In part one of this series, we discussed why stories work the way they do. Then we focused on the importance of understanding who is listening and what stories can help us achieve. Now, it’s time to move on to what could be considered the most interesting part of the article.
But first, a disclaimer: Creating a story is not hard. Your first ones may feel awkward, but storytelling gets easier, and stories get better with practice. The more you tell a story, the better the story becomes, and the more comfortable the teller becomes at telling it.
How to craft a story
As you select and develop your stories, you have to consider three major things:
- Goal: What’s the outcome you expect from this story?
Buy-in? Alignment? Feedback? What kind of feedback? Ideas? How complex?
- Audience: Who will be there listening to the story?
Do they know you? Do they trust you? What information do they have about you?
- Structure: What will the story say? How?
What are the key messages? What needs to be known first? What’s the big problem you are addressing?
On the surface of each story, we find characters, context, and conflicts. Each of these elements is there to fulfill a fundamental role in the task of connecting the audience with the message and the ultimate goal of the story.
Thinking about your goals
“Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.”
-Pixar’s rules of storytelling – #14*
Like any project, creating a story starts with clear goals. Stories are created for a specific audience and purpose.
You might need a story that helps a researcher see and feel the user’s perspectives more clearly. Or you might want to show a development team the advantages of different design solutions and how they balance user needs against business goals. Or perhaps your goal is to inspire the C-Level of the company to think creatively about a new problem space.
Before we start writing, we need to know why we are telling the story and what the purpose of the story is.
Reaching your audience
“Keep in mind what’s interesting to your audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be very different.”
–Pixar’s rules of storytelling – #2*
Your goal isn’t just to tell a great story, but to communicate something, thus making it mandatory to understand who will be there listening to the story.
There are two relationships to keep in mind. Both affect how the audience understands the point of your story.
1. The relationship between the audience and the story
You must consider the distance between the audience and the context of the story. How far will the audience have to travel in their imaginations to understand the details of the story and the motivations of the characters?
Are you telling a story about something that you expect them to understand because they went through a similar experience? Are you trying to help them empathize with something you know they never experienced?
Once you know the distance between your audience and your context, you will be able to choose the details worth including and the ones that are not adding value.
2. The relationship between you and the audience
What do you represent for your listeners? Do they know you? Do they trust your judgment?
Do you have shared references and terminology that you can rely on?
It is important to understand this in order to define your role in this relationship. With this in mind, you can add just enough information about who you are to let the audience understand where this story is coming from.
Story structures are patterns
“What’s the essence of your story? The most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.”
-Pixar’s rules of storytelling – #22*
As we know, storytelling is one of the oldest communication forms, and not much has changed from the days where hunters sat around a fire at the end of the day, telling stories of their exploits. We still care about our families, our work, and moving forward in life, so many aspects of our stories haven’t changed that much either.
Having a familiar structure doesn’t mean each story can’t have its own pace, images, and context. And so, there are twists and turns in the plot or surprises in how the ingredients are assembled, but the basic structure is often a familiar one, and this is important.
The story structure helps the audience, the author, and the story:
It helps the audience: When the audience recognizes the structure, they have another level of understanding of the story. They can listen to the details of your story carefully, once they have a good expectation of how the story will be told; they don’t have to waste time speculating on the direction of the story.
It helps the author: Story structure is a navigational device, helping you figure out what’s next or what’s missing as you create a story.
It helps the story: It can help move a story from a vague idea to something more solid, suggesting ways to organize it into a beginning, middle, and end.
There are many structures you can choose from, in order to bring the most out of your story.
At first, you might find it easier to focus on telling your first stories using simple structures. The fact that they are simple does not mean they are not powerful.
This little template, for example, comes from the world of improv theater, and it’s the structure that rules almost every Pixar story. If you give it a try, you will find that it’s a great way to organize and structure your ideas.
Once upon a time, there was A CHARACTER.
Every day, THEY DO THIS THING.
One day SOMETHING CHANGES THEIR WORLD.
Because of that, THEY ARE FORCED TO TAKE A STEP THAT THEY WOULD NOT TAKE OTHERWISE.
Because of that, THEY ARE MOTIVATED TO DO SOMETHING ELSE.
Until finally THEY BECOME A HERO AND RETURN AS A BETTER VERSION OF THEMSELVES.
You can take this template and make it apply to a technical approach as well.
Once upon a time, there was A THING (a server, an API, a library)
Every day, IT DOES THIS TASK.
One day WE NOTICED SOMETHING (a blocker, a problem, a limitation)
Because of that, WE RESEARCHED AND TESTED X & Y
Until finally WE FOUND OUT THIS BETTER (cheaper, faster, more flexible) WAY TO DO THIS
In other words:
Introduce the central figure and their world.
Present them with a critical, world-changing challenge or problem.
Share the path to confronting that critical challenge with increasingly difficult obstacles.
Show how they overcome the obstacles and take on the big challenge.
Bring the protagonist back home, as an improved version of themselves.
Don’t take the structure too literally, but use it as a guideline. Focus on the importance of solving the problem, and how life will be improved. Once you have that, start building your story around it, keeping in mind your goals, and your audience.
Only now that you’ve identified your goals, your audience, and defined a structure, should you start working on your supporting slides.
You are the presentation
Always remember this: You are the valuable content, where the focus should be directed. Your slides are just a visual aid. If you put a big chunk of text out there, the audience will try to read that, and not listen to you. No, you are not adding information, you are dividing their attention. Images, for example, can help us reinforce an idea, give context, or even play around with irony.
Time matters, a lot
15-25 minutes is great. A presentation over 40 minutes is where you start to lose the audience’s attention. Keep time in mind and adjust your presentation to fit. Choosing what to say and what not to say is fundamental. Think about what adds value to the story and what should go into the appendix, in case someone asks about it on a Q&A
You are like a rock band, once the song starts, keep it going until the end
Everything you say should be part of the story. If you break the bond with the audience, you’ll most likely have a hard time getting it back.
Talk about things you know
We usually feel the need to connect with things we don´t know or at least we do not master. You need to have a clear understanding of what motivates your characters, keeps your plot going, provokes the twists, etc. If you don’t have a deep understanding of the subject, you’ll need to do your homework!
Own the story, use your words
Always take the story to places you feel comfortable with. Don’t try to add hard terminology unless it’s mandatory for the story. When the storyteller owns the story, the audience relaxes and can focus on the content.
Practice your storytelling tone and pace
How you tell the story is as important as the story itself. Use the tone of your voice to engage the users and guide them about how they should feel. Use pauses to increase drama. Play around with it!
Don’t be afraid to make it personal; invite people into the story
If you are in a room and have a small audience in front of you, don’t be afraid to look someone in the eyes for a few seconds while providing important information or emotional content. This creates a deeper connection between that person and the information you are delivering. It’s a way to tell someone “this is important to you, how do you feel about it?”
Set your expectations in advance
This is important mostly in meetings, where your goal is to achieve tangible results. Simply start with a slide about what you expect to take out of this meeting. This lets the audience set the mode in which they will interpret the story and what they will focus on.
* Pixar’s rules of storytelling, per former Pixar story artist, Emma Coats
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