Set Up for Success: 3 Ways to Create Rich Beginnings

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When I was a senior in high school, I gathered a bunch of my friends at my house to watch the noir thriller American Psycho, which had just been released on VHS.  We were a rowdy bunch who generally preferred making jokes and yelling over each other to watching a screen for two uninterrupted hours.  But as soon as the movie started, we were drawn into the story. 

Here’s the opening scene, as directed by Mary Harron:

Fascinating, right?  But how does Harron draw you into Patrick Bateman’s twisted world so quickly?

As with all stories, it all starts with a great setup.

To help you eliminate confusion and cliche in your stories, here are “3 Ways to Create Rich Beginnings”.  Follow these steps and you’ll be able to draw in even the most distracted crowd.

1. Ground the story in a specific place.   The first job of a storyteller is to  paint a picture of the environment so the audience will understand the choices that the central character makes as the narrative unfolds.  Does the story take place in a single engine plane flying over the California desert or in a brightly lit, modern apartment on the eleventh floor of the American Gardens Building? What sorts of hair products does the character use?  The more detailed you are about location (sights, smells, tastes, sounds, and feel) the less work you’ll have to do later on.  Be bold!  

2.  Show us external forces at play.  To buy into a story, the audience needs to understand the external influences, or circumstances, affecting the central character.  If the story takes place in the South Bronx in the 1980s, for example, it’s reasonable for an audience to expect high crime, abandonment and racial tension to work their way into the story.  On the other hand, if the story takes place in Wall Street investment banks in the 1980’s, we expect to see expensive suits and fancy cars.  As is the case with backstory (see this earlier post), when you show external forces at play, you can demonstrate character and even foreshadow what will happen in the story. 

3. Establish timing.  When telling a story, it’s important to understand the amount of time the story covers.  Does the story begin when you’re 5 years old and end when you’re 40, or does it begin and end in a single day?  Stories may jump around in time, but the audience needs to understand how you (the narrator) uses time. Timing affects the narrative, so be patient with your setup.

Feeling a little more settled?

 

Keys to Success: 5 Ways to Create Great Characters

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The first time I saw the sketch comedy show Key and Peele on Comedy Central, I had to pause the show because I was crying with laughter.  See the clip below:

Funny, right?  But how do Key and Peele keep the jokes flowing?

The answer is pretty straightforward: great characters.

All stories work in service of great characters, so to help you bring dimension to the characters in your stories, here are “5 Ways to Create Great Characters”.  These tips will help you capture the people in your stories quickly and effectively and will likely help you get a laugh in the process.

1.  Discover the character’s point of view.  The first step in creating a great character is to unpack the character’s beliefs about the world.   What is this person’s personal philosophy? Is this person an optimist or a pessimist?  Maybe you had a basketball coach who was secretly suspicious of everyone on the team.  Or maybe you had a boss who told you that “everything happens for a reason”.   Once you understand the character’s point of view, it will be much easier to identify the character’s game (see “5 Ways to Add Humor to Your Stories”) and add a few laughs to the story.

2.  Know the backstory.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, backstory is critical to capturing character.  Before starting your story, take the time to identify the events that shaped the characters in the story.  Maybe the same boss who told you that “everything happens for a reason” grew up in a town of 20 people and was the prom king of his high school.  Changes your perception of him, right?  The more information you offer about a person’s past, the more nuanced and interesting the character becomes.

3.  Identify the character’s status. To understand the character’s status, it’s important to pin down two things: (1) the character’s actual position in the societal hierarchy; and (2) how the character perceives him/herself in the pecking order.  Once you know these two things, the character will instantly become more relatable.  

 4. Show off the character’s speech patterns and mannerisms.  There’s no easy way to do this, so be patient.  That said, one storytelling trick I use is to record a spoken version of the story and then transcribe the story verbatim.  The process of transcribing dialogue will help you discover your speaking style and better understand the characters in the story.

5. Have fun!  Once you’ve created a great character (steps 1-4), place your character situations that confirm the things the audience already knows.   For example, if we know that your basketball coach is suspicious of everyone on the team, show us a moment when the coach discovers two players whispering in the locker room.  It’ll be fun for the audience to watch and will deepen your connection with the character. 

 

Creating great characters takes time (Key and Peele winnowed 330 sketches down to 82 for this upcoming season), so make sure to be patient with yourself.  With enough work and time, however, you’ll have audiences laughing and crying along with your stories.

Never Bored Room: 3 Stories to Enliven Your Next Meeting

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When I was just out of college, I had a job in which every meeting had the same pointless pattern as Michael Scott’s breakdown of business fundamentals in Season 4 of The Office:

Does this situation feel familiar?  Do you ever need to tell a short story in a meeting to keep your colleagues or employees from walking out? 

To help prevent boredom in the boardroom, here are “3 Stories to Enliven Your Next Meeting”.  I can’t promise you won’t have to throw a picture of a race car into the quarterly report (see Season 4 of The Office), but at least you won’t struggle with the fundamentals

1. Share a time when you flopped.  This may sound counterintuitive, but by exposing some vulnerability you’ll come across as a more relatable leader.  The key here is to share a time when things didn’t go your way and then show your audience how you dealt with the problem.  To do this right, all you need to do is discuss a moment when you had a stake (i.e. something to gain or lose) in the outcome.  A story without stakes will come across as flat and people won’t understand why you’re telling it.  However, a story with clear stakes will demonstrate character and will likely get a few laughs in the process. And since most people need some entertainment during meetings (see the clip above), that’s a good thing.

2  Tell a story about a successful collaboration.  A story about a time you worked successfully with someone else can add energy to a dull meeting or enliven an average one.  It’s important, however, to remember that focus of the story is to make your collaborators look good.  If your story is about how you helped turn a double play to win a championship baseball game when you were in high school, make sure to emphasize the contributions of the other players.  You want people to understand that you’re a good team member, not someone who steals the show.  

3. Share a time you learned something.  Everyone loves a good fable, but don’t be heavy handed.  Stories about learning combine moments of flopping (#1) and successful collaboration (#2), so make sure you have a moment that demonstrates each idea.  For example, if you learned how to make bread by setting your kitchen on fire, show us a time when you (a) took a shortcut; and (b) finally took your friend’s advice about cleaning the oven ahead of time.  

Pretty fundamental, right?

Good Story, Anyone? 3 Rules to Make Your Presentations More Relatable

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Ben Stein

When I was a senior in college, I gave a presentation on a term paper I’d written.  The professor called me up and I started gushing about my findings, moving from slide to slide and furiously writing notes on the blackboard.  After ten minutes, I was out of breath. I put down the chalk, smiled, and looked out at the class.

“Any questions?” I said.

One student in the back was doodling in his notebook. A student in the middle was tracing his hand.  Another student was completely asleep.

The professor smiled and told me that I did a good job, but as soon as I sat down I felt like Ben Stein in the clip below.

Has this ever happened to you?  If so, it’s time to make your presentation more relatable.

Here are three rules to follow to make your stories and presentations more enjoyable and personal.   I can’t guarantee that people won’t fall asleep, but at least they won’t do it because of you.

1.  Edit.  Cut out useless adjectives, complicated nouns and superfluous explanations.  Your audience is smart, so treat them with the respect and intelligence they deserve. They’ll do the same for you in return.

2.  Have a Destination.  All good stories and presentations need a destination.  If it seems like you don’t know where you’re going, people will lose interest.

3.  Know Your Audience. If your audience is expecting a talk about politics and you tell them about how you hate golf, people will be confused and upset.  Unless, of course your story is about playing golf with a politician.  Be a savvy presenter.

Follow these simple rules and you’ll never have to ask, “Anyone, Anyone?” again.*

 

*Unless you’re doing a Ben Stein impression.  In that case, go crazy with it.

Breaking Bad Storytelling: 5 Ways to Make Your Story Pop!

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A few years ago, I was flipping channels and came across the AMC show Breaking Bad.  I started watching the first episode and almost fell out of my chair during the opening sequence.  (Yes, it’s that good).  Here’s the scene:

 

Gripping, right?  But how do you capture an audience right away and keep them hanging on when telling your own stories? 

It’s not as tough as you think.

To help you out, here are “5 Ways to Make Your Story Pop!”.  Follow these rules and you may have a genuine Heisenberg on your hands.

1.  Start with a big opening line.  There’s nothing like a great hook to draw attention to your story.  The opening line is important because it reveals something about you as a character (i.e. you run from wild animals) while hinting at the larger problem (imminent death) that you intend to address in the forthcoming story. 

One easy trick is to begin your opening in media res, which roughly translates from Latin to “in the middle of the action.  By starting in the middle of the action, you show the audience the stakes (what the central character stands to gain or lose) and eliminate unnecessary details (back story).  It’ll capture your audience right away.

2.  Know the backstory.  Backstory may not be important for the opening line, but it’s important for the story as a whole.  Your audience needs to understand why you do what you do, so make sure to write down everything that happens before the opening line. 

Once you know the full backstory, you can fill in your audience with everything else.  Just remember to be brief!

3.  Break your story into scenes.  I hear a lot of stories that have this predictable arc: “X happens, then Y happens, then Z happens.”  As interesting as this may be to you, it won’t do much for your audience.  To make your story pop, identify the scenes in the story.  Each scene should reveal something about the characters or raise a question about the larger problem.   The best scenes incorporate both elements.    More interesting already, right?

4.  Keep your narration brief.  Narration is the glue that holds scenes and stories together.  That said, a little bit of glue goes a long way.  Show respect for your audience and tell them only what they need to know.  This part takes practice and patience.  Just remember to be generous with yourself and ruthless with your storytelling.

5.  End with a big closing line.  The last line of the story is your final chance to make an impression on an audience, so make it count.  The way to find a great last line is to look back at your first line, see how your story has addressed the central problem, and show the audience transformation.  Remember how Walter White is driving erratically at the beginning of the Breaking Bad pilot?  

Well, here’s the last sequence (skip to 56:00)

Pretty gripping, right?

That’s So Funny! 5 Ways to Inject Humor Into Your Stories

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Louis CK

I’m a huge fan of Louis C.K.  Louis is a masterful performer whose spot-on observations of the human condition and casually neurotic delivery have won him praise from comedians (Chris Rock is a big supporter), filmmakers (he’s won 3 Emmys) and fans.  But what’s his secret?

You guessed it: storytelling.

It took Louis over 25 years to perfect his jokes and stories, but it doesn’t need to be such a struggle for new storytellers.  Here are ‘5 Ways to Inject Humor Into Your Stories’ for anyone who wants to lighten the mood of their stories.  With enough practice with these techniques, you may even get your own HBO Special.

1.  Find the game.  The game is the fun or funny thing played as a pattern.  In storytelling and stand-up, the game presents itself as an unusual character trait that recurs throughout the story.  Did you wear the same “Black Sabbath” t-shirt to high school every day, even though your friends told you that it smelled?  Did your boss at Rolling Stone play Michael Bolton at his? The audience may not laugh the first time, but when you return to the game later, you’ll at least get a chuckle.

2.  Use dialogue.  It’s ok to paraphrase, but the best stories include dialogue.  Dialogue allows you to recreate the speech patterns and mannerisms of the characters in the story.  Maybe there’s a guy in the office who warbles when he talks or a waitress who has a high pitched voice. The better you can recreate characters in the story, the funnier and more relatable they become.

3. Obey the rule of 3’s.  Western audiences are accustomed to hearing funny things in a three-part pattern.  While most one-liners (jokes) have a two-part structure – set-up and punch line – you have more time in stories to set up something funny and return to it later.  Introduce the game, play it, then re-introduce it a third time.  You’ll blow your audience away and get a big laugh.

4.  Play to the top of your intelligence.  Don’t make jokes that infantilize your audience.  If something isn’t funny to you, it probably won’t win over your audience.  You may get a small guffaw, but it’ll end up being more distracting in the long run.  Be smart and play smart.

5.  Don’t force your jokes.  If a joke doesn’t land, move on.  It doesn’t necessarily mean that the joke isn’t funny, it just means that this particular audience doesn’t find it funny.  Flopping is part of being a good storyteller, so don’t worry too much.   Everything in life that’s worthwhile takes practice, and you’ll eventually find the funny thing.  Just remember that it took Louis C.K. almost 30 years to kill in front of an audience, so be patient with you stories.

Feeling funnier already, right?

Pressure Drop: 5 Tips to Performing Better Under Pressure

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Not long ago, I was chatting with a woman at a cocktail party when the conversation turned to work.  I mentioned that I’m a storyteller and the woman smiled.

“That’s great,” she said. “Now, tell me a story.”

I froze.  I made an excuse about having too many stories to tell, but the woman wouldn’t have it.

“I want to hear a good story.  Please, just one!”

I dabbed the sweat from my forehead and told her a short anecdote about my day.   She looked confused.  As we parted ways, all I could think about  were all the stories I could have told had I been relaxed.

Has this ever happened to you?  Have you ever needed to tell a good story or be creative on the spot, either at a party or in the office?!?

To help you find inspiration and self-expression under duress, here are “5 Tips to Performing Better Under Pressure.”  With a little practice, you’ll be as cool under pressure as Fonzie on water skis.  

1. Breathe.  As I mentioned in a previous post, the easiest way to focus your mind is to first focus on your breath.  The key to doing this is abdominal breathing.   Abdominal breathing slows your heart rate and improves the flow of oxygen to your blood cells, sharpening focus almost instantly.  You’ll be amazed at how quickly ideas and stories will come to you.

2. Move Your Body.  Shake our your limbs and stretch.  The movement returns blood to your extremities, which in turn tricks your mind into believing that your body is relaxed.  Once your body is relaxed, your mind will focus along with it.

3. Use Your Environment.  One of the easiest ways to find inspiration is to look around you and link, or “daisy chain”, your ideas.  As I write this, rain is falling outside my window.  The rain makes me think of biking in the rain, which reminds me of the time I nearly avoided death on a bike ride in San Francisco.  I now have a story just from looking out the window.

4. Go “A to C”.  If your environment just isn’t inspiring enough, this is a great tool.  In improv, going “A to C” means thinking of word associations and using them to drum up ideas.  For example, the word “table” makes me think of “table tennis”, which makes me think of “paddles”.  I’m now thinking about stories involving (a) water; (b) boating; and (c) fraternity initiations.  And the best part?  You can do this in under twenty seconds.

5.  Take Your Time.  Once you start telling performing, be patient with yourself even if you’re not completely sure where things are going.  Patience instills confidence in your audience, allows you more time to think on your feet, and (as a performer) seems to slow down time.

Pretty cool, right?

You Say You Want a Resolution: 3 Steps To A Great Ending

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Over the last few years, I’ve taught dozens storytelling workshops to people of all ages.  Without fail, the most common question I hear from students is: How do you find an ending to your story without lapsing into cliche or resorting to “And that’s how I learned…” or “The moral of the story is…”?

The answer is simpler than you think.

To begin the week, here are “3 Steps to a Great Ending” that will leave you feeling more confident about resolutions.  

Step 1: Determine the moment of crisis

All stories involve a character struggling with a significant problem.  The first step to ending your story is to figure out the point of highest tension. This is also the place when you are most vulnerable in the story.  Maybe you were face-to-face with the Rottweiler that ate your brother.  Or maybe you had to confront your boss about his embezzlement of company funds.  

Once you find the moment of crisis, make sure you understand the stakes of the situation.  The bigger the stakes,the more invested the audience will become.

Step 2: Find the climactic moment  

Once you identify the moment of crisis, find the climactic moment.  The climactic moment (climax) of a story is the moment when the tension in the story finally boils over.   It’s the moment when you wrestle the Rottweiler to the ground and it licks your nose, or the moment when your boss finally admits to stealing money.  You finally have an answer!

Remember: The climax offers the audience the relief they are waiting for, so don’t cheat them of the experience or draw it out for too long.  Don’t be coy!  

Step 3: Show us the consequences  

The final step to ending your story is to answer the question: what are the consequences to resolving the problem?  What happens?!?  

One way to show the character change is to return to the opening scenes in the story.  For example, the first time you saw a Rottweiler, you ran as fast as you could in the opposite direction.  But in the end, when you see a Rottweiler for the final time, you snarl at it and it backs away.  

Show the audience transformation and they will reward you will applause.  How’s that for an ending?