Strengthen Your Storytelling

stack of books on the dark wood background. toning. selective focus on the middle book

By Franz Wisner

My friend Martha hated sports. She refused to watch them on TV, much to the frustration of her husband, Alex, a sports addict. He pled with her, tried to persuade her with logic, even offered her bribes of cash and fancy dinners. She tuned it all out.

Then he started to share some background stories of athletes—how Michael Jordan had been cut from his high school basketball team before rising to greatness, or how Greg LeMond nearly died in a hunting accident only to recover and win the Tour de France again. 

Slowly, Martha came around. She started to join Alex for a few sports viewing sessions. Then she used the same tactic to convince him to start watching Project Runway. Touché.

At home or at work, at school or in the community, we are far more likely to be moved by a good story than by any other approach. Here are a few suggestions to strengthen your storytelling.

Conflict is the engine that fuels all stories. In its simplest terms, a story is conflict resolution. We can’t have resolution unless we have a conflict. It’s what engages us and forces us to read on. Without conflict, our brains tune out. If your story doesn’t have a conflict, you don’t have a story.

Don’t worry if you think your story lacks a major struggle. The storytelling definition of conflict isn’t limited to big fights or loud arguments. A conflict can be simple, like a desire to eat a healthy meal or an effort to sell a product that meets a need. A conflict can be internal, like a quest to fulfill a dream or a yearning to end a bad habit.

To me, story is getting rid of the B.S. It’s finding that emotional connection between storyteller and listener. If you can’t relate to your subject matter on a personal level, neither can we. So get personal with your storytelling. Embrace the full range of human emotions.

This includes failures and setbacks. Ben and Jerry’s created something they call a “Flavor Graveyard” at its Vermont headquarters, complete with tombs that mark the death of such failed products as “Rainforest Crunch,” “Tennessee Mud” (made with Jack Daniels), and the Saturday Night Live-inspired “Schweddy Balls.” The graveyard attracts 300,000 visitors a year.

We love failures, but not because we are cruel. We love failures because we are human. We can relate. We have failed, too. Everybody fails. We want to see how you handle it.    

Your story should not only grab our attention, it should make us care. These are two different things. It’s the difference between an annoying car alarm and someone yelling, “Hey, he’s trying to steal my car!”

So show us the stakes of your story. Let’s say you’re a nonprofit trying to protect a piece of land. It’s important to tell us the benefits of open space, but also let us know what will happen if you are unsuccessful in your efforts. The more urgent the stakes, the more likely we are to engage.

Good stories have both surface action as well as an emotional underpinning, what’s really going on. We are interested in the surface action, but we crave the deeper meaning. Tell us your story the way you’d tell it to your closest friend over a glass of wine.

Every story needs a protagonist, a champion. I’m not talking about Superman. Far from it. Think about your favorite leading characters in books or movies. I’m guessing that most of them, while admirable, have a few flaws. Great. Those shortcomings make us like them, and their stories, more.

Protagonists don’t have to be perfect. They do need to be credible. And engaging. They are our guides through your stories. We need to believe they are leading us in the right direction. They need to pique our interest enough that we will follow along.       

After you’ve established a conflict, set the stakes, and given us a compelling hero to follow, we are ready to journey with you to the heart of your story—the rising action. We know the challenge. Now we want to see how your protagonist overcomes it.

Your hero doesn’t need to achieve every goal during this part of the story. Often, it’s a two-steps-forward, one-step-back series of events. We don’t mind your hero falling down… as long as he or she gets right back up.

That’s because we care far more about effort than outcome. I love characters like Charlie Chaplin or Wall-E because they never give up. I also applaud companies and brands that focus on endeavor over result. Nike doesn’t tell us “Just Win.”  It tells us “Just Do It.”

Make sure the action is easy to follow throughout your story. This means investing sufficient time to craft, edit, and think about your story. As Maya Angelou said, “Easy reading is damn hard writing.”

Finally, your story needs a resolution. Make sure it’s at the end. One of the most common storytelling errors I see is the early conclusion. The minute you let us know everything is going to be fine, we lose interest in your story. We don’t need to worry about it anymore. Keep us engaged by saving the resolution for the end of your tale.

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