How to tell a story

People have been telling stories to each other for thousands of years.

It is so ingrained in our psyche that we are absolute masters in the art of storytelling. We watch movies and immediately we can understand what the purpose of the story is. We can predict what will happen and when it does, we have this God-like satisfaction of knowing that we were right.

We tell stories to each other, to our friends, our family members. We craft these stories and people listen to us with bated breath as we spill out the words to our exciting tales.

But when it comes to doing a presentation or telling a story in front of a larger number of people we freeze.

We convince ourselves that we can’t do it. We tell ourselves that we know nothing about stories and we don’t know how to tell one at all.

This is nonsense.

We all know how to do it by instinct. But let me map out a few markers to help you craft your story.

Start Big

Make a big impact at the beginning. There is no use in going in shy and timid. Start big and you can’t go wrong.

Look at Hollywood movies and the way they begin. I don’t mean the quiet, artsy movies about family drama or a touching human story. I mean the big, loud action movies.

They always start with some huge event, something that we know impacts the rest of the movie. And it drags us by our collar right into the very heart of the story. It is highly charged and emotional.

You need to start your story in the same way.

This is no time to be shy.

So, you are standing in front of a conference room filled full of people, all eyes upon you. Some of them are twiddling with their phones, one just stifled a yawn and the guy at the back is looking around to see if there is any coffee on the go.

Then you say:

So, there I was in the ocean, my friends frantically waving and shouting out at me from the boat at least five meters away. And either side of me a shark fin and one of them was going down.

Now you have everyone’s attention.

All eyes are on you and they are all thinking, what kind of sales meeting is this?

The room has become so deathly quiet, that a pin dropping might as well be a tree falling.

That is how you start your story.

I don’t mean you tell them about bobbing about in the sea and circled by sharks. But you start that big. With that large a punch.

Think of all the stories you have in your own life and think of a way to begin that story that makes it the most exciting, thrilling story you could tell.

Use your imagination and think of the meeting room or your potential client’s office as a cinema screen, waiting for you to fill it with action heroes, falling buildings, international terrorists or sharks.

Start your story with a scene that your audience cannot ignore. Give them something so powerful that they have to pay attention to you just to see what you will say next.

Who What Where

So you start your story with a huge image. A powerful scene that makes all your audience hold their breath for more.

Now you have to give them the setting for the story. This means you must give them three vital pieces of information.

Who is in your story?

What is happening?

Where is the story taking place?

Without any of these essential pieces of information, you lose your audience. If you don’t give them these three things they nod off, look at their phones or turn to look out the window.

This is the setting of your story and you must make sure that everyone understands it well.

Who?

These are the characters in your story, the players.

In every movie, we understand who all the characters are in the first ten or fifteen minutes. We are so accustomed to seeing stories played out this way that we can figure out who is who very quickly.

You need to ensure who the hero is, who the bad guy is, the hero’s best friend and anyone else in your story.

Do not make yourself the hero! I will come back to this later…

But determine who the characters are and a brief background of the person.

What?

The audience needs to know what is happening. What are the characters trying to do? What is the purpose of the story?

The audience must know what is taking place. There can be no mistakes here. You cannot fill in gaps later on and say Oh I forgot to tell you, James was there because his family had given him permission to use the boat…

What is happening? Explain it clearly.

When?

And they need to know when it is taking place. At the weekend, on someone’s birthday, in the middle of the summer. These details are important.

Sometimes this can be summed up quickly. The quicker you can do this the better in fact. Then you move on to the real meat of your story.

Build Conflict

If the story has no conflict there is no story at all.

Every story must have conflict. Without it, the audience is picking up phones and scrolling through messages rather than listening to you.

They want to see the tension rising. And that tension has to meet a final conflict, which is resolved momentarily, then rises again. Depending on how long your story is you may only need to have one rising wave of tension — that meets a final crescendo at the end and then all the tension is resolved.

But in a longer story, you need to create tension. This means anything that impedes the hero getting what he wants or is trying to do. So he may be on his way to pick up something from his supplier. He needs this purchase to satisfy a big order that he will send out this week.

You can throw anything at the hero to make sure he doesn’t get to meet the supplier.

That could be traffic, or being stopped by the police or running out of gas.

He gets to the supplier and finds the offices all closed for the day. Why? He calls the supplier, and he says there is a big company picnic — we do it every year at this time of year.

These obstacles create tension and your audience are crying out for it.

Remember — no tension, no story.

End Big

And just as you started your story big you also have to end it big.

Build the tension to a big crashing finale and you will have your audience on the edge of their seats.

There is no point in just letting the story peter out with a whimper. It has to end with explosions, car crashes, dinosaurs and zombie attacks from Mars.

If the audience is looking back at you with a confused look on their faces, then you have failed. The last thing you want — or need — is to go through that painful experience of having to explain the ending of your story. It has to be crystal clear what exactly happened. If there is any confusion, it is because you missed a vital part of your story out in the setting stage.

But end big and the audience will appreciate it very much.

Conclusion

These are the very basic parts of any story.

A powerful beginning, a more powerful ending with the middle filled with a rising tension that creates the conflict the audience craves.

And there is a setting — the who, what and where of the story.

If you follow all these basic rules, you can’t go wrong. People love to hear stories and you should use them all the time when talking to clients, making a presentation in a conference room or meeting with suppliers.

Stories have been with us for thousands of years and we will always yearn for them. So use them in your own life too.

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