Storytelling techniques

Amazing storytelling breaks down the wall between you and your audience and gets them to care and invest in your message; bad storytelling can make your audiences switch off and lose your interest.

We’ve explored in a couple blog posts “What makes an “idea worth spreading”?” and “The anatomy of a great talk”. Here I wanted to focus on storytelling techniques in more detail. Storytelling isn’t only the key to a great talk or presentation – it’s a fundamental and age-old way that humans communicate with one another.

This blog post will explore written storytelling and four techniques you can use specifically for talks. I will then show how you can use these techniques in other written content, from newsletters to social media.

Getting started – the Story Spine

Every time I sit down to write, I have so many ideas bouncing around in my head, and, with no particular structure in my mind, I tend to go off on tangents rather than directing this chaotic energy. I’ve always been told – you should be able to write your argument or core idea in one clear sentence – a quick pitch if you like – that would summarise to someone what you are writing about. Yet, when I have all these ideas and tangents in my head, I can be really unsure of what my one key message is. Luckily, I have found a way to help structure this process – the Story Spine. The Story Spine is helpful and quick way to get the basics down on paper when in the midst of the writing process.

It’s a very simple structure.

The Story Spine was popularised by writer, director and teacher, Brian MacDonald and Pixar – you’ll notice that a lot of Pixar movies use this basic structure in their films. By being forced to fill in these blanks, it will highlight the basic, linear narrative of your story. Let me use one of my favourite TEDxLondon speakers, Alex Lloyd, as an example.

  • Once upon a time, there was a boy called Alex.
  • Every day, Alex would study psychology at university.
  • One day, Alex decided to volunteer in a youth offending team to understand the psychology of youth offenders better.
  • Because of that, Alex realised our approach to youth offending misses key psychological understandings of traumatised and vulnerable young people.
  • Because of that, Alex decided to bring his background in psychology into conversations around youth justice and the current justice system.
  • Until finally, Alex did a TEDxLondon talk that kickstarted his campaigning in changing conversations around youth justice and the psychology of young offenders; offered practical solutions to the issues we currently face; and continued to campaign for these changes.

It might seem that the Story Spine works for fictional narratives only – but as you can see – it can be used to sketch out the structure to any content or story you want to write. You start by scene set with the first two prompts – here we find out Alex is a psychology student. The ‘One day’ prompt introduces an event of some sort, which pushes our protagonist to change their status quo in some way. In this case, Alex decided to volunteer with youth offenders.

Due to this change in the status quo, the two ‘Because of that’ prompts show the consequences of this change. For Alex, these changes were realising more research and action had to be taken. The last prompt, ‘Until finally’, reveals a new routine or status quo – in this case Alex campaigning and doing a TEDxLondon talk. This final prompt usually illustrates the ultimate message of the story, and, in Alex’s case, you can find out his core message by listening to his excellent talk here.

Once you understand the basic linear narrative of your story, you are then able to have much more fun with it – add in some more characters, a dash of drama, build anticipation, re-jig the structure and generally make it more complex and colourful.

Below are three further storytelling techniques that can add some of this colour: the mountain, in medias res and the petal structure.

The Mountain

The mountain storytelling technique is probably the most closely related to the story spine. Like the shape of a mountain, this story telling method works linearly and allows you to build tension as head towards the climax at the height of your talk – i.e. reaching the top of the mountain – before then relieving the tension and coming to an end.

Like the story spine, the mountain technique starts by setting the scene at the bottom of the mountain. If you’ve ever climbed a mountain, you will know you can never walk straight up the mountain and usually have to traverse lots of smaller ascends and descends. So as you “climb up the mountain” in your talk, you can show your audience how you faced smaller challenges and overcame them, all the while building up to your climatic challenge at the top of your mountain.

This kind of story structure will seem very familiar, as it’s closely related to the “Hero’s Journey”, a story-telling technique which is used so often in fantasy, myths, legends, TV, books and films. However, the mountain technique has a bit more freedom at the end, in comparison to the hero’s journey. From Star Wars to Finding Nemo, the hero’s journey depends upon the main protagonist finding new knowledge and wisdom, which solves the original issue and means the story can end happily. In the mountain structure, however, after the climatic challenge, it is not necessary to have a happy ending – I think this can be much more helpful if you are hoping to make your audience take action in some way after you finish.

In Medias Res

In medias res is latin for “into the middle of things”. In medias res storytelling is when the reader, viewer or listener is thrown into the middle of the action, before the storyteller, at some point, goes back and explains how the characters got to this point. I am sure you will be very familiar with this storytelling structure. It is used so often in all kinds of media – great examples are the TV show How to get away with murder, the book Lullaby by Leila Slimani, and season one of the podcast, Serial.

As you’ve probably realised, it’s a great way to get your audience engaged from the get go and also committed to finding out what happened to get the characters to this point. It’s also a great technique for emphasising the pivotal moment in your story and using that framework to set the scene and expectations of your audience for your talk or story.

Watch out though – unless you’re an excellent storyteller – keeping the audience waiting for too long to find out what happened can make them frustrated. We all want to know whodunnit!

Petal Structure

I really like the petal structure and I’ve included it because it allows you to completely disregard one central linear narrative unlike the other three techniques above. Imagine a flower blooming – each petal represents a story that links to the centre of the flower – and the centre of the flower is your central theory or idea. Each of your individual stories will interlink and/or overlap with one another, but is still a complete story in and of itself. Each story strengthens the overall central theory or idea. Even though a central theory or idea will run through each individual story, the structure gives a writer a lot of freedom to play with different styles within each individual story and think of creative ways to link them all together.

I also love the petal structure because it reminds us how easily your core message or topic (and life in general) is intimately interconnected with other disciplines, scenarios and issues. You will find a lot of authors will play with structure as it’s very effective when done well, for example Jhumpa Lahiri’s collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies. You will also find that many events organisers use a petal structure when planning speaker or theme-based events. It’s very effective to bring a variety of different speakers to talk around an overall theme and can be very satisfying for an audience to make those interconnections.

Some other good examples are the TV shows Black Mirror and This Is Us, and novel Cloud Atlas and the films Babel and Paris Je t’aime.

Using storytelling techniques in multiple ways

These techniques are not just for an author or someone planning a presentation or talk, they can deeply impact and improve your content creation in whatever medium you choose. Often when you are creating content under a deadline, it can be easy to fall into the same repetitive structures and templates; therefore having a few of these storytelling techniques up your sleeve will engage your audiences in new and exciting ways.

The petal structure would work brilliantly for a digital newsletter. Having an overall core message or theme that you want to reinforce through a variety of interlinking content would brighten any news – especially if you can use different mediums or formats for each individual story so as to keep your audience engaged.

Consider social media, it can be tempting to sometimes report in a linear narrative about events or news happening in your organisation or just react to other people’s content. However, why not build anticipation and tension about something exciting and new coming up – like the announcement of an event or ticket sales – by using the in medias res technique. Dropping your audience into the action, will hopefully get them to engage with you and so they can find out exactly what the full story is!

As an events manager, I’m always thinking of interesting ways to engage my guests throughout every aspect of my event. I believe the mountain technique could be a great template to engage an audience – from setting the scene as they register for their event through exciting visuals to building up anticipation before the main part of the event. Why not build tension in a host’s scripts, in the event programme or other event materials and over social media, so the audience is ready for a climatic finale!

Having a better understanding of just a few storytelling techniques can give you more options and resources to create better content and win your audiences over.

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