Theme Party: 3 Tricks to Staying on Theme

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Ok, I admit it: Mad Men is fun to watch.  Like most of America, I get a kick out of watching Don Draper and his crew toss aside rivals while seducing everyone in sight.  But Mad Men, which has won countless Emmy awards, clearly has something else going for it.  In each of the six seasons, creator Matthew Weiner has added dimension to the characters and taken the audience on a journey through the tumultuous world of the 1960s.  How does Weiner cover so much ground while remaining true to his characters?   

It all comes down to staying on theme.

As I’ve discussed on the blog before, a story’s theme tends to emerge after you’ve told it a number of times.  However, there are ways to shortcut the storytelling process.  To help you shape your own stories faster and make your themes more apparent, here are “3 Tricks to Staying On Theme.”  You may not come out looking like Don Draper, but you’ll at least be able to show the audience the meaning behind your own stories.

1.  Boil it down to a big idea .  The most basic definition of theme is “what the story is about”.  In other words, themes are big ideas that reference the transformation that the central character undergoes.  When thinking about themes in your own stories, look at who you were at the beginning of the story and who you are at the end.  Did you start off as a kid who used to get bullied and end up as a bully?  A class clown who ended up as the valedictorian?  One trick is to identify the transformation in one word  (i.e. Loss, Betrayal, Reinvention, Hope, Power, etc).  Simplifying the theme will help you stay focused.

2. Identify the emotional arc. Behind every big idea is a big emotion.  All stories, big and small, are about the subtle changes in one of the five essential emotions (fear, love, anger, sadness and joy).  Use the emotional roller coaster of the story told to guide you to a new place.  Do you start out happy and end up despondent?  Do you start confused and wind up feeling confident?  Be clear and honest with yourself because this is the journey you’re going to take your audience on when you tell your story again.

3.  Edit.  Once you know the emotional punch of the story, make sure that each scene works in service of the big idea.  Every scene should reveal something new, so when editing it’s important to ask yourself two questions.  First, is this scene critical to understanding the character’s transformation?  Second, does the scene contain anything that doesn’t serve the theme?  If the answers are yes and no, then you’re ready to go.  Otherwise, re-examine and rework.  

Feeling more like a Mad Man now?

Image courtesy of AMC

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Fail Safe: 3 Tricks for Telling Stories About Failure

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For many people (myself included), the only thing scarier than failing is talking about failure.  Maybe you’ve hit a parked cop car, peed your pants in front of the high school rowing team or cried in front of a group of Chinese school children*.  Or maybe you’re like David Brent from The Office (see above) and you’re a tone deaf dancer.  Whatever the case, you’ve probably failed a few times in your life. 

This past week, I read a wonderful article in the New Yorker by Walter Kirn about how he was duped by one of the most famous impostors of the 20th century.  The article is alternatively funny and heart breaking, but got me thinking: How does Kirn keep his readers rapt without launching into a tirade?

You’ll be happy to know: it all comes down to a few simple storytelling tricks.

To help you tell stories about screw-ups, shortcomings and unfortunate incidents without coming across as a bitter shrew or a total moron, here are “3 Tricks for Telling Stories About Failure.”  Follow these rules and you’ll be able to talk about failure without looking like one.

1.  Don’t pass judgment.  The point of storytelling is to recreate an experience for your audience, so avoid passing judgment about any of the characters (yourself included!) in the story.  The easiest way to do this is to eliminate comparatives (i.e. “better”, “worse”, “faster”, etc) and superlatives (i.e. “worst”, “best”, “fastest”) whenever possible.  Instead, turn these comparisons into declarative statements (from “the best shot putter in Brooklyn” to “the #3 shot putter in the 18 – 22 age cohort in Brooklyn”). Specificity will help your story while making the narrator (you) more relatable.  

2.  Avoid complex explanations.  If you’re talking about failure, it’s natural to want to explain away a decision through your own interpretive lens.  Don’t do this.  People love stories about a good flop (see my previous post), so don’t cheat them of the experience.  One quick way to cut down interpretation is to eliminate explanatory words (“because”, “why”, “knew”, “understood”, “decided”, “realized”) from your story.  Don’t tell an audience why something is important, show them how it is important. 

3. Show (don’t tell!) us your emotions.  Stories are filled with emotions and feelings, but manipulating your audience into feeling a particular way won’t help them relate to your experience.  Skip emotive words (i.e. “happy”, “sad”, “excited”, “worried”) in favor of active phrases (“I smiled and screamed: “Awesome!”) that show the audience how you’re feeling.  When you spend the time to recreate an experience, the emotions will shine through.  

It takes time to tell stories about failure, but if you use these tips, you’ll be able to get over life’s hurdles faster and tell richer stories in the process.  In the words of Samuel Beckett: “Try again.  Fail again.  Fail Better.

*All of these things happened to me

The Time Has Come: 3 Tools for Masterful Timing

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While browsing Tumblr earlier today, I came across Megan Amram, one of the writers for the hit NBC sitcom Parks and Recreation (see above).  The first few posts I read made me chuckle. By the fifth or sixth entry, I had to stop reading just to keep myself from crying with laughter.

Amram has a clear gift for finding funny stuff in everyday life and has a following (361K Twitter followers and a feature in Fast Company) to prove it .  Here’s one of her sketches:

Hilarious, right?  But what makes Amram’s sketches and jokes so spot-on?

One word: timing.

Regardless of whether your material is funny or sad, the success or failure of stories (and jokes, for that matter) hinges on timing things correctly.  So to help your stories take off and land smoothly, here are “3 Tools for Masterful Timing”.  Timing is everything.

1. Arrive late and leave early.  The golden rule for writing is conveniently the same rule that applies for attending parties.  The key here is to not waste your audience’s time; enter into scenes as late as possible and exit as early as possible.  Once you’ve broken the story into scenes, look at each scene and ask: “Is every piece of information important?” If the answer is ‘no’, re-examine the scene and see what you can eliminate. Don’t waste your audience’s time!

2. Create build-up.  Each scene should build on the previous one, adding new information and helping shape the audience’s understanding of both the central problem and the characters.  In comedy, we see this in the form of ‘heightening’, which gradually makes each sequence more intense.  In more dramatic stories, we see this in terms of an escalation of stakes, which in turn generates tension.  The further along we go in the story, the more important each scene becomes.

3. Pay it off.  Every story needs to “pay off” or answer the central question posed in the beginning.  If you’ve timed the story correctly, all information will build to a climactic moment when it gets paid off.  Practice telling stories in a social setting and see if your audience fully feels the ‘payoff’ built into the story’s climax.  If not, don’t immediately scrap the story.  Go back and see how you can fix each scene to create build-up that feels organic to an audience.  You’ll get a laugh and you’ll satisfy your audience every time.

How’s that for a payoff?

Good to Great : 7 Steps to Improving Your Storytelling

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7 steps to improving your storytelling

As a storytelling coach, I often hear the same question from students: How do I become a better storyteller?

As is the case with any pursuit, it all comes down to practiceSee our INFOGRAPHIC below.

Storytelling is one of the most innate human activities – people tell stories in one form or another every day – but it takes work to hone your craft.  So to help you shape your stories, here are “7 Steps to Improving Your Storytelling”.  The exercises won’t turn you into David Sedaris or Spalding Gray overnight, but try these every day for a month and you’ll notice the benefits.  And it’ll be way easier than learning to catch flies with chopsticks*.

1.  Keep a daily log.  The first step to becoming a better storyteller is to record events as they happen.  Set aside at least half an hour each day, preferably in the morning or late at night, to write in a journal.  When you write, it’s important to stick to the facts as much as possible.  Avoid passing judgements and drawing conclusions.  Be specific (paint a picture), honest (don’t lie!), and personal (explore your stakes), and you’ll quickly find that the journal will become a source of material for stories.

2. Sharpen your listening skills.  Listen to the stories that your friends and family tell.   Try to identify the component parts (character, setting, problem, stakes, conflict tension, crisis, climax, consequences) of every story.  As I mentioned in a previous post, the fastest way to become a better storyteller is to become a better listener.

3.  Record and transcribe the story.  One of the best ways to practice storytelling is to record yourself telling a story.  Once you’ve finished, do something unrelated for an hour or so and then come back and transcribe the tape verbatim.  The transcription process will help you identify verbal tics (‘um’, ‘uh’, ‘like’, etc) in your speech pattern and will offer insight into the strengths and weaknesses of the narrative.

After you’ve read over the transcription, ask yourself: Does the story interest me?  If I were a complete stranger, would I listen to the whole story?  If the answer to either question is ‘No’, don’t despair.  That’s where Step 3 can help.  

3.  Outline the story.  Once you’ve recorded and transcribed your story, outline the story.  Break the story into scenes, draw pictures, or use a story map (see here and here).  Experiment with different outline techniques and you’ll find one that works best for you.

4.  Turn the story into a pitch.  You should be able to summarize your story in a one sentence pitch, so practice doing this with every story you tell.  Pitches should be simple and should suggest big moments or events (i.e., “the time I almost failed out of college” or ‘the time I peed in my pants in front of my high school rowing team”).   The simpler the pitch (ten words or fewer) the better.

5. Try a story out in a social setting.  Pitch your story to friends in a social setting and see if anyone wants to hear the story.  You’ll quickly figure out what your audience finds interesting.  Once you’re feeling comfortable with the story, try performing it at an open mic.

6.  Identify a theme.  As I’ve mentioned before, a theme (i.e. redemption, love, betrayal, etc) will often appear in a story after you’ve told it a few times.  Once you become aware of the theme, edit the story so the scenes work in service of the theme or themes.  You’ll be amazed at what happens when you take the time to edit properly.

7. Add a new twist.  After you’ve performed a story several times, add a new twist.  Start in a different place or add in a new detail and see how your audience reacts.  The change may or may not work for the story, but you’ll learn something in the process.  And that’s the point, after all.

*I’ve never caught a fly with chopsticks

7 steps to improving your storytelling