“If the boy and girl walk off into the sunset hand-in-hand in the last scene, it adds 10 million to the box office.”
~ George Lucas
The film industry makes over 1 billion dollars each year in the United States alone. It makes 50 billion worldwide. What is behind these staggering figures?
Human beings’ need for a compelling story.
Stories have been around for as long as man has been around. They were how we communicated important things to one another, like “don’t eat those mushrooms or you will go to sleep and not wake up” and “don’t try and pet that bear, or you will go to sleep and not wake up.”
This need for stories is not just conjecture, it is an idea now backed by science. We like to think of our brains as data processors. But if we want to be very scientific about it, the human brain is a story processor, not a logic processor.
When study participants were given a logic puzzle, less than 10% of participants could recognize the essential elements. When that same logic puzzle was integrated into a story, 70% of participants caught on.
How to Write a Compelling Story
There is a mighty big difference between public speakers and wildly successful public speakers. Public speakers know how to write a speech. Wildly successful public speakers know how to write a compelling story, just like the screenwriters of some of your favorite movies.
As a public speaker, your job is to convey certain information that you feel will add value to the audience members’ lives. You can simply share a bunch of facts and hope that 10% of the audience understands what you’re saying, or you can integrate those facts with a compelling story and have 70% or even more of the audience forever changed by the knowledge and passion you’ve shared. Facts are things that are typically forgotten, but stories are remembered and retold year after year.
To help your next presentation be truly memorable and effective, here are 5 tips on how to write a compelling story:
1. Decide on Your Takeaway First
Most screenwriters know the end of their story before they know anything else. This gives them a roadmap of sorts with a specific event to write towards.
You want your listeners to walk away from your speech with some sort of takeaway or actionable knowledge they can put to use immediately. What is the main goal of your presentation? Is it to build brand awareness? Build trust? Promote a new service? You’ll want to know this before writing your story, so you know the ending you are writing toward.
2. There Must be Obstacles
Can you imagine if Dorothy had no trouble getting back to Kansas? If Luke Skywalker had an easy time saving the galaxy from the dark forces? Or if finding Nemo was a cinch? The story would be far from compelling.
Stories need characters that face big obstacles. The people sitting in your audience know about facing obstacles. In fact, that is why they are in those seats, because they are facing obstacles and are coming to you for the solution!
Make sure your stories always have an obstacle. Perhaps you want to share all of the obstacles you faced when you first started your business, or the obstacles you faced driving to the venue that morning, or the obstacles you face as a parent of a special needs child. It doesn’t matter who the main character is or what the specific obstacles are, just make sure you have some.
3. Use a Strong Storytelling Framework
Storytelling is a lot like baking: you can certainly be creative, but for the final product to come out right, you’re going to have to follow some steps and in the right order. For instance, you don’t decorate the cake first, then bake it, and then finally mix all of the ingredients together. Those steps are obviously not in the right order.
Using a storytelling framework will help you put all of your story’s elements in the right order. This is the basic storytelling path: The intro/setup à the problem/obstacle is introduced à the character struggles to overcome the obstacle à the resolution à the conclusion.
Let’s look at that same path using some familiar storytelling language: Once upon a time à Suddenly à It seemed as though all hope was lost à Fortunately à And they lived happily ever after. The end.
Using this basic framework will help you tell a story that builds in tension and makes sense to your audience.
4. Create Images in the Listeners’ Minds
When we hear stories, we, at the same time, see and feel the stories inside our imaginations. This is how they become real to us.
You can help your story become real to your listeners by painting pictures in their minds. Use descriptive language that helps the audience imagine fully what you are saying.
If an author writes, “The room was cold.” You are given a fact, but you don’t really know how cold. You don’t really feel the cold yourself.
But if an author writes, “The cold air slithered into the room, sending a chill down Walter’s back and breaking his skin out into little bumps.” Now you feel it.
When you are first writing your story/presentation, it’s okay to use simple language just to get all of your ideas down. But as you refine your story, remember to use language that will help your audience hook into the action and feel what your main character is feeling.
Going back to our previous examples, if you are sharing a story about the obstacles you faced started your business, you might say, “I didn’t have very much money when I was first starting out.” Or you could really paint the picture and get a bit more descriptive, “The first year in business I never paid myself and I ate only bagels and ramen noodles to keep costs down. I also biked everywhere so I could save gas money and put it toward buying a Xerox copier.”
The more you can help your audience feel something, the better chance you have at connecting with them.
5. Don’t Try to be Perfect
Perhaps the biggest tip on how to write a compelling story is to not try and be a perfect storyteller. Good characters aren’t perfect, they’re messy. Good stories aren’t perfect, because perfect stories are dull and robotic and void of any humanity.
Don’t set yourself up to look perfect in front of your audience’s eyes. If you do, you will instantly alienate them. Remember, you want to share how you struggled to start your business or raise your children. The audience doesn’t want to hear that you are a perfect parent or an overnight entrepreneurial success. No one will relate to that.
Your goal is to connect and convert the audience into brand fans and ambassadors. To do that, forget being perfect and just be human. Tell human stories full of struggle, mistakes and lessons.
If you use these tips, you’ll not only know exactly how to write a compelling story, you’ll become a wildly successful presenter that gets invited back year after year.
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