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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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?

Put a Stake In It: 5 Tips for Building Tension in Your Stories

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CarrieIn preparation for Halloween last week, I started watching clips of Carrie, the Academy Award-winning horror film by Brian De Palma.  In the movie, Carrie does all sorts of paranormal and frightening things.  But after a few minutes, I started to wonder: What makes the scenes, and the story as a whole, so engaging?

The answer turns out to be really simple: lots of tension.

To help you keep your audience on the edge of their seats, here are “5 Tips for Building Tension in Your Stories.”  You may not win an Academy Award, but you’ll at least never have to watch someone nod off again.

1. Foreshadow Future Events.  Building tension starts shortly after your opening.  Once the audience understands the basics of the story (characters, setting and problem), begin building tension by foreshadowing elements of the story that you intend to address later on.  The easiest way to do this is to introduce a powerful image – in Carrie, it’s a broken mirror – that offers a clue about the events to come.  If your audience suspects that something is awry (i.e. a girl breaks a mirror with her mind), they’ll keep watching.

2. Subvert Expectations.  In order to keep your audience engaged throughout the story, you have to undermine the audience’s expectations and keep them guessing about what’s going to happen next.  Here’s a hypothetical scene: a man and a woman are flirting in the elevator of an apartment building.  The man eventually asks for the woman’s phone number, but the woman refuses.  The man presses her for her number and then all of a sudden a snake comes slithering out of the woman’s shirt.  The man screams and runs from the elevator as soon as the doors open.  Unexpected, right?  All great scenes raise questions about the characters and the situation.

3. Add Comic Relief.  As a storyteller, you can only build so much tension into the narrative before your audience needs a release.  The easiest way to do this in stories is to introduce a secondary character who offers insight into the struggle.  Consider the earlier example of the snake.  Maybe in the next scene of the story we see the woman walking out of the apartment building when a snake slithers out of one of her pant legs.  The doorman sees this happen, but instead of screaming and calling the police, he pulls out a live mouse and proceeds to feed the snake.   Entertaining, right?  Good comic relief can momentarily distract the audience while also reassuring them that the storyteller understands the absurdity or tragedy of the narrative.

4. Introduce Non-Visual Elements.  Powerful images aren’t the only way to keep your audience engaged.  Sound, smell and touch can be just as evocative (think about theme song from “Jaws”).  In Carrie, the sound of locking doors seals the fate of all the students inside while also making the audience curious about what’s going to happen next.  The challenge for storytellers is that most stories operate inside a visual medium (even oral stories “paint a picture” for the listener).  One way to get around this is to use analogies or metaphors.  A good analogy will do wonders.

5. End with the Unexpected.  In all stories, the job of the storyteller is to leave a lasting impression with the audience at the end of the story.  The way to do this is often to introduce a new image or offer a final piece of comic relief.  At the end of Carrie, the audience sees a hand reaching out from beyond the grave to grab Sue, the sole teenage survivor.  The image is chilling and reminds the audience that even though the central problem (Carrie’s revenge) may be resolved, there are other problems that will outlive the story.

Pretty tense, right?

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?

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?

 

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.

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?

10 Ways to Use Storytelling to Improve Creativity at Work

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Office stories

It’s Tuesday morning.  Your boss shows up at your desk two minutes after you arrive and says that he needs a “creative solution” to a problem.  You rub your eyes because you were up late catching up on Mad Men and Game of Thrones and now you’re slamming coffee just to stay awake. But just when you think your boss is gone, he pats you on the back, smiles and says, “I need your answer in an hour.

Situation sound familiar? This is where storytelling can help.

Here are “10 Ways to Use Storytelling to Improve Creativity at Work” that will open your creative mind to re-examine everyday issues.  You may even mend your relationship with your boss in the process.

1.  Embrace the problem.  All good stories (and good businesses!) have problems.  Embrace them.  Take a moment to write the problem down in detail.

2.  Understand the stakes.  Write down what your company stands to gain or lose as a result of dealing with the issue at hand.  Be specific.  What would be possible if you address all components of the problem and the client gets more than they bargain for?

3. Ground the problem in your surroundings. Understand the institutional forces at play.  What prevailing attitudes are present that may be contributing to the problem?  What attitudes can you tap into to fix the situation?

4.  Identify sources of tension.  Take a moment and reflect on tension with clients and within the office.  What are the sources of tension for your boss? What about for the company?

5. Look at previous conflicts.  Write down a few other conflicts you’ve had in the office relating to the issue at hand.  See if you notice a pattern developing.

6. Look at previous crisis moments.  Crisis moments offer the biggest breakthroughs for companies.  How did people in the office react during the last crisis?  How does your boss handle a crisis? What about your boss’s boss?

7. Pick apart the themes.  You may notice themes (i.e. accountability, trust, integrity) appearing.   Write them down.  Pick them apart.

8.  Don’t judge yourself.  Judgment is the enemy of story and a hindrance to problem solving.  Make note of your judgments of yourself.  Then quit it.

9.  Don’t judge your boss and/or the company.  It won’t help you.  Seriously.

10.  Embrace the problem again.  The precise solution may not be there, but the problem will seem a lot more manageable.

7 Tips to Become a Better Storyteller

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Seinfeld

Want to become a better storyteller?  Start by becoming a better listener.

A few nights ago, I came across an article by Maria Popova over at Brain Pickings.  I was half-asleep, but I started reading anyway.  In the article, Maria recounts advice on how to become a better appreciator of music through active listening.  I perked up a bit.  According to experts, she says, active listening can help awaken the mind from its “tuned out” state.  Just as I read this, light bulbs started going off: the same rules apply to storytelling!  I raced over to my desk and started writing.

To help you hone your story listening skills, here are 7 tips to becoming a better appreciator of stories.  Have a read then go tune in to stories.

  1. Be aware of the stories around you.  Turn on the radio, pick up a newspaper, or even listen in on a conversation on the subway.  Practice recalling stories you’ve heard throughout the week, either to friends or to yourself.
  2. Pay attention to pacing.  When listening to a story, take note of the presenter’s pacing. Start to become aware when a story slows down and speeds up, and what happens to your attention as a result. Be mindful of how the narrator is shaping your expectations through pacing.
  3. Look for patterns.  There are archetypal stories (i.e. rags to riches, voyage and return, rebirth) that we hear again and again throughout the day.  As a listener, pay close attention to the types of stories you see and hear each day.
  4. Develop a vocabulary for stories.  Character, setting, problem, stakes, crisis, consequences.  The list goes on.  Practice breaking down stories into their component parts.  If you can do this, you’re halfway to becoming a great storyteller.
  5. Use your whole body.  Engage your body and your mind simultaneously.  Pay attention on all elements of a storyteller’s presentation, from the speaker’s words to his/her body language, vocal and tonal shifts.  Words are often the tip of the iceberg; you may miss the real story if you’re not listening with your whole body.
  6. Be objective.  As you listen to a story, distinguish between what happens in the story (the events) and everything else (judgements, feelings and interpretations).  Make sure to clear your listening so you don’t bring your own preconceptions, stereotypes and judgements to bear on another person’s story.
  7. Engage with personal experiences and beliefs.  This may sound like a contradiction to #6, but hear me out.  Humans connect to good stories because they resonate with us on a personal level.   It’s important to be open about how the story moves you based on your past experiences.  Just make sure to avoid projecting your experiences onto someone else’s story.