Storytelling is one of the trendiest topic related to communications. In the past couple of years I have heard this word at least a million times in many different situations. However, until some time ago I didn’t have a full picture about what a “story” really is and how to build it. So, I decided to get some more structured content about this theme and I found Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers From the Very First Sentence, a book by Lisa Cron.
Lisa Cron is a story coach with experience in publishing, TV and consultancy. She works with writers and organizations to help them to tell their story in a way that moves people to action. Wired for Story walks us through the process of developing a story, using novels and movies as examples. While all the book gives useful hints, the topics I find more useful to apply to public speaking are the following.
Chapter 2: How to Zero in on Your Point
Think about a movie you watched recently. Do you remember all the outfits of the characters or the furniture in the set design? I guess you don’t. When we concentrate on something (in this case, the story in the movie), our brain tends to filter out all the unnecessary information. This happens also to the audience listening to our speech. If we are tempted to include superfluous details just because we like the way they sound, we must know that the audience probably won’t remember them. Instead, we should utilize the attention of our listeners wisely. All the elements we mention should add something useful, or work together to support the point of the story. Side note: to do so, we must have the point of the story clear in our mind in the first place.
Does this sound familiar? Well, this chapter reminded me of the famous dramatic principle called “Chekhov’s gun” (from Russian writer, Chekhov’s Letter to A. S. Lazarev, 1889):
One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.
Chapter 8: Cause and Effect
Human brain is a connecting-the-dots machine: we see patterns everywhere. If you have two following scenes, the listeners will imagine that the first one is somehow provoking the second one. As Wired for Story explains, the audience will try to find a logical correlation between the facts in your story, even if you didn’t plan it. We can use this thought process to our advantage. As said before, first we have to identify the point of our story. Then, let’s make sure the story develops following a cause/effect trajectory, and that all the elements we include form part of the same trajectory. Each of them should be a cause for something that is coming later or an effect of something that has happened earlier. So, before you incorporate anything in your story, make sure it has ask yourself: which effect is this going to have? Or, simply: and so?
Chapter 10: The Road from Setup to Payoff
Eventually, you have reached a point where every element in our story is functional and follows a cause/effect logic. Is it enough? In Cron’s opinion, once we have finished to write our story we still need to check another aspect. If we connect the dots between the setup and the payoff, do they add up? In other words: is the payoff of our setup logistically possible? As this is our story and we have full control when writing it, we can be tempted to follow a random storyline and then give it a twist at the end to reach the conclusion we need. Still, if we want the audience to believe our story, everything must be plausible. If we add something unrealistic, the audience may feel confused or, even worse, cheated.
These are “my 2 cents” about Wired for Story. The book deep dives into the topic of storytelling, with tips we can apply to all stories – including speeches. Also, the analysis of novels and movies makes it even easier to understand the concepts.
If you are interested in another useful resource about public speaking, you can also check out the previous post of this series, where I wrote about The Speaker Lab Podcast by Grant Baldwin.
(Image by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash)