Story structures are great, but too much formula can lead to fact sheet flat-liners or drawn out disappointments that fail to get the audience engagement we know they’re great for.
Story telling is coming to the fore as a way of communicating and driving engagement, and it’s often accompanied by sound advice such as having a clear three act construct, a hero/protagonist, defined scenes, obstacles/opportunities, actions, resolutions and lessons learned. But whilst we stick rigidly to this structure we can still risk losing our readers.
Some advice from Ira Glass
Since 1995, Ira Glass has hosted and produced ‘This American Life’ a public radio show in the US that now reaches over 1.7 million listeners on over 500 stations weekly – and I think the techniques he suggests can really help put some drama into our corporate stories.
Ira’s advice is in a series of four short videos, each under 5 minutes, this blog is based on Part 1 – Story Format.
Ira points out that when we’re in school, we generally learn to tell stories around one argument that’s then supported by facts – which can be a little flat.
To build some drama and personality into his stories, Ira recommends using anecdotes and moments of reflection which he illustrates using an example of a what could be a really boring story – about a guy waking up and going to his front door.
Anecdotes and Moments of Reflection
Ira suggests using anecdotes to build drama and that anecdotes have two elements, momentum and ‘bait’ for the listener:
A. Momentum: is used to give a sense that the events in a story follow each other – give a sense of a journey and a destination and build some feeling into the story. Often stories start with scene setting, but it’s important to add some emotion over and above location.
B. Bait: for the reader: stories work best when they raise questions for the listener – in Ira’s illustration, what will happen to the man when he opens the front door, where is he going, why is it so quiet? This way, the author manipulates the listener by choosing when to provide the answers, and adding in new actions that raise new questions.
2. Moments of reflection
Here’s the reason for the story, here’s the point, the return for the listener for paying attention.
What can go wrong with stories
Great anecdotes with weak or no moment of reflection are disappointing and frustrating. They make the story predictable and give the listener nothing new.
Boring anecdotes with important moments of reflection miss the mark too and worse yet, dilute the purpose of the story so the listener feels they’ve wasted their time.
I’ve drawn a quick ‘four box model’ here that illustrates the story sweet spot and some pitfalls to avoid based on Ira’s comments.
Four box model showing story types against anecdotes and moments of reflection.
Stories aren’t like a long joke that ends with a punch line, they’re not a shopping list of activities, they have action sequences and moments of reflection multiple times through the story that deliver a memorable conclusion for the reader. And with corporate stories, there’s usually a conclusion we want the reader to remember.
My take outs:
- Structure is great, but avoid the fact-sheet approach where the reader feels they’re on a predictable path towards an obvious outcome.
- Stories need drama, and drama comes from people – try to involve more than one character in your story.
- No one wants to drive on a motorway continually, give your reader an interesting journey that will help them remember the destination when they get there.