Two Words to Improve Your Storytelling Today
Your funny aunt, your favourite writer, and the person you voted for all use the same technique.
There are some people in your life who are just good at telling stories. It might be a family member or a friend, or a colleague at work. When they tell a story, they’re like a magnet. Whether it’s a weekend update over the watercooler or a one hour keynote, great storytellers do something special.
So what makes their stories stand out?
The 2020 Olympics were scheduled for the summer. And then there was a global pandemic. Everyone was unsure whether the Olympics could take place. And then the virus case count rose rapidly and organizers decided to postpone the Olympics. Now they’re still unsure if the Olympics can proceed because the case count is still very high.
In version 1, you have five statements that could be listed as bullet points. There’s no clear relationship between the events other than the fact that they’re happening in sequence. The storyteller is offering a truthful and concise version of events. Why does this story make you want to fall asleep?
The 2020 Olympics were scheduled for the summer but there was a global pandemic. Therefore, no one was sure whether the Olympics could happen. There was still a possibility of the Olympics taking place but once virus case counts started rising, organizers decided to postpone the event. Therefore, the Olympics are taking place in 2021 but with the case count still high, there’s a chance it could be postponed or even cancelled.
What do you see in version 2? Tension. There is a global competition scheduled but there’s a global pandemic happening, putting it at risk. There’s a chance the Olympics could still happen but case counts are rising lessening the chances of the competition taking place. Because of the 2020 pandemic, the competition was moved to 2021.
Throughout version 2, there are clear relationships between the events. Either there are two competing possibilities, or one event is happening because of another. Version 1 simply recites what is happening whereas version 2 clearly articulates the tension between what was planned for the summer, and what might come.
When you’re structuring your own story, keep these two words in mind:
It’s time for you to drop “and then.” The great storytellers in your life keep you captivated by presenting competing forces, tension, cause and effect. When you’re organizing the main elements of your story, how does each scene relate to the next?
🛑 This happens, and then this happens, and then this happens.
✅ This happens, but this happens, therefore this happens.
✅ This happens, therefore this happens, but this happens.
This isn’t a simple word swap; this is an exercise to help you review your existing story. Whether that story is a screenplay, slide deck, or great dad joke you came up with on the way home.
If the elements of your story are constantly connected with “and then” you’re likely telling a pretty flat story with a lack of tension. The audience doesn’t know why they should care. They’re not bought into one outcome or another.
Try this: explain your story to a friend or colleague in 30 seconds. Connect the main parts of your story with either “but”, “therefore” or phrases that mirror these like “...and because of that…” It’s important to keep a time constraint because it prevents you from trying to explain the relationships or significance of certain elements of your story that might not be clear.
Stories, big and small, have tension. And the best ways to create that tension (and check for it) is by using “but” and “therefore” when you tell your story.
This newsletter explores storytelling: what it is, why it works, and how you can apply principles to your everyday life. Whether you’re writing a report, putting together a presentation, or just telling a joke, understanding storytelling can help you relate to your audience, offer captivating observations, and be more persuasive.
Every month, I’ll write another brief exploration of storytelling on topics like audience perspective, storytelling in a single image, and how to use storytelling in the workplace.
Thanks for joining me!