• What makes stories great is the detail we add in. Essentially, we need to put meat on the bones of our story and make sure to do the following:
    • Have a hero/protagonist. Decide who will be the central character of the story. Often people remember the characters more than the story itself.
    • Describe what your hero is up against. What challenges does the character have to overcome? What do they want and what is stopping them from getting it? This is your story’s source of tension.
    • Build in a specific transcending emotion. You need something that breaks down barriers; love, lust, greed, passion, and loss are perfect.
    • Include a clear lesson or transformation. Make sure your characters move towards their goal/objective/solving a problem.
    • Add twists and turns to the story. Try not to make it predictable for the listener. Introduce a question or challenge and don’t be too quick to solve it.
    • Make it believable. It is essential that your story allows the listener to suspend their disbelief, listening to what you are saying rather than questioning the truth of your words.
    • Have a clear incident that makes the story really take off. Often referred to as the Inciting Incident, it is a concept popularized by the master of story, Robert McKee, in his famed three-day “Story Seminar” given all over the world. It is described by Steven Pressfield, author of The Legend of Bagger Vance and The War of Art, here: “The inciting incident in a screenplay or novel is that event that gets the story rolling. In The Hangover, it’s the moment when the guys wake up in their trashed villa with no memory of what happened the night before–and realize that they’ve lost their friend Doug. With that, the story kicks into gear. Everything before that is just setup. Ask yourself of your project, “What is the inciting incident?” “When does the ‘story’ take off?” You’d be surprised how many would-be novels/screenplays/restaurants/startups don’t have inciting incidents. That’s why they don’t work”.
    • Know where you want to end up (the punch line) from the outset. The last line should be the first line you write. Then work backwards towards your inciting incident and set up.
    • Quickly build in a hook to grab your audience’s attention and draw them into the story. This is especially important in light of today’s ever-decreasing attention spans. You’re your audience’s reason to keep their phones in their pockets.
    • Reference your opening lines/setup in the conclusion of your story. This is referred to as the Bookend Technique and it will give your story a feeling of completion or symmetry.
  • Frame your story within a three-act structure:
    • Setup (Beginning)
    • Confrontation (Middle), and
    • Resolution (End).
  • The hook and inciting incident usually happen within the first act. “People have forgotten how to tell a story,” said Steven Spielberg. “Stories don’t have a middle or an end any more. They usually have a beginning that never stops beginning.” If one of the most awarded directors of all time says that’s a problem, it’s a problem. Make sure you don’t make the same mistake.

  • Build in entertainment. Modern day storytelling is joke telling. Today’s audiences expect some light-heartedness and entertainment. Airbnb gave it to them in the form of funky named cereals. A story should make people care by including personal experience that the audience can relate to themselves and to their own lives. The most powerful stories are not about the storyteller, they are about the person who is hearing the story. Most marketers and presenters forget this.

  • I made sure my story followed these:
    • Be forewarned: Stories are told, not read. We love how the storyteller connects with the audience when there is no PAGE between them! Please know your story “by heart” but not by rote memorization. No notes, paper or cheat sheets allowed on stage.
    • Have some stakes. Stakes are essential in live storytelling. What do you stand to gain or lose? Why is what happens in the story important to you? If you can’t answer this, then think of a different story. A story without stakes is an essay and is best experienced on the page, not the stage.
    • Start in the action. Have a great first line that sets up the stakes or grabs attention.
  • NO: “So I was thinking about climbing this mountain. But then I watched a little TV and made a snack and took a nap and my mom called and vented about her psoriasis then I did a little laundry (a whites load) (I lost another sock, darn it!) and then I thought about it again and decided I’d climb the mountain the next morning.”

  • YES: “The mountain loomed before me. I had my hunting knife, some trail mix, and snow boots. I had to make it to the little cabin and start a fire before sundown or freeze to death for sure.”

  • Steer clear of meandering endings. They kill a story! Your last line should be clear in your head before you start. Yes, bring the audience along with you as you contemplate what transpires in your story, but remember, you are driving the story, and must know the final destination. Keep your hands on the wheel!

  • Know your story well enough so you can have fun! Watching you panic to think of the next memorized line is harrowing for the audience. Make an outline, memorize your bullet points and play with the details. Enjoy yourself. Imagine you are at a dinner party, not a deposition.

  • Great business speakers do the same thing. The only way to learn where your laugh lines are is through trial and error, but when you hit upon one you will remember it. Your audience’s laughter burns a mental post-it note in your mind because it feels good to make people laugh.

  • We need to identify the key funny part in our stories and get there as quickly and effectively as possible. We can do this without losing the story format by using the joke structure, which will allow us to deliver the same story in its shortest, most effective form.

  • Standup comedians, top TED speakers, and even Presidents tend to follow the same joke format for this: 1) Set-up, 2) Punch line, and then 3) Taglines.

  • The Setup establishes the premise of the joke by providing the audience with the necessary background information. It should use as few words as possible.

  • The punch line, this is essentially the laugh line. The set-up leads the audience in one direction and the punch line surprises them by suddenly going off in a different direction. That twist, that element of surprise, is a punch line’s chief ingredient.

  • Taglines are optional. They are essentially additional punch lines delivered after the initial punch line. Sometimes they build on the original joke and sometimes they add a twist and surprising new direction. 

  • Remember: Always keep the punch line in mind.

  • Every good comedian makes sure he or she sets set up a joke by painting a picture so the audience can relate to the experience. A great piece of advice given to me by one of the San Francisco Bay Area’s top comedians, Reggie Steele, is to write as if you are describing something to a blind person. It’s a piece of advice he learned literally when a number of blind people came to one of his shows. He wanted to make sure they could relate to his story and follow every aspect of it from the words alone and not just his usual animated style.

  • You want to use words like weird, amazing, scary, hard, stupid, crazy, or nuts. Try to incorporate these words into your opening setup or statement. This will help people focus on you and pay attention quickly. If you want people to be passionate about your topic, show them some passion.

  • When you’re crafting a story or a joke, you want to leave people with something to remember. In our presentations, we’ll do exactly the same thing. When you see “a thousand songs in your pocket,” you’ll immediately think about Steve Jobs and the launch of the iPod. This was the key takeaway, 1,000 songs in your pocket. He repeated it over and over again throughout the presentation. Also, “I have a dream,” the key line for Martin Luther King’s famous speech. He said this over and over again to emphasize it as the clear takeaway. The 3rd most popular TED talk at the time of writing is Simon Sinek’s: How great leaders inspire action. He repeatedly states the main point of the talk: “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”

  • You never want to write, “I was walking and I saw.” It should be “I’m walking and I see.” Even if the event happened many, many years ago, you want the audience to be living that moment with you as if it’s happening right now. Write the scene for the audience as if it’s unfolding in front of their very eyes. Again, your writing will be much more engaging if the audience feels like they’re a part of the action.

  • We want to get to the funny or punch line as quickly as possible. Copywriter Henneke Duistermaat lists some great words to watch out for that can usually be cut out: ought, in my opinion, that just actually, truly, and very. These are all words that can be stripped out to get to the punch line quicker. Watch out for them in your writing. Scott Adams, the writer of Dilbert comics notes, “Keep your writing simple, as if you were sending a witty email to a friend. Be smart, but not academic. Prune words that don’t make a difference.”

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