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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Listen Up! 5 Tips to Becoming a Better Listener

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Listen Up!  5 Tips to Becoming a Better ListenerAs many of you know, I’ve written a lot about the importance of active listening in the storytelling process.  Active listening is useful in a myriad of ways: improved verbal comprehension, increased sensitivity to friends and coworkers, and enhanced creativity and problem solving abilities.  But how exactly do you become a better listener?  What steps or processes can you implement to glean more information from conversations and feel better connected to the people around you?

The answer is very straightforward: listen for stories.

To help you uncover stories and become a better conversationalist, networker and public speaker in the process, here are “5 Tips to Becoming a Better Listener”.  Follow these guidelines and people will be lining up to talk to you before you know it.

1.  Check In With Your Thoughts.  The first step to becoming a better listener is to do a quick check of your mental state.  Are you feeling happy or sad? Angry or excited? Are you dwelling on a past conversation or mulling over something you need to do in the future?  Ask yourself: What’s preventing you from being present in the moment? If you take a moment to do a quick self-diagnostic before entering into a conversation or telling a story, you’ll become more present and connected immediately.

2.  Check In With Your Body.  After you’ve cultivated an awareness of your thoughts, take a moment to connect with your body and the impact it’s having on your listening.  Are you feeling tension or pain in any area?  Is your breathing heavy and strained or easy and light?  How’s your posture?  If you’re struggling to connect with your thoughts (step 1), reverse the order and check in with your body first.  As you become aware of any areas of tightness or pain, take a series of slow, deep abdominal breaths (”in through your nose and out through your mouth”).  Your abdomen should expand as you inhale and contract as you exhale. Concentrate on your breathing as you go through the process; this will ease your mind by removing any distracting thoughts while simultaneously dissipating any physical discomfort you may be experiencing.  You’ll instantly feel more relaxed.

3.  Check In With Your Conversation Partner.  Once you’re fully present with your mind and body, cultivate an awareness of your conversation partner oraudience.  How is the person standing or sitting?  Is the person making consistent eye contact or the person avoiding your gaze? If the person is speaking, what sort of tone is the person using?  Is there any variation in the tone? By shifting your attention onto your conversation partner, you’ll be able to get out of your head while simultaneously discovering how the person is reacting to you in the moment.

4.  Listen for Judgments, Explanations, and Analysis.  As your conversation partner is speaking, listen for the judgments, explanations, and conclusions the person is drawing.  Judgments often take the form of “positive” adjectives (i.e. good, bad, smart, stupid, etc), but can also take the form of comparative(better, worse, smarter, etc…) or superlative (best, worst, smartest, etc) statements.  As the person talks, take note of when s/he uses these statements.  Often judgments come with explanations, justifications, or rationalizations attached to them (i.e. “She was the best boss because she always inspired confidence”; “The reason he’s a terrible employee is because he doesn’t follow directions”).  Explanations are often followed by conclusions (”The conclusion is…” or “The moral of the story is…”) that offer a logical basis for the judgments and explanations.   If you listen for these rhetorical tics, you’ll have a better sense of what’s happening cognitively, psychologically, andemotionally with your conversation partner.  It will ground you in the present, which in turn will reconnect you with your conversation partner.

5. Clarify Confusing Points and Ask Questions to Elicit Stories. The final step to improving your listening is to request clarification and ask follow-up questions to illuminate stories.  Whenever you hear judgments, explanations and analysis, you have the opportunity to ask follow-up questions to unpack your conversation partner’s experience.  The goal here is to get additional information about a situation (i.e. what happened), NOT to illicit further judgments, explanations and analysis.  I strongly recommend avoiding “Why?” questions, since answers to “why” questions often start off with “Because…”  Instead, rephrase “why” questions as: “In what way is…” or “Is there a reasonfor…?”  Instead of getting a simple justification or explanation, your conversation partner is more likely to respond with a story.  And then you’re in a more interesting, engaging and fun conversation.

Not a bad conversation starter, right?

5 Rules for Telling Stories with Your Pitch

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5 Rules for Telling Stories with Your Pitch

A while back, I attended a pitch event for young entrepreneurs seeking funding for their start-ups.  The room was packed with over 200 business people and there was a buzz in the air.  But two minutes into the first power point presentation, things began to shift.  Spectators started to squirm.  A few of the panelists sank back in their chairs and checked their watches.  Within ten minutes, eyes were glazing over as the unlucky presenter droned on.

Does this situation sound familiar?

Luckily, there’s an easy fix for a dull pitch: tell a story.

To help you pitch a product or sell an idea more effectively, here are “5 Rules for Telling Stories with Your Pitch”.  Follow these guidelines and you’ll have investors throwing money at you before you know it.

1.  Make Your Opening Count.  It’s important to start your presentation off with a a bang, so make your first few lines memorable.  Your first lines should establish (a) the problem you intend to address with your idea or product; (b) the characters, or players, in your world; and (c) a hint at the solution, or where you’re going. Paint a picture for your audience!

2.  Be Vulnerable.  Investors are not expecting everything to be perfect – if everything was perfect, you wouldn’t need help – so be open to sharing challenges.  The easiest way to do this is to talk about what happened in the process of growing your business.  What obstacles did you face? Remember: don’t pass judgement on yourself or your customers.  It’s better to open up about that something didn’t work during your pitch than have it come out in a Q&A.  Your audience will thank you for it.

3.  Build Tension.  As I’ve discussed before, the way to build tension in a pitch is by identifying the emotional arc of the talk. Pitches, like stories, are about the subtle changes in one of the five essential emotions (fear, love, anger, sadness and joy).  What happened to you along the way?  Did you start the business confused and wind up feeling excited?  Maybe you felt confident and now feel frustrated?  Once you know the emotional arc of the pitch, your job is to take the audience on the journey.  Show us what happened and your audience will begin to care about you and the product or idea.

4.  Revisit Your Value Proposition.  The best pitches are organized around a central idea, or theme.  In business, the central idea is known as the value proposition.   One quick way to identify the value proposition is the answer to the question: why should a customer buy this product or service? Use the answer to this question (i.e. to have easy access to the world’s information online), to segue into your vision for the future.Show people how things will change in the world you’re creating with your product or idea.

5.  Have a Clear Call To Action.  Once you’ve taken your audience on an emotional journey and they know your value proposition, the last piece is having a call to action.  A good call to action will give your audience something to do with the information you’re imparting.  Do you need $1.725 million for capital equipment?  Six additional staffers for a new team? The key here is to be specific about what you want and ask for it.  The more specific you are, the easier it will be for investors to understand your needs and give you what you want.

Not so bad after all, right?  Now you’ll just have to figure out how to deal with Aaron Sorkin when he wants to make a movie about your life.

 

5 Rules for Telling Stories with Your Pitch

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.

Going Up in Chicago: Storytelling for Entrepreneurs Workshop

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elevator pitch

Wednesday, June 3rd 2015

6-8pm

Join Andrew Linderman at General Assembly Chicago for 

Storytelling for Entrepreneurs: Presentations to Elevator Pitches

About This Class

Not all elevator pitches are created equal. You may think you’ve got a can’t miss pitch, but if you can’t explain your idea in a compelling and interesting way, your message may get lost in translation. In this class, you’ll learn how to utilize storytelling techniques in business settings. You’ll begin with the three types of business stories, then learn tips for telling them effectively, relaxation techniques for performing them, ways to become a better listener, and much more.

Takeaways

  • Learn tips for uncovering stories in everyday life.
  • Discover ways to make your story more persuasive.
  • Find out how to use stories in pitches, presentations, and meetings.
  • Learn ways to incorporate stories into mission statements and product launches.

Prereqs & Preparation

No prerequisites. Students should bring a pen and paper to complete the handouts and assignments.

Not in Chicago? Can’t make it to this workshop? Click here for an up-to-date list of upcoming classes and events

May 28: Storytelling for Entrepreneurs

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The Next Storytelling for Entrepreneurs: Presentations to Elevator Pitches is coming up on Thursday, May 28th at General Assembly

Not all elevator pitches are created equal. You may think you’ve got a can’t miss pitch, but if you can’t explain your idea in a compelling and interesting way, your message may get lost in translation. In this class, you’ll learn how to utilize storytelling techniques in business settings. You’ll begin with the three types of business stories, then learn tips for telling them effectively, relaxation techniques for performing them, ways to become a better listener, and much more.

Takeaways

  • Learn tips for uncovering stories in everyday life.
  • Discover ways to make your story more persuasive.
  • Find out how to use stories in pitches, presentations, and meetings.
  • Learn ways to incorporate stories into mission statements and product launches.

Prereqs & Preparation

No prerequisites. Students should bring a pen and paper to complete the handouts and assignments.

RSVP today to reserve your spot!

Can’t make it to this one? Check out upcoming shows and workshops from Andrew Linderman & The Story Source here.

Design in Mind: 5 Steps for Telling A Design Story

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How to tell a great a design story

Over the last three years, I’ve worked with a number of designers who have great ideas, but struggle to get colleagues or potential backers to see the power of their vision.  So if you’re a designer, how do you talk about your work effectively without falling back on blueprints or drawings?

The answer, not surprisingly, is pretty straightforward: tell a story.

To help you share compelling design stories, here are “5 Steps for Telling a Design Story.”  Check out our handy infographic, follow these guidelines and you’ll have yet another tool for amazing potential clients or fellow designers.

 

1. Start with Your Values

As designers know, good design starts with values, or core principles.  The first step to articulating your values is to answer the question: What is the experience you want your end user to have of the product?  Are you trying to achieve efficiency of space or economy of motion?  Is the goal to save time or increase the number of clicks on a particular page?  Start with a big idea (i.e. efficiency) and then break it down into its component parts (look, feel, etc).  The clearer you are in answering these questions, the clearer you’ll be in articulating the overall journey, or experience, you’d like a potential reader, listener or user to have of your design.

2. Identify a Moment of Vulnerability

Since there are no shortage of vulnerabilities in the design world, this part is pretty easy.  The challenge here is to try to find a moment where the failure hit a nerve on a personal level.  To do this, identify a moment or experience in which the value you want your design to demonstrate (i.e. efficiency) was absent, and the impact that absence had on you.  For example, if the experience you want people to have is about spatial layout, think about a time when you were jammed against a wall and couldn’t escape, or a time you created a space that had that same effect on someone.

Once you pinpoint the moment, take time to highlight each of the design failings (be specific!), how you reacted (be honest!), and any feelings you experienced, either in the moment or afterwards (make it personal!).

3.  Demonstrate a Shift

After you’ve clearly identified a moment of vulnerability, outline how you responded.  What did you do? Did you have any conversations about this design failing? Again, be specific about these conversations and actions.  For example, after seeing a cabinet that was placed improperly, did you research and discover any trends in cabinet design?  Did you share your experiences with your team?  These moments and conversations will provide context for your listeners about both your solution and the design process.  Many designers gloss over important details out of fear of bogging the audience down, but a detailed description of your response will actually draw people in by making design comprehensible.  Again, be specific!

4. Present Your Solution

After you’ve created context for both the design vulnerability and outlined your response, walk the audience through your solution.  This doesn’t need to be a complex breakdown of the idea (unless you’re speaking to fellow designers who want to hear it), but it does need to address the vulnerability identified in part 2 and the shift in part 3.  Describe how the solution speaks to the initial problem and realizes the design value laid out in part 1.

5. End with a Call to Action

The final part of a good design story is to end with a compelling call to action. Your call to action should articulate what’s possible in this new, well-designed world.  If you’ve already implemented your design solution, tell people what happened afterwards.  Did the industry embrace your ideas?  Did anyone offer praise or feedback?  What became possible for users and designers in this new world?  Did your solution provide secondary benefits that you didn’t initially anticipante?

If you haven’t implemented the solution yet, get people excited about the future and you’ll be amazed at the response.

How’s that for a design hack?

How to tell a great a design story

This Time It’s Personal: 3 Tips for Connecting with Your Audience

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Gasland

A few weeks ago, I was stuck in bed with the flu and was combing Netflix for something to watch.  After a bit of browsing, I came across Gasland, a documentary about the fracking industry released in 2010.  I turned on the movie and within a few minutes I couldn’t stop watching.

The visuals are powerful (including a jaw dropping scene in which a man lights his tap water on fire), the information is well researched and relevant, and the characters are funny and engaging.  But there’s something else that makes the film truly unique and wonderful that’s unfortunately missing from too many documentaries out there.

The story is deeply personal.

To help you make your stories, pitches and maybe even documentary films more personal, here are “3 Tips for Connecting with Your Audience”.  Follow these tips and you’ll have the Academy calling you before you know it.

1. Put Yourself in the Story. The first thing that drew me in about Gasland was an image of the filmmaker, Josh Fox, playing around with his family on a beautiful piece of land in Pennsylvania.   The audience then sees a copy of the note that Josh receives from a gas company offering him $4,000 in exchange for extraction rights.  But rather than recoiling, the stakes of the film become clear and we’re now rooting for Josh.  When you make it personal, you engage your audience immediately.

2. Show Vulnerability.  Once you’ve hooked your audience with something personal, the simplest way to maintain their attention is to expose a personal challenge or shortcoming.  When you put yourself on the line, you take a big risk: the audience may initially react with surprise or even discomfort.  But once the audience fully grasps the struggles of the storyteller, they’ll see the central problem of the story through the storyteller’s eyes.  In Gasland, for example, Josh periodically draws the audience back into his personal worries and concerns with voiceovers, which puts the economic and political forces surrounding the issue of fracking in context.  A little vulnerability makes complex information digestible.

3. End With An Image.   The strongest way to end a story is to offer apowerful visual.  In many cases, this means returning to the personal elements introduced in the beginning of the story.  Much like the first scene in the film, the last scenes of Gasland are of Josh Fox on his land.  In a voiceover, Josh mentions that he’s not sure what’s going to happen to his land but that he’s learned a lot about America in the process of traveling the country. The final image transforms the story from a simple recounting of a problem into something larger: a quest for identity in America.  When you end with a strong visual, the story becomes more memorable.

Pretty powerful, right?

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?