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My Fantastic High Class Storytelling Tips For You
“Stories are the creative conversion of life itself into a more powerful, clearer, more meaningful experience. They are the currency of human contact.”
Our Stories: The “Internet Before The Internet”
Take a long breath, close your eyes and take a minute to think about your life. What do you see? Ten thousand points, images, happenings in life, disconnected and without a broader meaning? Or do you see a stream of events, a long line of interconnected moments that did built on each other to get you where you are standing right now in your life?
What makes us human is exactly this: Being able to connect events, causes and effects and transform them into meaningful patterns in our minds, bodies, hearts and souls. Every one of us is a born storyteller, a born playwright, a born creator of an only apparently personal tale about struggle and failure and persistence and success. In fact there is no meaning creation outside of a family, group and nation, we are all born into ongoing stories. Still everyone of us has a unique view on his or her own life and the world, and that makes work, friendship and love so interesting – and so difficult.
If you think that this is some kind of theoretical concept of a crazy Italian (not that I am not crazy!) you are quite wrong. Every scientific study there is about storytelling shows that stories change the biochemistry of our brains and bodies while we listen to them. Stories induce our brains to produce Cortisol as well as Oxitocyn, substances that help us to feel distress or joy but also to focus on events and ideas and remember them better. Even more important, Ocytocin makes us feel connected to others, makes us empathic, thus leading us towards that beautiful moment when we blend in with others to the point to become a fascinating, extatic “We!”.
Considering these amazing properties of stories we might call storytelling the “Internet before the Internet”. I think that evolution wanted us humans to draw solace out of three dimensions of interconnection while on our difficult voyage through the ages:
The capability to learn from the experiences of others by listening to their stories,
The capability to make (positive) sense of what happens to us and to others during our lifetime by telling “our story” to ourselves,
The capability to feel connected to other human beings and experience moments of transcendency and communion, by listening to a story together with them.
Think about the last time you watched a movie, a soccer game or a religious service together with your family or friends. Think about how connected you felt, how safe and how deeply content. Wouldn’t it be great if your audience could experience this very same feeling while listening to your presentation?
Our Stories Explained By Edward Bernays & Joseph Campbell
There are two men who shaped the era we all live in more than most people and yet you have probably never heard of them; Edward Bernays and Joseph Campbell.
Let’s start with Edward Bernays who I fathom to be one of the inventors of totalitarian propaganda as well as modern marketing. Bernays, who’s uncle was Sigmund Freud, was born in 1891 in Vienna but lived trough his entire life in the USA. Working for the administration of President Woodrow Wilson during World War I, Bernays realised how easily the public opinion could be manipulated through political propaganda, in Germany as well as in the US. Convinced that human beings had a natural inclination towards following their most basic instincts like greed, lust and violence, he become convinced that the masses needed to be controlled and regimented by an “enlightened despotism” of a small (corporate) elite. The way to achieve that, was to engage and distract the “Public Mind” through constant governmental Public Relations (Bernays invented the term “PR”) and corporate product advertisement. Bernays thought that through strategically crafted stories people’s negative energies could be swayed and redirected towards mass democracy as well as mass consumerism.
As you can see, Edward Bernays considered the real story of humankind to be a story of irrational beings with an innate tendency towards rape and murder, and he heavily doubted that human beings could ever create a better world, thus wishing for a (secret) elite leadership capable to manipulate them into constructive behaviour. In Bernays world view the single man or woman counted almost nothing, given his and her natural tendency to believe whatever story was repeated and advertised clever enough to them. In Bernays view, history was made by a few men able to influence the masses through psychological mind control.
Joseph Campbell, born in 1904 in White Plains, New York, had a very different view of our story as mankind and of the role of the single human being within it. Studying first the stories and traditions of the American Indians and then the traditions and myths of India, Campell became convinced of the existence of a psychic unity of mankind. It was this common human “soul” that had been expressed by every single culture in history trough their particular stories and myths, meaning that while a legend from India at first look seemed quite different from a story narrated in ancient Finland, Campell believed them to tell all the same great story of mankind, a story that he called “Monomyth”.
This Monomyth essentially is a story about the journey of a hero who is lost in a superficial world but manages, trough great suffering, to make it to a hidden source of eternal wisdom and bring this powerful gift back to his aching world, thus transforming and saving it.
Campbell called this story, this Monomyth, the “Hero’s Journey” and he identified a clear overall narrative structure that characterised it beyond it’s local variants and through all cultures and centuries:
The Clockwork Of The Hero’s Journey
1. An Endangered Ordinary World
2. Call To Adventure
3. Refusal Of The Call
4. Meeting The Mentor, Accepting The Call
5. Tests, Allies, Enemies
6. Approach Of The Dragon’s Den
7. The Ordeal, The Fight
8. Seizing The Treasure
9. The Road Back
11. Return With The Boon
12. The Ordinary World Is Transformed To the Better
Protagonists The Hero Is Going To Encounter During The Journey
Followers of the antagonist
Custodian of the treasure
Companions of the hero
Giant with feet of clay
Interestingly Campbell was convinced that behind this universal and yet very clear structured story a much deeper secret was hiding, a riddle that couldn’t be solved by logic at all. Campbell believed that our destiny as mankind can be regarded as a journey from a dualistic conception of reality (being or not being, right or wrong, dead or alive) to a transcendental, category melting conception of an eternal, non logical force that always filled — and is still filling — the entire universe. To Campbell the real mission of every story expressed in words is to point to a dimension where there is no logic, where there are no words and where there is only pure, transparent, eternal energy.
This is exactly what Nancy Duarte, one of the most influential experts for storytelling in the world, means, when she says that stories are “sacred” and are to be respected, even when we use them in business. A concept that Edward Bernays would probably have considered naive but Joseph Campbell would have liked, I guess.
Our Stories In Business
Do you see why I took such considerable effort (how nice I am!) in order to show you the roots of modern storytelling? Today, exactly as a hundred or a thousand years ago, you have to make a choice, my friend: Are stories just a great tool to control the “Public Mind” of masses of hare brains or are they a sacred expression of our common quest towards personal growth and a better world for all of us?
I hope, that just like myself, you are member of the progressive party, comrade.
How To Craft & Narrate a Great Story
Ok, so let’s assume that you want to change the world to the better — with a story. But maybe you are not sure what story to tell? Well, first of all you got to decide whether you want to talk about yourself, your firm or your brand, product or service. In the first case you need a Core Story, in the second case a Maker Story and in the third case a Brand- or Product Story. But before we are going to take a look at each of them, let’s sum up what all three kinds of story will have in common, ok?
The Relevant Dimensions Of A Great Story Are:
She delivers only ONE clear message.
She is SHORT, between two and three minutes long.
She uses VIVID PICTURES.
She is told in PRESENT TENSE.
She describes CHANGE.
She describes CONFLICT on the way to a positive change.
She starts by describing the ‘INCITING INCIDENT’ that triggers the journey.
She might follow the concept of DISCOURS, by NOT beginning chronologically.
She has only ONE HERO and only a few key protagonists.
She has ONE CLIMAX that is easily identifiable.
She is narrated with the WHOLE BODY, verbally and nonverbally.
She delivers a SPECIFIC MORAL/ a SPECIFIC SET OF VALUES.
She closes with a CLAIM that makes the moral memorable.
She ends where she began (place, event, image), but on a higher level of HAPPINESS.
Lot’s of stuff, right? But remember, we all had once a hard time to figure out how to tie our show laces, and today (exceptions confirm the rule) we are quite good at it. Moreover I will explain the more challenging elements in detail below. But first some tips regarding the three classes of story:
The Core Story
The Core Story is about you. Why do you get up in the morning and why should we care? Why are you doing what you are doing today and how is it connected to our daily life? In what kind of future do you believe and what are you going to do to make it happen?
These are tough questions that you should answer to yourself by writing down your personal Values-, Vision- and Mission Statement long before going on stage. Once you are clear about that, tell a true story from your life, you can condense different scenes into one to heighten the drama of course, but tell always the truth. Think about crucial moments in your life when something beautiful or terrible happened, something that made you change direction or opened up new horizons to you, moments when you truly learned something about life. If those moments felt awesome to you, they most probably will touch us too.
Limit yourself to one scene, one place, one setting. I give you an example: You went to different colleges and studied informatics, taking different courses only to eventually find out that you like game programming best? Your Core Story could sound like this:
“I remember that day vividly, I was ten, and sitting on that old couch in the house of my grandparents, all surrounded by old paintings and rose patterns, I kept watching the dark wooden door. My eyes were wide open, and my whole body was ready to jump. Then, finally, I heard the car approaching, and that sound to me was the sweetest sound that I,could have imagined. I heard him say hello to Emily the dog, heard him shut the door of the car outside, heard his hand on the door handle, and then the door swung open and grandpa William, a broad smile on his face, snow all over his mountain jacket, rushed in, holding a big parcel in his outstretched arms, my Christmas gift!
“You were waiting for this, weren’t you?” he laughs in his deep voice, “Well, here it is. Merry Christmas, son!”
I fly into his arms, hugging him and at the same time putting down the big box carefully on the living room table and I begin to tear down the red and white wrapping paper with hot, impatient hands.
“Is it what I think it is?” I shout laughing. He doesn’t answer but keeps smiling, watching me taking the game console out of the box, feverishly plugging in the cables and switching on the TV with a smile on my face.
Do you remember that feeling we all had as kids when we experienced something beautiful for the very first time? That’s how it felt for me that night. I still remember the cool feeling of the plastic controls in my hands, the green trees with the happy rabbits all around, the sun going down on a world where the kids go to sleep between the branches of trees that whisper them gently to sleep. A perfect world, a world that now would be mine forever.
Grandpa and I played for an hour, laughing and shouting out, and then he went into the kitchen to help grandma with the lunch. I stayed behind, tired now, staring in amazement at the frozen scene on the big screen, watching the sunset over a warm, windy world that somebody had imagined and created for me, out of love.
“How difficult that must be!”, I thought by myself, “and how beautiful.”
It was then that I realised that I want to be a creator of worlds, of worlds that make people laugh and smile. Well, and that’s what I have become.
My name is Jim, I am studying Informatics and I am creating sun flooded worlds that will make you laugh and smile.”
One thing is for sure, my friend. You are going to remember this story for years! 😉
The Maker Story
Given the fact that I am an Italian and also lazy, I am not going to give you an example here, but questions that will help you to craft a great Maker Story instead.
Never start with the “What?” of your firm or the “How?”, always start with the “Why?”of your enterprise, Captain Kirk. What was the “inciting incident”, the extraordinary event that triggered the idea to create your firm? How did you meet your co-founders and why did they come on board? What were the toughest hurdles on your way to make it happen and what was the dream that gave you strength and got you going? Why are you glad that your firm exists today and why should we be glad too? What are your plans for the future and how can we help to make them come true? How exactly will our lives benefit and how will the world become a better place if we do back you guys?
The Brand- Or Product Story
What is lacking in our world and in our lives, when did you get the idea for your product or service? Which obstacles (doubts, antagonists, external factors) had to be overcome in order to produce it or offer it? What was the biggest hurdle during your adventure and how have you overcome it? What were the treasures that you did find and how exactly will these make our lives more pleasant or less unpleasant? How will these very same treasures change our endangered world to the better?
Three Of The Above Mentioned Tips Explained In Detail
All right, now you are a veritable storytelling expert, right? Well, almost. Let me add a few tips, or better, let my clarify three of the tips I already mentioned above:
1. Your story must always be a story about positive change. No change, no party (that is, no story). At the end of your story your hero (you, your team, your product) must be quite different (and better off) from what he /she / it was at the beginning. Every story is basically a story about what we have learned and how we have changed to the better by overcoming three kinds of obstacles; internal ones (doubts, fears, ignorance), social ones (other people, antagonists, competitors) and external ones (bad weather, volcanic eruptions, late planes). Says Hollywood scrptwriting guru Robert McKee and I believe him.
2. There are two important waypoints in your story; the Intro Point where your story begins and the Climax, the highlight of your whole story. Both can be connected in a clever way. You shouldn’t structure your story in a chronologically fashion (French: “Histoire”) but follow the structure of “Discours” by choosing an Intro Point close to your Climax. Why? Because that way you create expectations and suspense, hooking your audience from the very first moment.
Imagine working for the BBC and planning a TV Movie depicting the life of Albert Einstein. If you instinctively choose to follow a chronological structure you will face a problem: Albert’s birth was exactly like yours and mine, meaning not spectacular at all. The same is probably true for his infancy and childhood. The structure of “Discours” offers you a much better, more dynamic outlay, one that will capture the attention of your audience at once:
Knock, knock, someone is at the door. It’s July 1939, and Einstein, spending his summer vacation in Long Island and 60 years old by now, opens the door and finds himself looking in the weary eyes of Leo Szilard, a scholar from his early days in Prague, now a famous scientist himself.
“Oh, how nice to see you! Come in, come in. May I offer you some tea? Some cookies?” “Thank you, Professor, but I am here because I need your help, I need your help in writing a letter to President Roosevelt. I think that the Germans are trying to develop an Atomic Bomb, right now, while we are talking, and we must convince the Presidente to get there first.”
Wow, what a beginning, right? Much better than to show little Albert crying in the arms of his mother. But nonetheless you have to talk about Albert’s infancy and youth at some point, right? No problem, from your Intro Point in 1939 you jump “back” to 1879, taking up the chronological structure of events until you get to your Intro Point again. Then comes the Climax and soon after that the “Denouement”, the smooth fade out of your story. The End. And everybody’s happy.
The Discours Structure has a great advantage: It gives your audience something to work on for their money. No, you heard me right: Your audience wants to solve puzzles, discern patterns, anticipate and bet on the upcoming parts of your presentation. And the Discours — the throwing of the bait into the water only to take it out again at once — gives them exactly that. Which brings us to my last point for today:
3. Never explain your story, never ever tell your audience what the meaning or better, the moral, of your story is supposed to be. Your audience is composed of bright people and they want to connect and anticipate the dots by themselves, imagining possible patterns and solutions. That is essentially the pleasure we get from crime stories, opera arias, jokes and sex: We build expectation, anticipation, then reach the climax of the solution and finally get the “payoff” for our focus and passion. Wether we were anticipating rightly or wrongly (sometimes that’s even better) isn’t that important, our payoff is always the pleasant relieve of the suspense we have built up before.
Please watch the BBC TV Movie “Einstein’s Equation of Life and Death”.
Now It’s Time For Your Story
Isn’t it amazing? Good storytelling creates a chemistry of happiness, everybody gets the meaning, everybody takes pleasure out of it, it makes what you think and say interesting and memorable to your audience and it is essentially for free. All it takes is a bit of consciousness and a friend like me, getting you started. Well, I did my part. Now it’s your turn. Find your unique story, live it, tell it. And transform this world for the better.
*The quote at the beginning of this page is an original one 😉
Please read Robert McKee’s great book “Story. Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting”.