3 Days to better storytelling — Day 3: Practice

Freytag's pyramid, annotated by Samantha Tetangco

Freytag’s pyramid, annotated by Samantha Tetangco

This is the last of our 3-part blog series, “3 Days to better storytelling,” tips and ideas for strengthening your storytelling skills. You may also want to check out Day 1: Get inspired and Day 2: Prepare.

Day 3: Practice

If you’ve been looking for your moment to give storytelling a try, today could be your day. You’ve heard from experts about how and why stories engage audiences. You’ve been listening for stories in your daily life and thinking about what works, and what doesn’t, in grabbing and keeping your attention. You’ve also tried out a few simple experiments to get to know your audience. You have a good sense of who they are and how your message connects to what they care about.

Now all you need is a few tools for crafting the story that will carry your ideas.

1. Compose.

As filmmaker Denise Withers noted on Stanford Social Innovation Review blog, at its most basic, a story is nothing more than a problem, a quest by someone to solve the problem, and a solution. Map out your story using these questions as a guide: What’s the problem? Who took it on? What did they have to do to solve it? What was the solution?

Alternatively, try using the graphic above as a roadmap for building your story. Known as Freytag’s pyramid (annotated here by fiction writer and teacher Samantha Tetangco), this diagram lays out the structure many narratives follow. Try populating it with the specifics — the people, the problem, and the solution — of the experience you want to render as a story. To see an example, watch John Calderazzo at minute 2:44 of his AGU Chapman Conference talk.

Or try filling in one of these templates:

  • Pixar’s “story rule #4″: “Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.”  You’ll find this and other story rules on the Pixar Touch blog.
  • Randy Olson’s Connection Storymaker app, based on his “and, but, therefore” structure. Build your story from a single word into a sentence and then a paragraph, using templates on your phone.
  • If you gravitate to a visual approach, try sketching out the plot using a storyboard.

Once you have the structure of your story down, flesh it out using concrete, simple language (images, smells, sounds). Make sure it has:

  • a hook that brings the audience in by connecting with something from their experience
  • an emotional impact (surprise, suspense, identification with the main character)
  • a meaning (moral) that provides a hook for learning something new.

2. Test.

Once you’ve developed your story, tell it to someone. Watch their reaction. Get their feedback. Did the story have an emotional impact? Was the meaning clear? Was it memorable? What could be improved?

3. Refine.

Incorporate feedback you get. As you tell your story to different audiences, think about how you might want to modify it. You may need to emphasize different aspects, depending on their interests.

Stories can be a powerful tool for connecting with others and sharing knowledge. As you try out the “3 Days” tools and tips, leave us a comment. What are your best tips for storytelling?

Pam Sturner is the executive director of the Leopold Leadership Program

3 Days to better storytelling — Day 2: Prepare

Inspired by our fellows’ successes in using stories to promote change, we recently started collecting resources to help researchers tell their stories in compelling ways. This is the second in a 3-part blog series, “3 Days to better storytelling,” with tips and ideas for strengthening your storytelling skills, starting today.

Believe: Can you sing "The Itsy Bitsy Spider"?

Believe: Can you sing “The Itsy Bitsy Spider”?

Day 2: Prepare

On Day 1, we heard from professional storytellers about how storytelling can make the hard job of communicating complex ideas easier. But what if you don’t see yourself as a storyteller? Does the thought of having to tell a story about your work make you shudder? Here are three things you can do to break through and get started.

1. Believe. Have you ever retold a movie plot to a friend? A piece of family lore? A joke? A news item? Can you recite your child’s favorite bedtime story by heart? Can you sing “The Itsy Bitsy Spider”? We tell stories all the time without thinking about it. You are a storyteller, even if you’ve never thought of yourself as one.

2. Listen. Stories are everywhere. As you hear them, notice your reactions. What grabs your attention? What holds it? What makes you tune out? What do you remember a week later? Why?

If you have the chance to see someone tell a story, think about their performance. How do they use body language? What’s their tone of voice? Where do they speed up, slow down, or pause? What feelings do you have as you listen? What makes the story believable (or not)?

3. Know your audience — and yourself. Whether you’re looking to stories to engage your students more deeply, catch the attention of a busy executive, or persuade a local agency to change a practice, there’s a point you want to make, and you need to figure out how it connects with your audience’s interests.

Before you start crafting your story, get to know your audience. Who are they? What do they care about? What challenges are most important to them right now? Whom do they trust? Where do they get their information? How might your message fit with their values and concerns? Learn as much as you can. See what you can find about them (and by them) on Google and YouTube. Read their blogs. Follow them on Twitter.

As you learn more, think about how your topic might fit with what matters to them. What do you have in common with them? How are you different? What are your assumptions about and attitudes toward them? Why does your message matter to you, and why do you want to share it with them?

Try a few experiments using these techniques this week. What’s the most surprising thing you learn? In my last post, I’ll share some user-friendly tools for turning your insights into stories.

Pam Sturner is the executive director of the Leopold Leadership Program.

3 Days to better storytelling — Day 1: Get inspired

Note from Pam: Many of our fellows have found storytelling to be a powerful tool for talking about their work and why it’s important. Recently the Leopold Leadership Program started collecting resources to help researchers tell their stories in compelling ways. Welcome to “3 Days to better storytelling,” a 3-part blog series with tips and ideas for strengthening your storytelling skills starting today.

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Day 1: Get inspired

It seems simple enough: if you want your ideas to stand out and be heard, go out and tell your story. Try googling “effectiveness of storytelling,” and you’ll find a wealth of examples from businesses, nonprofits, health organizations, schools, and other entities about how storytelling helped people absorb and act on new information for change.

Why are stories effective? What happens when you incorporate them into your work? Here are a few perspectives:

This is some of the best advice out there from the pros. But what if you don’t see yourself as a storyteller? In my next post, I’ll show you how you can start applying their ideas in your work.

Pam Sturner is the executive director of the Leopold Leadership Program.