Most speakers pay lip service to storytelling, but what they really do is relay pieces of stories, anecdotes, or name-dropping factoids-on-steroids.  My wife and I celebrated New Year’s one year at the Charles Hotel, and as we were checking out, guess who got into the elevator with us?  Matt Damon and his familyTrue story. 

Only it’s not a story.  It’s a factoid given artificial significance by the celebrity involved.

Could I turn it into a story?  Only by creating conflict with someone and Matt Damon.  One of his children was cranky and wanted some candy.  Matt was all for giving in, but his wife glared at him and said, sotto voce, “Don’t spoil her.”  Matt rolled his eyes and withdrew the proffered candy, causing the kid to wail and everyone in the elevator to be embarrassed.  (Important note:  this is not a true story.  Actually everyone on the elevator behaved well.)

Now we’re getting somewhere – we have conflict between Matt and his wife, and his child.  It’s almost a story, with a resolution.

Is it a good almost-story?  No.  The stakes are trivial, and we don’t really learn anything interesting from even this celebrity-cranked anecdotal story.

Why isn’t it a story, really?  Because no one changes, that we can see.  Matt is still a bad father, his wife is still playing the heavy, and the kid is presumably still spoiled.

Turning this miserable anecdote into a real story would not help much: Matt realizes the error of his ways and resolves never again to contravene his wife or feed his kid candy.  Why?  Because the situation is too hackneyed and the insight potentially gained from it too simple.  And no one works hard enough to achieve the ending of the story.

All these machinations around poor Matt suggest a few ways to make your stories better.

1.Start with strong conflict. Conflict is key to good storytelling.  Without some tension between at least two characters, we don’t have the possibility of something interesting happening.  But, and this is an important but. . .

2.Make the stakes high and the conflict interesting. You can’t just offer us the clichéd father-kid-mother-candy situation if the only reason to pay attention is that a celebrity is involved.  That’s not enough.  We not only need something at stake; we need something important at stake.

3.Ensure that the hero learns something or changes by the end of the story. This character growth is essential to good storytelling, and it’s the other thing besides conflict that’s almost always left out.

4.Never say “fast-forward.” One of the quickest way to tell if a story is poorly structured is when the teller says, “fast-forward to. . . .”  What’s happening is that the storyteller hasn’t started the story in the right place.  Always start the story as late into the plot as possible, but not too late.  If you do that properly, you should never have to say, “fast forward.”

5.A good story has a point, or moral. It’s not always explicitly stated, but it often is.  If you can’t clearly state it, then you haven’t thought enough about the story – why you’re telling it, what its structural logic is, and where it’s headed.

So there you have it:  good story telling begins with conflict.  But not just any conflict – conflict where the stakes are high and everyone can care about the outcome.  Then, you need to put your hero right into the middle of the soup, and turn up the heat.  Make the hero suffer for the insight she ultimately learns.  And then have a clear idea of what that insight is.

And that is the beginning of good storytelling.

21 Comments

  1. Some great insights here Nick, thanks! It’s no wonder clients often struggle to tell stories – in my experience they don’t spot those crucial elements you mention when they’re recalling various incidents. Something happened, yes – but where’s the drama, why should we care and what’s the moral? A client of mine was searching for a recent experience and remembered he’d bought a security camera on Amazon. But he didn’t mention why. Had the house next door been broken into recently? Had this caused him and his wife to lose sleep and argue? Was the delivery delayed and was he worrying how ironic it would be if he were robbed during that delay? Your post serves as a valuable reminder to go beyond the bare facts.

    1. Thanks, Andrew — great example. As soon as we unearth why your client bought that security camera, we’ll most likely unearth a story…..

  2. Great piece as always, Nick. I never forget something you once said about stories. Something like, “They have a beginning, a middle and an end. But then so does a pencil!” Factoid. This piece once again clearly helps us understand that having some elements that make up great stories does not automatically give you anything near a story. Your example has Matt Damon in an enclosed space. Two perfect elements for something tremendous. But still a long way short. It’s not even a decent anecdote, with everyone so well behaved. Brilliant example.

    1. Thanks, Mark — I should give credit for the pencil meme to my good buddy Peter Orton, who was Spielberg’s second unit director, and is a great storyteller in his own right. And now, back to Matt Damon in an enclosed space. How can we get him into trouble???? I sense a movie treatment in the offing:-)

  3. Great post! I totally agree.

    The key part of a story, for me, is that “change”. Too many intended stories end up being unsatisfying to the audience because nothing changes as the result of the story. They leave us feeling “what was the point of that story?” Even if it’s just a small change, on the grand scheme of things, you can highlight its significance with the story. But, you have to clarify the change in your mind before you can effectively structure the rest of the story.

    Nailing down the change also allows you to nail down the “hero”: whoever, or whatever, the change happens to, that is your story’s hero, be it your company, yourself, a celebrity, Matt Damon, or anything else.

    1. Exactly, Alex — thanks for the comment. Getting the change right is perhaps the hardest part of storytelling, because it’s easy to overshoot or undershoot. Think about the difference between “A Christmas Carol,” where Scrooge’s change is obvious and deeply satisfying, and “Catcher in the Rye,” where Holden Caulfield’s change is very subtle indeed. Reverse the reactions and you’d have nonsensical writing.

  4. I think in business presentations, the story has to have purpose. To entertain and educate. The starting point ought be, what point do I need to illustrate, and then identify a relevant story to use, which makes the point memorably.

    1. Thanks, Andrew! You’re echoing Horace, who said that poetry should be “dulce et utile,” both sweetness and light, educational and entertaining.

  5. I can definitely use tips on better storytelling… Can you give an example of how this would be a good story? These are great tips, and I’d to see how they are applied to the bad scenario.

    1. Hi, Julia — it’s all about starting with a strong conflict and high stakes. So, instead of Matt disciplining his kid, perhaps he’s arguing with his agent about a career-saving role that he doesn’t want to take because it’s too superficial and he wants to make a deeper, more meaningful movie.

  6. Um… what ‘stories’ are you talking about? Short anecdotes during the public speeches? I certainly hope you’re NOT talking about WRITING stories.

    But even for the anecdotes during public speeches, I don’t like it. If I were in audience and hear such a story, all about high stakes with a ‘hero’ who learns a lesson and with a clear moral for the audience, I’d run away. Cliche, moralizing and preachy – no thanks.

    1. Thanks, Orville — you’ve clearly got a lot of attitude already, so it’s hard to know what’s behind your worries. Of course you should tell a story that’s a “cliche, moralizing and preachy!” The art is in the details of the story, its authenticity, and its emotional punch. And “short anecdotes” also don’t fill the bill. As I’ve posted about often in the past.

  7. Right behind conflict, I’d rank “color” as critical to compelling story-telling. I always use the Moses story by way of example. If the Old Testament merely told us, “And, lo, Pharoah adopted a Jewish kid,” no one would remember. The basket and the reeds along the Nile have made the story stick in heads over millennia. Then again, isn’t that color on top of conflict?

    1. Yes, John — just the right details to bring the story to life. Not too many so as to kill it. Getting that balance right is one of the secret mysteries of storytelling.

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