Eight Story Blocks

Every story of substance is comprised of smaller stories. Think chapters in a book or scenes in a movie. An impactful story told from the stage is no different, and one of the key steps in the coaching process is working with a speaker to identify a series of these mini-stories that can be stitched together, thus forming an engaging narrative that takes the listener on a journey, step by step.

I call them story blocks, as in most cases they are self-contained and can be put together in a variety of ways to tell an interesting story. Having watched thousands of talks, both live and recorded, I’ve identified eight types of story blocks which are fundamental to crafting compelling talks that support your message from different angles, on multiple levels.

A noteworthy talk will often feature more than one type of story block, though it’s rare for a story to have them all. Use this approach to uncover a variety of story elements which will ultimately comprise your full story.

The Personal Story

The personal story is central to creating a story with impact. No matter the importance of a topic, or the supporting evidence presented to support your idea, the impact is amplified when the audience connects to you on a personal level.

This story block comes from your personal experiences, beliefs, values, and visions of the future. The fact that you lived the story humanizes your entire talk, and the audience will want to come on the journey, to learn what you’ve learned.

The spotlight is on you, the main character in this story block.

Second Hand Story

With a second hand story someone else assumes the center of attention. You’re sharing their experience with the audience as a way to illustrate the main point within your narrative.

This may be someone that you have interacted with directly – a relative, such as a parent or sibling, someone you worked with, or maybe a person you were/are in a relationship with.

It can also be someone that you’ve read about or who is known to the audience – a public figure such as a politician, movie star or athlete. With the spotlight on them, you’re the storyteller.

Historical Reference

As the name implies, this story block is about a historical event. It can be a hybrid if you played a part in this event, or were a witness to what happened, but it’s often a story about another time and another person or group of people.

Referencing history will take your audience out of the present moment and back to a time when something occured that can be thought of as a stepping stone to the narrative of today.

It may illustrate how things are different today, but it can also serve to highlight how history has not changed all that much, or is in the process of repeating itself.

Scientific Research

Scientific research story blocks serve a variety of purposes. In situations where society (local, regional or global) is dealing with a specific problem, such as disease, dysfunction or addiction, scientific study can shine a light on what is causing it, and how we can address the situation.

An extension to this approach is when science attempts to alter the status quo, such as improving some aspect of the human experience or extending our lifespan.

Science study can also deal with how things operate – humans, animals, plants, the earth, and even the universe.

Relevant Statistics

A story block that highlights key statistics can go a long way in illustrating the magnitude of an issue, especially when it’s time sensitive and demonstrates a trend.

Such statistical trends can be positive or negative, as well as a combination if there has been a trend reversal over time.

The caveat to using statistics is that a little can often go a long way. Despite the importance of the numbers, an audience can only track a few trends or data points before everything blends together and the effect is lost.

Opposite Viewpoint

Each of us has a natural tendency to make our case as strong as possible in order to convince the audience that our position is the right one, but there are two sides (or more) to any story.

And if the audience is thinking about an alternative viewpoint, adding a story block which directly confronts the issue will let a listener know that you’ve considered alternative viewpoints.

In some situations, such as when you’re dealing with a complex issue, you may not be in a position to discount other opinions and still make a viable case for your own.

See a Better Future

A common goal for every human is to envision a better future – either personally or for society as a whole – and this story block paints such a picture for the audience.

You may have a new idea which solves a vexing problem, or a message that can improve on the status quo, no matter how good things are at the moment.

Talks can also create a future based on emerging or imagined technology. Such visions will involve a measure of conjecture which must be stated as such, but can nonetheless be logically described, allowing the audience to be a part of that future.

Call to Action

You will sometimes hear the opinion that every talk must have a call to action, but such claims are misguided. You may have a call to action, but by no means is it necessary.

The purpose of a personal story is to share your experiences, feelings, opinions and ideas to foster greater understanding. Someone hearing your story may decide to act on it – change their diet, be more compassionate, volunteer for a nonprofit – but there’s no requirement for you to make such suggestions.

So consider whether your talk needs an explicit call to action, or instead let the audience take whatever action they see fit.

Element Transitions

While story blocks can be thought of as chapters or scenes as you’re creating them, there’s a critical difference when it comes time to build out an entire story – the need for transitions. When moving forward to a new chapter in a book, or a new scene in a movie, it’s quite common for there to be an abrupt shift with characters, time of day, location, action, or all four. With hours (movies) or days (books) we have time to ponder each scene, put the pieces together in our head, and create a complete story. But with talks measured in minutes, abrupt shifts can create confusion, so smooth transitions are important. Think about how you will bridge each story element.

As you begin the process of crafting your narrative, refer to these eight story blocks as a source of inspiration. While some stories are purely personal, built from your experiences and feelings, most impactful stories include additional elements that will strengthen your viewpoint in the audience’s mind, and in doing so, take them on a journey of insights, revelations, and understanding.