Ten Story Blocks
Most stories are actually 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 during the coaching process is working with a speaker to identify the 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.
Having watched thousands of talks, both in person and recorded, I’ve identified ten types of story blocks that are fundamental to crafting compelling talks that support your message from different angles, on many levels. Stories with rich and diverse narratives are remembered.
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 find the smaller stories which will ultimately comprise your full story.
The personal story is central to creating an impactful narrative. No matter the importance of a topic, or supporting evidence presented to support your idea, the impact is amplified when an 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’ve lived the story humanizes your talk, and the audience will want to come on the journey, to learn what you’ve learned.
As the main character in your personal story, these blocks explain why you’re passionate about the message in your story.
When telling a story about someone else, they become the center of attention. You’re sharing their experience as a way to illustrate the main point within your narrative, but doing so from another perspective.
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.
As the name implies, this story block is about historical events. 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 even a group of people.
Referencing history will take your audience out of the present moment and back to a time when something occurred 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 story blocks address a variety of purposes. In situations where society (local, regional or global) is dealing with a particular problem, such as a disease, dysfunction or addiction, scientific study can shine a light on what is causing it, and how we can (hopefully) remedy 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.
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.
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.
It is often beneficial to describe people, places, events, objects as well as sensory experiences. How someone looks may be a key aspect of their character. Locations, in cities or in nature, become richer and more vivid when described in detail.
What does an object look like? What did it feel like, sound like, smell like, or taste like? Your senses can tell an engaging story.
Description also applies when explaining a concept, vision, the state of current affairs, how something operates, or how the world might look in the future.
It’s common that other people – present day or from the past – have commented on some aspect of your topic, and in such cases their words can lend support to the main message or viewpoint that you’re presenting within your story.
Quotes can also illustrate how problems of the past are still with us today, or in opposite fashion, a quote from a previous era can illustrate how much things have changed over time.
A caveat is that certain quotes have been used hundreds, if not thousands of times by other speakers, and can sound stale.
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.
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.
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 ten story blocks as a source of inspiration. While some stories are built on personal experiences along, most impactful stories include additional elements that strengthen your viewpoint in the audience’s mind, and in doing so, take them on a journey of insight and understanding.