3 fundamental elements of superb storytelling

Statistics are all well and good, but a compelling narrative stays with an audience far longer. Here are a few ways you can get your audience on board for your journey.

The human mind is structured to remember stories, not facts, or things, or lists, or even ideas.

Here’s proof. We are much safer today, in 2016, from crime in general and terrorism in particular, than we were in the 1970s. The crime rate was much higher then, and the number of terrorist incidents was much higher then, too.

Yet you don’t believe that. Why not?

Because your brain remembers the recent, horrible stories of attacks in San Bernardino or Paris or Brussels or somewhere else. You don’t remember stats, unless you’re a math nerd, and those numbers geeks are few and far between.

In any case, statistics can’t compete with facts because your brain is wired to take incidents—especially recent, horrible ones—and create stories, attaching emotion to them.

Stories are more memorable than facts, because stories align with the way our brains are wired.

Yet you don’t tell great stories when you give presentations. Why not? Maybe it’s because good storytelling is hard. It requires discipline and distance to know how much detail to include. Also, the temptation is to go for shock value (“And then the building blew up!”) because that seems like effective storytelling—even though it isn’t.

Beyond that, would-be storytellers often render anecdotes rather than great stories, because so much of life is like an anecdote: Something happens, but there’s no resolution. So we fall into the trap of thinking that great stories should be like life-open-ended, messy, unresolved.

Further, wannabes leave out the requisite conflict. Genuine conflict is hard to deal with in the open, even-handed way that Shakespeare knew to use. The Bard presented heroes and villains, but he made us see the villain’s point of view, his humanity, because otherwise you just have melodrama.

Great storytelling requires a great heart, one that faithfully conveys opposing points of view.

Finally, speakers don’t tell great stories because they want to make themselves the heroes, and a truly great speaker makes the audience, not herself, the hero of her story.

Those are some of the obstacles to great storytelling in speeches. If you’re still game for trying, here are a few essentials to think about:

1. Make the stakes high enough. There’s an old Hollywood nostrum that, if a scene is dragging, you introduce a gun. That immediately raises the stakes, because someone could get killed. How can you make your story about life and death? Shakespeare knew that those were the themes worth telling stories about. Everything else is small beer.

2. Offer a quest. That, of course, is just of the great plot structures that have stood the test of storytelling time, for tens of thousands of years, and still enchant us. ( Here is a list of the greatest storylines.) It’s a huge mistake to think your story must be completely new. We like stories best when we understand the structure, when we know where they’re going. If you tell us a compelling quest, we’re enthralled because we know that, after a long and arduous journey, the hero will prevail because of her grit and determination. We just want to see how hard the journey is and how determined the hero. Can you make us, the audience, the hero? Even better.

3. Present a problem to solve. Our minds are hard-wired to want to solve problems when you present them in the right way. That engages us, enlists us in the struggle and propels us along the journey.

To become a great storyteller, embrace one of the ancient structures, such as the quest. Embrace the conflict, raise the stakes, and give us a worthy problem to solve. If you can do all that, we will listen to you all day.

A version of this article originally appeared on Public Words.

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