Three ways to make your stories amazingly impactful
‘The most powerful person in the world is the storyteller. The storyteller sets the vision, values and agenda of an entire generation that is to come.’
Storytelling is an art form as old as time and can be found in every part of culture and society. Why? Because stories are universal. They speak in a language that all of us, regardless of dialect or heritage, can understand. We empathise with engaging characters, grieve with them, celebrate with them and follow them on journeys from the kitchen sink to the edge of the galaxy. Stories stimulate imagination and passion and create a sense of community among listeners and tellers alike, and make for excellent structures for compelling public speaking.
Here are some top tips to get your storytelling up to scratch:
Grab the audience’s attention FAST
According to a study by Microsoft, the average human being now has an attention span of eight seconds. Even goldfish have an attention span of twelve seconds. How far we have fallen.
This gives you an indication about how important it is to make sure the audience is engaged with you from the start. This is where structure is critical.
From our in-house Storytelling expert and Founder, Max Dickins:
The legendary screenwriter William Goldman once wrote that, ‘Storytelling is structure.’ Put like that, stories sound quite boring! But structure is simply the order in which you present information to an audience. And the order you present aspects of your story will affect your audience’s emotional response to it. How often has a friend of yours told you a story that has fallen flat, only to say, ‘Oh, yeah, and he was on fire the whole time!’ Ok, so maybe not as crazy as that! But the point is, we often forget to include crucial details that will hook our audience into our story. Or, if we don’t forget to include them, we include them too late. Structure can save the day here.
So, what is good structure? It’s a version of what your English teacher used to tell you at school: beginning, middle, and end. You start your story by giving the audience the who, the what, and the where of your story world. That is, you give them-as quickly as possible-the information they need to understand the story at all. Who is the hero? Where did they start? What did they want? These are all important things to include. When you’ve done that, you want to introduce the conflict. This is the most important bit in a story. It’s what you should spend most of your time on in a story. (It’s also the bit most people tend to rush past when they tell a story.) If in the beginning we’ve introduced the hero and what they want, now we show what was stopping them from getting it. If the start shows us the stakes, then the middle gives us tension! It asks the question, what happens next?
A classic example comes from the David Attenborough documentary Planet Earth, where an Iguana attempts to run through a valley of killer snakes! It has all the ingredients you want: defined hero, simple and specific goal, scary antagonist and a load of stakes! You can watch that here:
Spoiler alert; the iguana gets away. This then is the end of your story: the resolution of the conflict. It is the answer to, what happened next? Here we show how the hero overcame the conflict-or not-and what changed as a result. Either for them-they survived- or in the world-the snakes went hungry. Here it is helpful to state what the hero won (or lost) and also a short statement of what they learned on their journey. In a business story, this would be the business point. While we don’t want to spoon feed our audience, ending a story in this way shows the audience the clear relevance and benefit for them.
It’s all about the conflict
If there’s no conflict in your story, it’s likely not a story.
In your stories, antagonists don’t need to be personified as a ‘baddie’ per se, like the aforementioned snakes. They can also be natural disasters, diseases or emotions. Any story, no matter how big or small can be made instantly more engaging where the character we root for has challenges to overcome, however they manifest themselves.
For instance, I played youth football growing up. It was my dream to play at the highest level possible (although, as I’m writing this blog, you can guess how far I got). If I was telling a basic version of the story, omitting the conflict, I would tell you that I was spotted playing for my local team, subsequently offered a trial at county level and ended up playing a season with some extremely talented young footballers who have gone on to make their name in professional football. That version is easy for me to tell and avoids bringing up slightly embarrassing choices on my part. It also is very dull.
Now look at this story where I remember and highlight the conflict.
If I delve even slightly deeper into the emotional conflict of the story, I would tell you that I was a very shy only child with little confidence in my own ability. I’d tell you that I was so overcome with fear at the idea of pushing myself against the other left-backs in the county that I couldn’t get out of bed and didn’t attend the first round of trials. When I told my manager that I didn’t want to go he barely talked to me for two weeks. I also felt completely frozen out from the team, as if my rejection of the trials was a slap in the face for them. After a very emotional conversation with my ever-supportive Grandad about following my own dream and backing myself (including some mild emotional blackmail about him being sent away to war for six years – ‘now that’s a real struggle!’), I made it to the second round of trials. I was later selected for the county team (scoring an absolute belter from outside the penalty area). I played in fits and starts for one season but eventually fell out of love with football for several years after a nasty knee injury. Nevertheless, I will never forget pushing through those personal barriers in order to show people what I could do.
This is now a far more interesting story to tell. I have included my personal internal conflict of not feeling good enough and fear of letting others down, external conflict with my teammates freezing me out and my manager being the ‘baddie’ – I had considered him the baddie for a good twelve months when he tried to switch me to right-back at Under 11’s (with this left foot?!).
Find your moment of climax
The bestselling author, Matthew Dicks notes that you don’t need a big or interesting life to tell good stories. He emphasises the idea of ‘five second moments’ – the small everyday scenarios that create significant transformation in your understanding of yourself, your life, family or friends. You just need to know what you’re looking for and seek out those five second moments to improve your storytelling.
It might seem like we need to be a world famous athlete, actor, influencer, or politician (check out our article: How to Speak Like a World Leader) in order to have a ‘big’ life but if we look at these small scenarios, they can be incredibly influential in the development of our story and importantly they enable us to build up tension as we have a point to aim for.
It could be sitting with an old friend, where they realise you aren’t doing as well as you thought or taking your dog for a walk and you notice a change in your health. These are small moments that can form part of a much bigger picture and will help your structure your story with far greater ease.
If we look back to where that moment was in my football story, we can see the ‘five second moments’ as me being too scared to get out of bed, when my teammate wouldn’t pass me the ball after I turned down the trial and when I spoke to my Grandad on the phone. All of these small moments did everything Matthew Dicks refers to – transforming your understanding of yourself, your life, family or friends.
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