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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Storytelling is the New Black

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A few nights ago, as I was drifting off to sleep, I started watching the first season of the hit show Orange is the New Black from Emmy-award winning producer Jenji Kohan.  As the credits began to roll, I heard the opening song (“I’ll Take You There,” by the Staple Sisters), and then something unusual happened.

I was glued to the screen.  For hours.

When I was done watching (my internet connection abruptly died, or I would have binge watched all night), I started thinking: How does Kohan tell such a compelling story?

The answer, I quickly realized, is pretty straightforward: it comes down to a few simple rules.

To help you tell your own stories as well as Kohan, here are “3 Storytelling Rules to Follow.”  Keep these in mind when developing your own stories and you may have the Emmy committee calling you before you know it.

1.  Start with a big opening.  I’ve mentioned this point in previous posts, but it bares repeating again.  The audience has a short attention span, which means that it’s the job of the storyteller to draw the audience in right away.  The easiest way to do this is to raise questions in the opening of the story.  In the first scene of Orange is the New Black, for example, we see a series of shots of people bathing, followed by a shot of two women caressing in a warm shower.  The camera then abruptly cuts to a scene of the protagonist, a pretty young blonde woman, shivering under a prison shower while another woman yells at her to finish.  Gripping and a bit confusing, right?   Start your story with a splash (sorry!) and your audience will follow you wherever you go.

2. Make sure every scene serves a purpose. Each scene in your story should serve a purpose.  There are a number of different functions for scenes: demonstrating the setting, showing character, establishing the problem, showing the stakes, developing tension, heightening conflict, and providing comic/dramatic relief.  The best scenes do at least one of these things, if not more.   The more layered the scenes, the richer the story will become.

3.  Deliver on what you promise.  A good story is a promise: in exchange for the audience’s attention, you (the storyteller) promise to answer the following question: How does the main character resolve the central problem he/she confronts in the story?  If the opening of a story raises questions and sets the audience’s expectations about what’s going to happen (see #1), the ending should answer these same questions.  In Orange is the New Black, for example, the opening raises the questions: Why is the main character in prison?  How did she get there?  And what happens to her in the shower?  We find out all of these things in the course of the pilot (SPOILER ALERT: smuggling drugs, turned herself in, and not getting clean).  By the end of the episode, the audience feels satisfied because the questions have been answered and new, more nuanced questions have been raised for the next episode.  That’s why audiences keep tuning in season after season and year after year.

What A Character! 3 More Tips on Creating Great Characters

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Better Call Saul

As followers of this blog know, I’ve written extensively about Breaking Bad, the Emmy award-winning show on AMC that wrapped its final season a few weeks ago.  But I’m not here to praise the expert storytelling (ten Emmy awards), the suspenseful scenes (too many to name) or even the superb direction (Vince Gilligan is among the best in the business).

I’m here to talk about Saul Goodman.

Saul, played by the multi-talented Bob Odenkirk, is one of the funniest and fully developed secondary characters on television.  After watching him for five seasons, I’ve fallen in love with Saul’s flagrant scheming and naked opportunism.  But what exactly makes Saul so memorable?

It all comes down to character choices.

To help you tell stories with characters as colorful and rich as Saul, here are “3 More Tips on Creating Great Characters.”  Follow these tips and you may have a spinoff show in your future.

1. Simplify Your Descriptions.  In real life, people are complex.  Unfortunately, when you tell a story, you only have a limited time to showcase secondary characters, so make your descriptions count.  To do this, simply answer the question:  Does the description paint a picture of the character for the audience? If the answer is no, make sure to add the necessary visuals to make the description pop out to a listener or reader.

2. Use Metaphors and Analogies.  In some instances, it can difficult to reduce whole characters to simple descriptions.  This is where the right metaphor or analogy can help.  For example, maybe your brother-in-law is a police officer with a buzz cut who sings songs from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” in public places (go with it).  One possible analogy is that your brother-in-law is like the child of Joe Friday and Lady Gaga.  Another possible metaphor is that he’s a mix of the Hardy Boys and Fallout Boy.  The key to finding the right metaphor or analogy for a character is to identify the unusual or prominent thing about the character and then offer a truthful comparison.   Even if the analogy doesn’t get a huge laugh, it will at least resonate with the audience.  Just remember: analogies should be used to augment descriptions, not to replace them.

3.  Serve The Plot.  Once you’ve boiled down your characterizations and/or added an analogy, the final step in the process is to make sure that your character descriptions serve the story’s plot.  For example, if you mention that your father used to shoot rabbits at the beginning of the story, the audience is expecting a reference to either guns or rabbits somewhere later in the story.  If you don’t deliver on this promise, they’ll begin to wonder why you chose the original description.  Once again, deliver what you promise!  The upside of doing this is that it’s also an easy way to inject humor into your stories.

Feeling better about your characters?

Second That Emotion: 3 Tips for Telling Emotional Stories

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Second That Emotion

A few weeks ago, This American Life (TAL) broadcast an episode entitled “How I Got Into College”, which included a story told by a man in his 30’s about his early life.  In the story, a 13 year-old boy escapes from war-torn Bosnia, only to face violence and isolation at an inner city high school.  One day, the boy’s high school English teacher brings him to an exclusive private school and introduces him to an administrator.  The boy impresses the administrator, is accepted into the private high school, graduates from Harvard and later becomes a professor at the University of Chicago.

Moving story, right? The only problem: the story isn’t entirely true.

To be fair, everyone is guilty of a little exaggeration for dramatic effect.  That bully who beat you up in middle school probably wasn’t 6’7″ tall (unless the bully was Lebron James).  But This American Life’s “too good to be true” story got me thinking: How do you tell a story that’s both honest and heartfelt at the same time?

The answer is actually pretty simple: ground your story in emotion.

To help you tell true tales that will move an audience, here are “3 Tips for Telling Emotional Stories.”  You’ll be amazed what happens.

1. Map Your Emotions.  The first step in telling a good, true tale is to identify how your emotions changed as the events in the story played out.  Did you start out feeling combative and end up feeling collaborative? Were you initially confused before you wound up feeling confident? One trick is to make an emotional flow chart to show your progression.  Your emotional journey will eventually be the journey you’re going to take your audience on, so be as specific as possible.

2.  Show Emotion Through Action.  Stories often fail because the emotional content doesn’t match the physical actions, so once you know the emotions at play, ground your story in what happened.  For example, instead of saying, “I was really sad,” tell us, “I got a text message in midtown and cried until snot was dripping onto the floor of the D train as it pulled into the Broadway-Lafayette station.”  More interesting, right?  The more specific you are about what happened, the more emotional the experience becomes for the audience.

3.  Offer a Moment of Transformation.  Stories aren’t just a series of events – they’re journeys of personal transformation.  To leave your audience moved, all you need is to provide a final moment that shows how far you’ve come.  As I discussed in an earlier post on resolutions, the easiest way to do this is to return to the opening scene.  Maybe you were evicted from your apartment of thirty years after a long fight, only to find an apartment directly across the street?  Bring us full circle and we’ll see the impact directly.

Pretty moving, 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.

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?