how-to-tell-a-story

How to Tell a Darn Good Story

Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, on a dark and stormy night, people used to sit around the fire at night and tell each other stories. In fact, we were storytellers long before we had even developed a written language; stories connected us, taught valuable lessons, and created a shared history.

Storytelling continues to be integral to who we are, and mastering telling a great story is a great way to connect with any audience.  But how do we craft a great story? And what delineates a great story from a not-so-great story? After all, we’ve probably all had the experience of hearing or reading a story that just didn’t work.

After spending several years teaching Narrative Design, the art of storytelling, to animators and artists, I’ve learned there are three crucial components that all great stories share. Making sure the story you are going to use in your next presentation contains these elements will make your story stronger, and create a deeper connection with the audience you are presenting the story to.

A great story must have a purpose.

Motivational speaker Les Brown famously says, “Never make a point without telling a story, and never tell a story without making a point.” A great story is audience-centered; therefore it’s crucial to know why you’re telling them the story in the first place. Is it to teach a valuable moral or lesson? To help explain a difficult concept? Or help them understand an important experience? Be clear on exactly why your audience needs to hear this story, and you will find it influences what stories you tell, and how to craft them so they bring value to the audience.

A great story must have conflict.

how-to-tell-a-good-story
This isn’t Inky, but nonetheless this Octopus looks like he’s heading for adventure.

Conflict refers to the obstacles or challenges your character is facing; without it the story doesn’t exist. Who wants to hear about a perfectly normal day where nothing happens at all? Very few people outside of your immediate family, and most likely no one in your audience. Consider the story of Inky the Octopus that has recently gone viral. After two years in captivity in the New Zealand aquarium, a maintenance worker accidentally left the top of Inky’s tank slightly open. Inky seized the opportunity, managed to climb out, found the only drain in the whole place that lead directly to the ocean, and escaped. We love the story because it details an octopus overcoming seemingly insurmountable challenges to achieve a goal. Would you be interested if the story was about how Inky spent another ordinary day in his tank?

A great story pays attention to structure.

Structure refers to what elements of the story are included, and how they are arranged. Most stories follow a basic, but highly effective, structure called Freytag’s Pyramid. In its simplest form the story contains each of these important elements:

Exposition – Information the audience needs to know to understand the story Inciting Incident – What happens to set off the central conflict

Rising Action – The series of events that increase the tension in the conflict

Climax – The tensest moment of the story, where the action comes to a head

Falling Action or Resolution – The events wrap up, loose ends are tied, questions are answered

However, skilled storytellers can manipulate this basic structure to further engage the audience. Consider any number of episodes of Breaking Bad which opened with scenes from the Resolution, or from somewhere in the middle of the conflict. The important thing to remember is that your story must contain each of these elements in order for your audience to be able to understand what is going on, and to create enough tension for them to stay engaged.

Becoming a skilled storyteller is a key part of becoming a great presenter. Adding a well-crafted story to any presentation will help illustrate your key points, engage your audience, and make your presentations more memorable.

An earlier version of this post appears on Speaking Practically