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You Can Learn to Tell Great Stories

Posted on March 21, 2016

You Can Learn to Tell Great Stories

I think most of us struggle to come up with stories for our lectures. We know stories are the key to getting our audience engaged, but we don’t know what stories to tell or how to tell them in a compelling way.

Fortunately, there is a pretty simple formula for storytelling. Pixar uses it in all of their movies and we can apply it to our own lives. The idea is to tell your story about how you learned something. This something can be the journey to discovering the new process or procedure you are talking about, or something more personal that has led you to where you are today.

The PIXAR Story Spine
Once upon a time…
Act I: To tell a story, you need to describe what things were like before the journey began. Give enough detail so people can put people themselves in your shoes. When and where did this take place and who are the cast of characters.

And every day…
With characters and setting established, you can begin to tell the audience what life is like in this world every day. Here is where you describe the pain that you were in, or the struggles you faced, or the despair of always dealing with the same problems day after day. At it’s essence, you want your main character (you) in your universe doing what you love most – your GRAND PASSION, the thing that defines who you are as a person. Then, the character (you) must have a hidden flaw in the midst of your grand passion that you keep stubbing your toe on.

Until one day…
Now, introduce dark storm clouds gathering… And then…. Ba boom! Something happens that throws your world out of balance, which forces you to do something, change something, attain something that will either restore the old balance or establish a new equilibrium. The grand passion is at risk!! And the problem has made your life a little unfair. In story structure, this moment is referred to as the inciting incident, and it’s the pivotal event that launches the story. It could be you had a crisis with an employee, or a patient or were ready to throw in the towel and sell your practice altogether.

And because of this…
You began the pursuit of a solution. In structural terms, this is the beginning of Act II, the main body of the story. You made some kind of decision that propelled you down a path to fix the crisis. Most typically, this is where the audience sees the main character make a bad choice. One we want to scream out at the screen “NO! Don’t do that!”. Along the way you will encounter several obstacles but these only make the narrative more interesting.

And because of this…
You tried something different, but in most stories, the first attempt doesn’t work perfectly. In fact, we learn something that prompts us to try something else. Perhaps you tried firing the troublesome employee only to realize that other employees were problematical. Or you consulted a business broker only to realize your practice wasn’t worth as much as you had hoped.

Keep going down the “And because of this” cycle through each of the attempts you made and the subsequent things you learned. Because you realized your other employees were troublesome, you started spending less time talking with them. And at first, you were relieved to be out of the drama. And because of this, things were allowed to get worse to where people within your team were either screaming at each other or weren’t talking to each other at all.

Until finally…
We enter Act III and approach the story’s moment of truth. You hit the final crisis which allows you to learn a big truth. Perhaps you had a patient that complained because of your team’s fighting while they were in the chair. Or a patient’s care was compromised because of how poorly your practice was functioning. You learn the thing that you are here to share with your audience. You learn that YOU were the problem that was causing poor employee behavior. You learn that YOU didn’t have good systems or protocols in place and that is why you were ready to sell your practice. In other words, your big truth is an intimate “eureka” moment that forced you to make changes.

And ever since that day…
Once we know what happened, the closing scenes tell us what the story means for the protagonist, for others in the narrative, and (not least of all) for those of us in the audience. This is where you can share what changes you made to solve the original problem. What life has been like since you made these changes. And how your hope is that while everyone has their own journey, you hope that your story will help others get to the solution more quickly.

I find that the best way to use this formula is to have someone else to ask you questions. Have them ask what life was like before things got really hairy. Have them ask “And then what happened?” over and over again until you get to that big moment, that big crisis, that fatal flaw. And when you find yourself saying, “so what I learned was…”, finish with “and ever since that day…” The change in you and the change in your life is the moral of the story and the happy ending.