might be a way to solve a conflict about household chores.
Rodriguez states that your delivery of your main idea, including any actions you want your audience to take, should be clear and thorough. The audience shouldn’t have to speculate about your meaning or fill in knowledge gaps themselves. When in doubt, explain more thoroughly than you think you need to.
If you fail to deliver your main idea clearly and thoroughly, you could create misunderstandings and your audience might make assumptions that lead to further problems. For example, in business, poor communication can cause mistakes, hampered efficiency, and financial losses.
3. Structure Your Story
Now that you have the four elements of a strong story, you need a way to tie them all together. We’re taught from an early age that good stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. But Stories That Stick recommends reimagining this three-part structure as a before (what she calls “the normal”), the change (“the explosion”), and the after (“the new normal”). This structure focuses on introducing tension or conflict that’s then resolved, thereby creating an engaging and more memorable story.
While often overlooked, the beginning of the story is critically important. To be emotionally invested in your story, your audience needs to know what the world looked like before everything changed. Your audience will be even more invested if that world, or the characters, is familiar to them. As you begin your story, introduce the characters and add the details that will help your audience connect to the world you’re describing. For example, if you’re speaking to a group of millennials, you could incorporate a reference to ’90s pop music or college debt—any detail that allows the listener to see themselves in your story.
The next part of the story is the moment when everything changes. It doesn’t matter whether the change in your story is good or bad; your story needs a moment where something happens that marks a difference between what happened before and what happens after. Otherwise, the story will be stagnant.
In the final part of the story, you describe what happens after the change—how does the central character or the world look different after the change, or how could it look different? For example, after someone buys your product, how is their life better?
4. Use Emotion to Hook Your Audience
When you’ve nailed down the structure, evaluate how your story can tap into listeners’ emotions. Much of a story’s power lies in its ability to make us feel something, and Unleash the Power of Storytelling explains that you can use emotion to engage your audience in a few ways.
First, consider what motivates you: Focus less on “what” you do and more on “why” you do it to help center the story on things that matter. If you’re talking about a company or a product, identify the human element in the connections between colleagues or the ties between workers and their communities. You can also connect your story to the values that you and your audience share by emphasizing the importance of community, connecting the story to the values you share, or tapping into the history that unites the members of your audience.
For example, if you’re trying to get people behind an initiative to clean up a local park, you could focus less on the specific steps you’ll need to take and more on the reasons to take on the project in the first place (like preserving a public gathering space or ensuring the park continues to be a hospitable home for endangered birds). You can appeal to your audience’s sense of community by reminding them that all of you consider the neighborhood your home, and together you can take care of that home for everyone’s benefit.
Biesenbach notes that in some cases, it can work to highlight an emotionally resonant lesson in the struggles of a leader, historical figure, or athlete you look up to. (Just watch out for clichés.) And at points throughout your story, it’s OK to express your own emotions: When you talk about the people, memories, and values that you find meaningful, you reveal your own humanity.
5. Escalate Risk
The last step to learning how to be a better storyteller is to heighten the meaningful impact of your story. To do so, Story explains that you must convey that your protagonist (or yourself as the narrator) is at risk of losing what they care about most in the pursuit of a valuable goal. Why? In life, we judge how valuable something is by how much we’re willing to risk or sacrifice for it. Thus, creating a protagonist who’s willing to risk everything they care about is the most direct way to make an audience feel like the protagonist’s actions are important and meaningful. In contrast, if your protagonist has nothing to lose, the story will feel boring and inconsequential.
Furthermore, the pacing at which you escalate risk in your story is important: To make a story continuously interesting, you must incrementally heighten your protagonist’s risk throughout the story, explains McKee. If the protagonist undertakes the same kinds of actions they took earlier in the story, the audience knows to expect the same kinds of results, and they’ll get bored. Instead, if you force your protagonist to take progressively riskier and more extreme actions, the audience knows that these actions will have new, interesting consequences, and they’ll be captivated.
Escalate Risk With a Character Arc
If you’ve used beats to slowly escalate the stakes of your story, but it still doesn’t feel like your protagonist has enough at risk, it may be because their goal isn’t important enough for them to believably risk everything to accomplish. If this is the case, you may need to switch your protagonist’s goal to something more important partway through the story.
This ties into the idea of a character arc—when the events of your story fundamentally change your protagonist. In many stories, the protagonist realizes that the goal they had at the beginning of the story is less important than they believed it to be, and they start pursuing a new goal that fulfills them more deeply. Then, they’re willing to sacrifice more to achieve this new goal, raising the story’s stakes. For example, in Mad Max: Fury Road, Max initially just wants to escape from slavery, but by the end of the story, he’s willing to risk death to save the lives of those he’s been traveling with.
McKee would likely argue that story beats that subvert expectations are the way to accomplish this kind of character transformation. By default, no one wants to change. However, because unexpected story beats cause the protagonist to learn more about the world than they knew before, you can use them to show your protagonist the truths necessary to spark their character change.
Storytelling is essential for human communication and connection. For centuries it’s been used to inspire people, make them laugh and cry, and convey useful information. This is why learning how to be a better storyteller is important for every interaction you have in life.
What are some other ways to learn how to be a better storyteller? Leave us your suggestions in the comments below!
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