5 Tips for Telling a Great Story

I love listening to stories.

For me, the best stories show and tell the passion and motivation behind creating a product or delivering a service. They are behind the scenes vignettes that show the hours of work and effort devoted to an idea that could fly high or crash to the ground. They are stories of success and cautionary tales of failure. They drive me to do better in my own work. They provide people an opportunity to connect to others.

However, not all stories are created equal. Some fall flat in the details, others are too complex to resonate with your audience. Telling a great story is not impossible, but it does take practice and an ability to explore new ideas.

Here are five tips for telling a great story.

Tip #1: Identify Your Subject or Topic

The first step in telling a great story is to identify your story’s subject or topic. It begins by writing a topic list that inspires your ability to find ideas in your business or organization. A successful topic list looks for a connection between ideas and people, moving you into an understanding of your story that can be summarized in short sentences.

In How to Shoot Video That Doesn’t Suck, Steve Stockman believes the success of a video depends upon the clarity of work that occurs before you film: “If you’re confused when you start, you’ll be confused when you shoot, and the resulting video will be…confused” (Stockman, 2011, p. 57). This clarity is found in what Stockman describes as the ability to pitch or summarize your project in a few sentences.

Tip #2: Ask Foundational Questions

Building upon your pitch, you need to learn all of the details that make up your story. This is best accomplished by asking foundational questions, such as:

  • Who is this story about?
  • What did they do?
  • When did they do it?
  • Where did it happen?
  • Why did they do it?
  • How was it received?

I may start with the questions above, but I often research and write unique questions with the intent of exploring motivation and passion.

Tip #3: Shape the Story’s Structure

Most books on story development focus on The Hero’s Journey, popularized by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces and George Lucas in Star Wars. This journey is often written in three acts—beginning, middle, and end—and focuses on a main character who has a conflict or problem that must be resolved. While this is a simplification of both the three act structure and The Hero’s Journey, Campbell goes into all of the mythology and historical context learned throughout his life’s work. It is worth investing time in reading The Hero with a Thousand Faces or at least watching his work with Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth.

Beyond the three act structure, Liz Blazer shares a few non-linear story structures in Animated Storytelling: Simple Steps for Creating Animation & Motion Graphics“Book Ending, The Countdown, The Puzzle, and The Beaded Necklace” (Blazer, 2016, p. 29). The most intriguing story structure in this list is the puzzle. It involves purposeful mystery and the slow unveil of your story piece by piece. For more about these structures, check out Liz’s great book.

Tip #4: Edit Your Story

The struggle when developing your story is the desire to include everything. But a great story is about excluding what is not important, so that the important bits shine. How do you know if something is important to your story? I often look for these areas of weakness in my stories:

  • Tangents that take away from the main points I want to hit
  • Repeated themes or ideas
  • Time wasters—stories or anecdotes that don’t advance the story
  • Abandoned or unfinished thoughts

Tip #5: Practice by Telling Your Story to Others

Great storytellers constantly tell their stories to other people. They practice. They learn what went well and what needed improvement based upon the response of their audience. They iterate their stories by editing and refining until it is ready.

There are my five tips for telling a great story. What are your favorite tips for telling great stories? I would love to hear from you. Drop me a line at chris@chrismartinstudios.com or give me a shout out on Twitter (@cmstudios).