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?

Pressure Drop: 5 Tips to Performing Better Under Pressure

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Tips for performing Better under pressure Twitter size

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?

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.