Whether you’re speaking to sell, telling a client story, or doing a keynote presentation – the key to making a good story great is in the details.
Here’s why. Good stories are a form of virtual reality. They allow your audience to step into the main character and feel what she feels. Anyone who has watched a great movie or TV show or read a great book knows how captivating being immersed in a story can be.
That’s why being able to set a scene is really important, especially when your story involves a specific time and place. One of the key principles of storytelling is you want to show, not tell. And details help you to do that.
Here’s an example of what I mean. Let’s say you were telling a dramatic true-life story about your relationship with your parents. Many people would write something like: When my dad yelled at me like that I felt sad.
This is a classic example of telling. Instead, let’s look at how you could show that scene instead.
I turned to leave and my dad screamed, “You’ll always be a loser!” By the time I reached my car, tears were running down my face.
Can you see how showing the scene has much more impact?
Now you don’t have to write a novel here. One of the things I learned when I was screen writing is that you don’t need a lot of words to set a scene.
If you do your job right, you can immediately set the time, place, tone, and feeling in just a few sentences. Here’s an example from a story that I share when I do one of my inspirational keynotes on living with chronic illness.
“It’s the evening of Christmas 1986. Most people are with their families and enjoying their Turkey dinner with cranberry sauce, and maybe even a bit of pumpkin pie. But for one young man the experience is quite different. He’s sick and alone in a small hospital room. And he’s scared because he’s not sure what’s wrong with him – and neither do the doctors. They don’t realize yet that he has a perforated intestine and that his body is a time bomb just waiting to go off.”
Now that’s only 30 seconds long, but I’ve given you the important information and set the scene. You’ll also notice that I use the present tense, (is instead of was). This makes the story feel both more real and more urgent.
Starting a story off this way is even more important if it’s at the beginning of your talk. Remember, you need to grab people’s attention right away or you may lose them.
Telling a compelling story is a great way to get people’s attention. But turning up the drama is only part of the equation.
It doesn’t matter how amazing a story is, if its not relatable to the audience, it won’t have an impact. And without impact, your story is a poor sales tool.
There are many universal themes that pop up in great stories – rejection, failure, and fear are three of the big ones.
And the reason these themes tend to be negative is that stories need tension. They need an obstacle that has to be overcome, because life is full of obstacles. The key is that these obstacles need to be relatable to other people.
Sometimes speakers will tell a dramatic story, but will forget to relate the experience to something that we all share.
Hearing about a guy who got trapped by a falling boulder and had to cut his arm off is not immediately relatable to me. But, if he tells me a story about having to face your greatest fears, and taking painful actions to get to a desired result – then I’m really hooked. It’s all in how you tell that story that makes it relatable.