What makes a great storyteller?

What makes a great storyteller?

August 31, 2021


The simple truth is that it’s part content, part structure, part delivery, and all magic.


Think back to the best storytellers you know. They build tension and create scenes that come to life. They make you care about the characters and imagine a world through their eyes.


You may know them personally, or it might be someone like Dave Chapelle.

And now for the good news. Storytelling is a skill. A skill that every great public speaker masters. And it's one that you can build. One that you can develop. One that you can master.

Does that excite you?


Because it should. Storytellers rule the world.

From Steve Jobs to Nike, Coca Cola to Brene Brown, and Pixar to Harry Potter, the people, media and brands that change the world all implement and weaponize storytelling.

They weaponize it in a positive way.

That being said, storytellers have also done terrible things in history.

So  first, let’s agree to use storytelling for good.

It’s a bit like what Uncle Ben told Peter Parker.

“With great power comes great responsibility.”


Now let’s move on.

Content, structure, delivery, and magic. Each one needs to be explored.



Content


A great storyteller understands what type of content connects to the audience. To put it simply, the more exciting or intriguing the better.

Tales of grand adventure or great triumph make for engaging stories.

But you don’t need to leave your hometown to find a great story. We live amazing stories every day, we just need to keep an eye out for them.

So how can you figure out the right type of content?

There’s a great quote by Chappelle where he says that he often comes up with a punchline and then figures out the joke later. That’s what you should be thinking about as well.

When a moment evokes strong emotions, take note. Then build it out.

For instance, if you’re a founder there might be a moment when the light bulb went off. That’s a great place to start.

If you’re a salesperson it could be a major deal you closed.

If you’re an executive it could be the story of how you landed your first big promotion.

Finding the stories in your life is far easier than you realize.

Maybe you won the State Championship in a sport during high school. Maybe you got accepted to your dream school. Maybe it’s a story about how you met your partner. These are all great sources of content for a story.

Think through travel adventures, family experiences, and major milestones to identify great content.

Figure out the major takeaway. Figure out what you want the audience to feel. Now reverse engineer.

You have your punchline. Now you need to structure it to create the right journey.



Structure


Once you have the right content…and good news is that you have plenty of content to choose from because you’re old enough to find this on the internet and read it…it’s time to structure it the best way.

This is where so many stories go wrong.

Here’s a list of openings you can learn from:

Fight Club, Breaking Bad, Billions, The Social Network, Tron: Legacy, Star Wars, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, The Office, The West Wing, and so many more.

Why focus on film and television?

Because they immediately throw you into the action. No wasted time.

It’s all about hooking the audience right away.

One of the very best opens happens in The Dark Knight.

During the bank robbery, the audience has no idea what’s happening and doesn’t have any context, but the scene immediately creates tension while introducing the movie’s main foe - The Joker.

A great storyteller knows that context rarely drives the story at the beginning. The audience wants to fall directly into the scene. It’s how you capture their attention.

Once you have their attention, enjoy the freedom to choose different approaches.

Structure can play around with things like time and perspective, and even allows you to bring in multiple viewpoints to flesh out the story.

Think of Knives Out where Daniel Craig’s character tells the story of the murder from each characters view point to build the narrative. You can also see this in books like The Redwall Series, something I grew up on, as well as so many other great stories that give you pieces from different characters to understand the broader story.

Dune, which comes out in October, is a masterclass in playing around with structure. Its frequent time jumps and perspective shifts  create tension and keep the audience guessing how the pieces fit together.

Other Sci-fi and Fantasy novels do the same. Just look at Ender’s Game or Foundation. There’s a reason it’s easy to list off so many resources to check out because the principles, techniques, and tactics hold true across all sorts of mediums.


Once you see it once, you see it everywhere.


Even reality television follows a predictable pattern of using structure to its advantage. Shows often jump around to flashbacks to help explain what’s currently happening.

Why does this work?

If you start with context, it feels boring.

But if you start with action, the audience begs for the context.

One simple change and now you have the power.

So how do you deliver it? That’s the million dollar question. Delivery takes a good story and turns it into an unforgettable one. It takes a likable person and turns them into a charismatic and magnetic personality that people can’t wait to be around.



Delivery


Comedians, actors, and politicians all have figured out how to deliver a story. But here’s the best place to learn delivery…

Music.

The best delivery creates musicality. It’s the wide range of dynamics in the story that makes it memorable.

Think about it. I bet that you can remember songs from 10 or 20 years ago.

Maybe it’s the theme song to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air or maybe the CrossFire commercial that played during Saturday morning cartoons.

Maybe it’s Barbie Girl by Aqua that lit up the radio during the 2000s.

It could be Nelly’s Hot in Herre, T-Swift, or The Beatles.

But you know the words.

Why?

Music triggers the creative part of your brain. It helps you store those lyrics to recall them later.

Just like a musician writes notes with different tempos, cadences, rhythms, volume, and tone, you should too.

Those changes keep the audience engaged. They bring your words to life.

Listen to JFK or MLK speak and you will hear the music in their words. It’s impossible to forget.

Check out Amanda Gorman’s Inaugural Poem and you will feel the music playing.

One of my favorite examples comes from Tron: Legacy because the dialogue mirrors the music of Daft Punk.

At one point David Bowie’s character even says to change the music and the vibe shifts completely. Later during that fight scene in the club, it’s the music that reflects the dialogue and helps the audience feel it come to life.

You want to create an ebb and flow with your words. You want the tone to change. You want the cadence to rise and fall. You want to bring your words to life.

Now delivery includes even more. You need to find ways to use silence to add weight to words. Build the tension. Create the drama.


Silence works.


Just look at any of the great classical composers and you will see how their greatest works all utilize silence to build tension in the piece. Why wouldn’t you take notes from Mozart, Bach, Rachmaninoff, and Chopin?

Then we have your hands and body language. Go watch Jamie Foxx. Look at Kevin Hart. Analyze Matthew McConaughey.

They all use hand gestures, facial expressions, and body language to amplify their delivery.

See how Ali Wong or Michelle Obama not only know what to say but how to say it.

Great storytellers are everywhere and it’s their delivery that makes them unforgettable.

You need musicality. You need silence. You need to take a full body approach to storytelling.

That’s when the magic hits.


Magic


The magic happens when everything comes together. Once you have the right content, structure, and delivery you have a full symphony. Now you need to conduct each section to make a masterpiece.

Things like reading your audience become critically important to make the magic happen. Like in Harry Potter, it’s all about casting the right spell at the right time. So if you see your audience perk up on something, dig deeper. If the audience starts laughing at a point, build on that momentum. And on the flip side, if you see you’re losing their attention, switch things up and get it back.

What you’ll find when doing this right is that the audience will be begging you for more. They will feel like they just watched a movie. They will tell you “I felt like I was right there with you.”

That’s when you know you’ve done it.


Remember, storytellers rule the world.


Right now you might be like a young Harry Potter who sometimes makes magic happen unexpectedly or without control.

If you learn the right way and are willing to put in the time, effort, and practice then you too can become a magician. Each story is a unique spell which hooks your audience and transports them to worlds unknown.

Welcome to the world of magic. Think of this like the letter from Hogwarts.

I’m excited to announce your acceptance into the Performative Speaking School of Storytelling and Magic.

Now let’s go cast some storytelling spells.

Want to learn more about how you can become a great storyteller?

Reach out to me: Robbie@robbiecrab.com

I spent 7 years as a trial lawyer where I learned what I call "competitive storytelling" and then spent 4 years coaching students at SMU Law School on the national mock trial team.

Now, I'm the founder of Performative Speaking where I help people who know they have a story to share but struggle to turn it into the captivating and motivating thing of their dreams.



Photo by Aziz Acharki on Unsplash

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