3 rookie storytelling mistakes

You might think you’re telling a great story, but you might unknowingly sabotage your talk with these rookie mistakes.

I often write about the need to tell stories to grab people’s attention and ensure they remember you.

I often talk about the five fundamental stories:

1. The quest (which Hollywood knows so well).

2. Stranger in a strange land.

3. Revenge.

4. Rags to riches.

5. The love story.

You can look here for explanations of these stories.

People who attempt to tell one of these stories in a business setting or presentation often make basic storytelling mistakes.

Here are a few of the common pitfalls to avoid:

1. Writing too much of what you know.

Writers are always enjoined to write what they know. This advice is sound, unless you’re writing the next post-apocalypse blockbuster. Obviously you haven’t experienced alien overlords with six heads who practice mind control. Even then you can write about the struggle for survival, issues with authority, high-school cliques disguised as alien overlords and so on.

People often take “writing what you know” as a license to drone on about themselves, their feelings and every thought they’ve ever had.

You should write what you know, but not too much. Give only a few choice details.

We want to know the hero’s blue eyes sparkled in the sun. We don’t want to know her history with her eye doctor. We don’t want to know whether she’s nearsighted, astigmatic or has 20/40 vision in one eye and 20/400 in the other. We don’t care—unless she’s a witness to murder and the opposing lawyer in the trial demolishes her testimony by proving she couldn’t possibly have read the license plate of the departing car at the distance in question.

There’s an art to knowing a story’s telling details and when to drop the minutiae. It takes time to develop that art. In speaking, less detail is better because your audience’s ability to retain information is weaker.

2. Writing what happened—in order.

The big trap for first-time writers and speakers is explaining what happened in chronological order. That’s natural, because that’s the way the event happened. But chronology is not meaning.

One of your most important responsibilities is to arrange your story so it follows an arc of meaning, not of chronology.

Homer began “The Iliad” not at the beginning of the Trojan War, but near the end. The Trojans offer the Greeks a bribe to end the war. Achilles’ pride is wounded, and Achilles threatens to scupper the whole war.

This structure allowed Homer to create a story arc about the Greeks’ pride, the gods’ interference and so on—not the war’s chronological details.

Starting in medias res (the middle) allows the writer to set the high points in a compelling order, and allows the audience to understand the story’s structure, as well as the story’s themes and meanings, more easily.

Speakers must do the same. Don’t tell us the chronology of your start up. We don’t care, and it’s confusing. Instead, start at a key moment—the moment you were about to close the doors, when you discovered the breakthrough, etc.

Writers and speakers are afraid to do this because they want to save the best for last, but that’s a rookie mistake. Start with your best, engage us and then give us even better.

3. Surprising the audience with an unexpected ending .

This pernicious habit is particularly prevalent on TV and in the movies. The idea is to save a secret, or give the audience some surprise that’s so astonishing they never could have seen it coming.

This is almost always bad storytelling.

The death of a main character, for instance, is only justified if you’ve prepared for it and it is part of the story arc. All too often, the event is astonishing because the storyteller hasn’t prepared for it or hasn’t created an arc in which the event can—and must—happen.

Moreover, you miss the opportunity for extra excitement if you don’t warn the listener something is coming. Alfred Hitchcock figured this out, and revealed his secret in an interview.

Hitchcock was complaining about movies and comparing them with his own. He noted that the typical movie, wanting to shock the viewer, say, with a bomb going off, shows two people chatting in a café. They chat for 10 minutes, and then the bomb goes off.

As Hitchcock noted, that’s 10 minutes of boredom followed by 30 seconds of excitement.

Hitchcock let the viewer know what would happen. When the viewer saw the same 10 minutes, he was incredibly tense because he knew a bomb would go off at any moment. When the bomb did explode, there was a delicious combination of release and shock. Finally!

It’s much better for writers and speakers to let their audiences in on the secret. That’s the way to build tension.

A version of this article originally appeared on Public Words.


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