Stories With a Splash: 3 Tips for Surprising Your Audiences

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Stories With a Splash: 3 Tips for Surprising Your Audiences

As most of my friends know, I’ve been following the Golden State Warriors, a professional basketball team, as they’ve moved closer to securing an NBA Title.  By all accounts, the team is outstanding: creative ball-handling, precision shooting and solid defense earned them the best regular season record in NBA history.  But what makes the Warriors so popular among sports fans and the general public alike?

The answer is obvious to anyone who watches the team play: the element of surprise.

The Warriors win games with surprise offensive bursts (i.e. Steph Curry’s 17-point overtime performance) that leave their opponents flat footed and their fans in awe.  To help you tell stories that take shock and amaze, here are “3 Tips for Surprising Your Audience”.  Follow these guidelines and you’ll have your audience cheering you on in no time.

1. Unpack Expectations.  The first step in creating a huge surprise is to unpack any expectations surrounding the surprise in question.  What did you anticipate would happen in the situation?  What actually happened?  Surprises exist in the space between expectation and reality, so take time to unpack both elements.

2. Build Suspense.  Once you’ve laid out all of the events and expectations, begin to reconstruct the surprising moment with the goal of highlighting the discrepancy between what you were lead to believe and what actually happened.  At every turn, ask yourself: “If I were an audience member, what would I be thinking?”.  If you (the storyteller) can “figure out” the surprise, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to pull one over on your audience.  Allow the suspense to build organically by slowly ratcheting up the stakes.

3. Offer A Final Surprise.  After you’ve paid off your audience with the surprise you promised, the last step is to provide a surprise after your audience believes the moment is over.  The final surprise turns the initial expectations on their head and leaves the audience wanting more.

Pretty surprising, huh?

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Get Real: 3 Tips for Telling More Authentic Stories

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As anyone who’s taken my classes will tell you, I’m a huge fan of Nick Kroll.  Kroll is a funny guy: he’s regular on Parks and Recreation, he’s toured as a stand-up with Aziz Ansari, and he has a recurring role on Children’s Hospital on Adult Swim.  But aside from his character and stand-up work, Kroll is an amazing storyteller.  How does he make his stories both funny and poignant?

It all comes down to authenticity.  

To help you tell more genuine and compelling tales on stage or on the page, here are “3 Tips for Telling More Authentic Stories”.  Follow these tips and you’ll be wowing crowds before you know it.  You may even get your own TV show in the process.

1.  Make it personal.  All great stories are personal, meaning that you (the storyteller) have a stake in telling the story.  The stakes don’t need to be big (i.e. life and death) in order for the story to be significant.  However, the higher the stakes, the more invested the audience will be in the outcomeOne quick way to uncover stakes in a story is to answer the question: What does the central character stand to gain or lose as a result of dealing with the problem?  If the answer is “nothing,” or “not much,” you probably need to investigate further.   High stakes don’t automatically make for a story good, but they’ll help you capture your audience right away.  

2.  Use lots of details. Specificity is the essential to making your story resonate, so be generous with detail.  The first time you tell or write a story, be overly specific.  Use visual language to paint a picture of the setting, characters, and problem for the audience.  Once you’ve done this, it’ll be easy to edit the piece down to a more manageable length.  The more generous you are with yourself, the more generous the audience will be with both you and your story.

3. Be honest.  Part of Nick Kroll’s appeal as a performer is his willingness to be honest with both himself and his audience.  Honesty goes a long way in storytelling: if people sense that you’re revealing something true about yourself, they’ll support you as a performer.  On the other hand, if you try to manipulate or lie to your audience, you’ll quickly find yourself at the mercy of an angry mob.  It may seem convenient to lie in the moment, but it’s always better to be truthful in the long run.  You’ll feel better about yourself in the moment and you’ll avoid nasty encounters with fans down the line.

Pretty real, right?

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

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?

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?