How could you develop an ego or agenda to become internet- or podcast-famous (actual things, swear to god)? It’s a little like wanting to have the biggest house on the tiny-home scene.
Elysha has this consistent, annoying confidence in my abilities. She assumes that I’m capable of almost anything, which both undermines her appreciation for my abject terror and sets expectations far too high for my liking.
Your story must reflect change over time. A story cannot simply be a series of remarkable events. You must start out as one version of yourself and end as something new. The change can be infinitesimal. It need not reflect an improvement in yourself or your character, but change must happen. Even the worst movies in the world reflect some change in a character over time. So
Don’t tell other people’s stories. Tell your own. But feel free to tell your side of other people’s stories, as long as you are the protagonist in these tales.
A story is like a diamond with many facets. Everyone has a different relationship to it. If you can find a way of making your particular facet of the story compelling, you can tell that story as your own. Otherwise, leave the telling to someone else.
Lastly, the story must pass the Dinner Test. The Dinner Test is simply this: Is the story that you craft for the stage, the boardroom, the sales conference, or the Sunday sermon similar to the story you would tell a friend at dinner? This should be the goal.
This is why tiny moments like the one at my dining-room table with my wife and children often make the best stories. These are the moments that connect with people. These are the stories that touch people’s hearts.
I decided that at the end of every day, I’d reflect upon my day and ask myself one simple question: If I had to tell a story from today — a five-minute story onstage about something that took place over the course of this day — what would it be? As benign and boring and inconsequential as it might seem, what was the most storyworthy moment from my day?
I discovered that there is beauty and import in my life that I never would have imagined before doing my homework, and that these small, unexpected moments of beauty are oftentimes some of my most compelling stories.
All of this happens because I sit down every evening and ask myself: What is my story from today? What is the thing about today that has made it different from any previous day? Then I write my answer down.
As you start to see importance and meaning in each day, you suddenly understand your importance to this world. You start to see how the meaningful moments that we experience every day contribute to the lives of others and to the world. You start to sense the critical nature of your very existence. There are no more throwaway days. Every day can change the world in some small way. In fact, every day has been changing the world for as long as you’ve been alive. You just haven’t noticed yet.
It may take you a month, six months, or even a year to refine and focus your storytelling lens. You might give up five minutes of your day for an entire year and receive nothing in return. This process requires you to believe that eventually you will begin seeing these moments in your life, just as I and so many others have.
The reason is simple: We are the sum of our experiences, the culmination of everything that has come before. The more we know about our past, the better we know ourselves. The greater our storehouse of memory, the more complete our personal narrative becomes. Our life begins to feel full and complete and important.
There are many secrets to storytelling, but there is one fundamental truth above all others that must be understood before a storyteller can ever be successful: All great stories — regardless of length or depth or tone — tell the story of a five-second moment in a person’s life.
These five-second moments are the moments in your life when something fundamentally changes forever. You fall in love. You fall out of love. You discover something new about yourself or another person. Your opinion on a subject dramatically changes. You find forgiveness. You reach acceptance. You sink into despair. You grudgingly resign. You’re drowned in regret. You make a life-altering decision. Choose a new path. Accomplish something great. Fail spectacularly.
Many times storytellers fail to understand the importance of these five-second moments. They see the big when they should be looking for the small. They come to me and say, “I went to Tanzania last summer. I want to tell that story onstage.” My answer is always the same: No. Visiting Tanzania is not a story. Your ability to travel the world does not mean that you can tell a good story or even have a good story to tell. But if something happened in Tanzania that altered you in some deep and fundamental way, then you might have a story. If you experienced a five-second moment in Tanzania, you might have something. Think of it this way: If we remove Tanzania from the story, do you still have a story worth telling?
Like Jurassic Park, the real story isn’t about the big thing. In fact, when people talk to me about the story, they rarely mention the car accident or my near-death experience. Instead, they speak about my five-second moment, when I find myself alone in the emergency room two hours after the accident, waiting for surgeons to operate on my ruined legs. Upon hearing that I was in stable condition, my parents decide to check on the car before checking on me, leaving me alone, frightened, and in terrible pain in the corner of a cold, sterile emergency room. Except it turns out that I’m not alone, because my friends from McDonald’s find out about the accident and quickly fill the waiting room, making the kind of noise that only a gang of teenagers can make.
This was my five-second moment. It was the moment when I realized that I had family after all. My friends were my family, and they remained the only family I had and the only family I needed until I met my wife fifteen years later. It might be the greatest five-second moment of my life.
So how do you choose the right place to start a story? Simple. Ask yourself where your story ends. What is the meaning of your five-second moment? Say it aloud. In “Charity Thief,” I might say it like this: “I thought I was alone in this world, facing a lifetime of loneliness. Then I met a man who taught me that I knew very little about loneliness and never wanted to know loneliness the way that man knew it on that day and probably many, many days thereafter.”
Simply put, the beginning of the story should be the opposite of the end. Find the opposite of your transformation, revelation, or realization, and this is where your story should start. This is what creates an arc in your story. This is how a story shows change over time. I was once this, but now I am this. I once thought this, but now I think this. I once felt this, but now I feel this. Stories must reflect change of some kind.
Regardless of whether your change is infinitesimal or profound, positive or negative, your story must reflect change. You must begin and end your story in entirely different states of being. Change is key. The story of how you’re an amazing person who did an amazing thing and ended up in an amazing place is not a story. It’s a recipe for a douchebag. The story of how you’re a pathetic person who did a pathetic thing and remained pathetic is also not a story. It’s a recipe for a sad sack.
Listen to people in the world tell you stories. Often they start with a sentence like, “This is hilarious,” or “You need to hear this,” or “You’re not going to believe this.” This is always a mistake, for three reasons. First, it establishes potentially unrealistic expectations.
Second, starting your story with a thesis statement reduces your chances of surprising your audience. When you tell me that the story is hilarious, I’m already primed for humor.
Pay attention to the opening scenes of movies. So many of them use this strategy as well. We open on the protagonist or someone similarly important to the story. That person will be moving. Walking. Running. Driving. Flying. Climbing. Fleeing. Falling. Swimming. Crawling. Diving. Filmmakers want to immerse you into their world as quickly as possible. They want you to forget the theater and the popcorn and the jackass who is texting beside you. They want you to be absorbed by the story. They want you to forget that you even exist for the duration of the film.
Every story must have an Elephant. The Elephant is the thing that everyone in the room can see. It is large and obvious. It is a clear statement of the need, the want, the problem, the peril, or the mystery. It signifies where the story is headed, and it makes it clear to your audience that this is in fact a story and not a simple musing on a subject.
The audience doesn’t know why they are listening to the story or what is to come, so it’s easy to stop listening. If you don’t present a reason to listen very early on, you risk losing their attention altogether.
Eventually the Elephant in my story changes color. The story isn’t really about escaping New Hampshire at all. It’s really a story about understanding the nature of loneliness. I change the color of the Elephant halfway through this story. I present the audience with one Elephant, but then I paint it another color. I trick them. This is an excellent storytelling strategy: make your audience think they are on one path, and then when they least expect it, show them that they have been on a different path all along.
A Backpack is a strategy that increases the stakes of the story by increasing the audience’s anticipation about a coming event. It’s when a storyteller loads up the audience with all the storyteller’s hopes and fears in that moment before moving the story forward. It’s an attempt to do two things: 1. Make the audience wonder what will happen next. 2. Make your audience experience the same emotion, or something like the same emotion, that the storyteller experienced in the moment about to be described.
This is why heist movies like the Ocean’s Eleven franchise explain almost every part of the robbers’ plan before they ever make a move. If you understand their plan to rob the casino, you can experience the same level of frustration, worry, fear, and suspense that the characters feel when their plans go awry. The filmmakers put the audience on Danny Ocean’s team. They know the plan, so they feel as if they are a part of the heist themselves.
Storytellers use Breadcrumbs when we hint at a future event but only reveal enough to keep the audience guessing.
In “Charity Thief,” I drop a Breadcrumb when I say: But as I climb back into the car, I see my crumpled McDonald’s uniform on the backseat, and I suddenly have an idea.
This is the moment to use an Hourglass. It’s time to slow things down. Grind them to a halt when possible. When you know the audience is hanging on your every word, let them hang. Drag out the wait as long as possible.
It’s the perfect time to use an Hourglass. Stakes. The desire of an audience to hear the next sentence, made greater by the deliberate slowing down of action and pace. Find the moment in your story that everyone has been waiting for, then flip that Hourglass and let the sand run.
The Crystal Ball is the easiest of the strategies to deploy, because you already use Crystal Balls in everyday life. A Crystal Ball is a false prediction made by a storyteller to cause the audience to wonder if the prediction will prove to be true.
Memory is a slippery thing, and as storytellers, we must remember this. Research suggests that every time you tell a story, it becomes less true.
A lie of progression is when a storyteller changes the order of events in a story to make it more emotionally satisfying or comprehensible to the listener. In my experience, this is the least common lie told, and I have never done it myself, but I’ve recommended that other storytellers use it from time to time.
Storytellers use conflation to push all the emotion of an event into a single time frame, because stories are more entertaining this way. Rather than describing change over a long period, we compress all the intellectual and emotional transformation into a smaller bit of time, because this is what audiences expect from stories.
Stories are not supposed to start with thesis statements or overwrought aphorisms. Let me say it again, because it’s that important: A great storyteller creates a movie in the mind of the audience. Listeners should be able to see the story in their mind’s eye at all times. At no point should the story become visually obscured or impossible to see.
Always provide a physical location for every moment of your story. That’s it. If the audience knows where you are at all times within your story, the movie is running in their minds.
The ideal connective tissue in any story are the words but and therefore, along with all their glorious synonyms. These buts and therefores can be either explicit or implied.
Just listen to someone tell you about their vacation to Europe or their weekend at the beach. It’s almost never a good story. It’s almost never something you want to hear. Why? “First we went here, and it was amazing, and then we went here, and it was also amazing, and then we saw this, which was so amazing.”
One other aspect to the but-and-therefore principle: the power of the negative. Oddly, the negative is almost always better than the positive when it comes to storytelling. Saying what something or someone is not is almost always better than saying what something or someone is. For example: I am dumb, ugly, and unpopular. I’m not smart, I’m not at all good-looking, and no one likes me.
The second sentence is better, isn’t it? Here’s why: it contains a hidden but. It presents both possibilities. Unlike the first sentence, which only offers single descriptors, the second sentence offers a binary.
This is the trick to telling a big story: it cannot be about anything big. Instead we must find the small, relatable, comprehensible moments in our larger stories. We must find the piece of the story that people can connect to, relate to, and understand.
Your big stories could be about a vacation to exotic locales or the birth of a child or your wedding day or the untimely death of a loved one. Any of these could be told well if you find a way to make the story smaller than it seems. This is hard to do. Rarely are stories of birth or death or weddings or vacations good. They are more often ordinary, expected, and boring. Cliché. But this need not be the case.
As Blaise Pascal first said, “If I had more time, I would have written you a shorter letter.” Brevity takes time, because brevity is always better.
The same thing happens later in that story, when I say, “Hi, I’m Matt, and I’m collecting money for Ronald McDonald Children’s Charities.” It’s the most surprising moment of the story. People either gasp or laugh when they hear me say those words. If you’ll remember, I accentuate this surprise with a Breadcrumb and an Hourglass. I give a hint about what is to come (a crumpled McDonald’s uniform), and I make the audience wait forever to hear it by slowing my speech and adding enormous amounts of unnecessary description and repetition. Can you imagine how less surprising the moment would be if I had climbed into my car, spotted the crumpled McDonald’s uniform, and said, “I know. I’m going to go door-to-door pretending to be a charity worker.” Still surprising, perhaps, but not nearly so. Yet
Avoid thesis statements in storytelling.
You must end your story on heart. Far too often I hear storytellers attempt to end their story on a laugh. A pun. A joke. A play on words. This is not why we listen to stories. We like to laugh; we want to laugh. But we listen to stories to be moved.
Humor is a combination of wit, speed, tonality, confidence, daring, nonconformity, flexibility with the language, understanding of your audience, and more. In a lot of ways, it’s all about the way you say something. Delivery is critical.
Like all other emotional responses (see the previous chapter), humor is based entirely on surprise. A combination of specific words spoken in a specific way at a specific moment initiates a surprise that sparks a smile, a giggle, or actual laughter.
Babies and Blenders is the idea that when two things that rarely or never go together are pushed together, humor often results.
In the story about the way that my grandmother pulled my loose teeth, I refer to her as a sadist. Grandmother and sadist are rarely seen together, so it’s funny.
My favorite storyteller in the world — Steve Zimmer — does this in a story entitled “Neighborhood Watch.” After Steve’s family is not invited to the neighborhood Hawaiian luau, they decide to host the Zimmer family barbecue, which features “Zimmers, pineapple-flavored ham, and despair.”
The ending of the story — your five-second moment — will tell you what the beginning of your story should be. The beginning will be the opposite of the end. If my story is about my realization that the world (and especially people) are fundamentally unsafe and willing to hurt you for the pettiest of reasons, the beginning of my story needs to present my previous belief that people are basically good and the world is generally safe.
This is the magic of the present tense. It creates a sense of immediacy.
Rather than attempting to be grandiose about yourself or your success, you must undermine both you and it. This is because of two realities: First, human beings love underdog stories. The love for the underdog is universal. Underdogs are supposed to lose, so when they manage to pull out an unexpected or unbelievable victory, our sense of joy is more intense than if that same underdog suffers a crushing defeat.
I also suggested this: Can Tim’s story be about something other than Mount Everest? Can the climb to the summit be about something more personal? More interior? Perhaps a bit of individual growth that resulted from the climb? I know it sounds crazy to turn the summiting of Mount Everest into something other than the summiting of Mount Everest, but if I can turn a story about putting my head through a windshield and dying on the side of the road into a story about my friends taking the place of my family, why not?
Avoid phrases like “You guys!” for the same reason you shouldn’t ask rhetorical questions. When a storyteller says something like “You guys, you’re not going to believe this!” the bubble is instantly broken. Time travel has abruptly ended. The audience is keenly aware that someone is standing in front of them, speaking directly to them and the people sitting around them.
Phrases like, “But that’s a story for another day,” or “Long story short” serve to remind our audience that we are telling a story. If your audience knows that you’re telling a story, then they’re not time traveling.
The lesson here: Nervousness can be your friend. Too much of it is never good, but not being nervous at all isn’t good either. I bristle at the saying, “If you’re not nervous, you don’t care enough,” because I couldn’t care more about performing well, but there is some truth in this statement. It ain’t always bad to be nervous.
It’s hard to be authentic and vulnerable when you’re reciting lines. It’s also obvious to an audience when a storyteller is simply reciting a story instead of telling a story. Instead of memorizing your story word-for-word, memorize three parts to a story: 1. The first few sentences. Always start strong. 2. The last few sentences. Always end strong. 3. The scenes of your story.
Some people remember their scenes in a list, but I actually remember these scenes as circles in my mind. The size of the circle reflects the size of the scene. The color of the circle reflects the tone and tenor of the scene.
But when you can see your audience — in a classroom, a conference room, your aunt’s kitchen, a reception hall, or a faculty meeting — eye contact is important. You can’t speak to the middle distance and expect your audience to connect.
This is what I call the Spider-Man Principle of Meetings and Presentations (though Voltaire admittedly said it first): “With great power comes great responsibility.”
A first date is an interview of sorts. If you can make the person laugh, share a little vulnerability, and tell a good story in the process, your chances for second and third dates increase exponentially.
I believe that it is the teacher’s responsibility to provide a reason to learn. A meaningful, entertaining, engaging, thrilling, fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants reason to keep their eyes and ears and minds open. This is why every lesson requires a hook. A hook is not a statement like “This material will be on Friday’s test” or “This is something you’ll use for the rest of your life.” A hook is an attempt to be entertaining, engaging, thought-provoking, surprising, challenging, daring, and even shocking. This can be done in dozens, and perhaps hundreds, of ways.
Four times I have stepped off the stage at a storytelling show and been approached by a woman who wanted to share the story of her miscarriage with me.I was speechless the first time this happened. I called Elysha immediately after the show to tell her. Elysha’s response was surprising. “Of course she wanted to tell you,” she said. “You stood on that stage and talked about one of your most difficult moments in your life with complete honesty. Your story made you safe to talk to. And she never needs to see you again. She could unburden herself of this secret to someone she knew she could trust, and she doesn’t have to see you at work or home the next day.” It made sense.