Story Telling – a Letter

Story Telling

A letter


Thank you for your letter. I truly appreciate the ‘vote of confidence’.  I’m guessing you’re a runner as well as a priest-in-training?  Reminds me of a scene from the Exorcist where the main character priest went down to the track to run intervals – but I digress.

I feel a bit unqualified to be doling out advice to a man of the cloth, so forgive me Father, I’ll do my best.

Which, of course, reminds me of one of my favorite Irish writers, James Joyce, who used to weave Catholic imagery into his prose – I would recommend “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”.  (Most people think of “Ulysses” when they talk of Joyce, which, ironically was banned in Boston, but that book, as well as “Finnegan’s Wake” is mostly impenetrable.)

But, I digress again.

You asked for advice on story telling.  There’s really two parts to delightful story telling.  There is the construction of the story itself, or the story form, and then there is the delivery mechanism of that story.  I’ll muse a bit on both here.

How I came into story telling was through business.  I’m right on the borderline of introvert and extravert.  I was always a good writer and always had an ear for the music in the prose and the structure of the story, but I had to work very hard at the physical act of delivery.  I learned storytelling to advance my career and to sell stuff.

In this context you could say I taught myself story telling in service of at least two of the seven deadly sins, Avaritia (avarice, greed) and Superbia (pride, hubris).

But…I digress again.

Let’s take the first part – the construction of a story.  Whether I’m building a sales presentation or writing a race report the first thing I do is assemble all the pieces.  I write down in bullet form everything I know about the topic or event.  I create an inventory.

The importance/power of this step is that you may not know the structure of the story yet, but you know stuff and it is very helpful to get all this stuff out of your brain onto the paper.  I have gotten to the point, or maybe my brain is just wired the right way, that once I lay out all the bits I can see the patterns and the story starts to assemble in my minds eye.

One of the best ways to get stories to assemble is to do this inventory exercise and then go for a run without headphones.  The happy chemicals of running will pop the story right out.

If you can’t see the structure in the content another great tool is a mind map.  This is where you take a big piece of paper and put the inventoried ideas down in bubbles and then start connecting the bubbles until patterns emerge.

One thing people get wrong is that they try to find a place for every piece of inventory in the story script.  That will make for a bloated story.  You need to have a critical eye and kill off the things that don’t add directly to the value.  Those things that don’t support or only marginally support your theme.  Give them the red-pen treatment.

Another way that I cheat the process is to look for the themes or events in the inventory that are super-impactful.  Then you use these as the kernels that you build your story around.  I will talk more about this when we get into the delivery piece.  These are those high-impact things that you need to position well in your story when you delivery it.  These are the punch lines.

For example; if I’m writing a race report I’ll look for that moment that has the highest emotional content.  Like crashing through the finish line with blood streaming from your face.  I’ll position that in the front of the story because it gets your attention and then the rest of the story is how did we get to that point?

Stories are a very powerful way to deliver information and emotions.  There is something primal about storytelling, that if done well, resonates with your audience.  They can’t help it.  We are designed to love stories.

There are a few common story structures that you will instantly recognize, and your audience will resonate with.  The first one is known as ‘The Hero’s Journey’.  We have a hero.  Typically, an underdog or everyman type.  They have an overwhelming challenge.  They get beat up and pushed around by the challenge.  They find a mentor and get advice.  They meet the challenge and triumph!

Think of the original Star Wars movie, or Rocky or Hoosiers.  This is the trope of every sports movie ever made.

In Hollywood they use the 3-act play format. Very similar to every T.V. cop show you’ve ever seen.  The first act is exposition where you set the scene and learn about the main characters.  The second act is the challenge and the dramatic tension, (will they be successful?).  The third act is the resolution or the climax.

Nine out of ten Hollywood movies and T.V. shows follow the 3-act play format.  Why?  Because it’s a comforting and familiar form to the audience.  It resonates deep within us.  We leave the theatre smiling and happy.  Think about movies where the director gets cute and throws in some left turn.  How much that messes people up emotionally.

That’s all academic.  You can find plenty of books on the story form.  One of my favorites is “Resonate” by Nancy Duarte who wrote some of Steve Job’s speeches.  It’s smore of a business outlook but it is very good, (and has lots of pretty pictures).

Let’s get more practical.  When I construct a story, after I have laid out my inventory and decided on a form the first decision I have to make is what timeline am I going to use?  Most people default to a linear story telling technique; “First I did this, then I did that, then I did the next thing…”  In my humble opinion that is super-boring.

I like to start with something interesting.  Like the bloody face above.  Or a compelling question, like “What is faith?”  Then I structure the timeline around that.  The lesson here is “Start with the end in mind.”  Give your audience a taste of the good stuff to get them engaged early then tease them along.

In a longer story I’ll play with the timeline.  I’ll jump back and forth in the timeline creating individual vignettes that each have their dramatic tension and weave them together like threads slowly converging into the climax at the end.

This is what your great fiction novels do.  One chapter will leave you hanging or questioning only to be resolved into a different storyline or timeline later.  This makes the reveal very satisfying to the audience.

Look for ways to build dramatic tension like in a 3-act play.  People will be interested if the result is unknown.  They have stakes in the game.  Another great question to ask when you are editing your stories; “What are the stakes?”  You want the audience to be ‘at risk’ and to get them to become emotionally invested in the result.

Once I have my structure I’ll go back through and paint the pictures.  What did I see?  What details?  What did I hear, smell, feel?  Especially important what emotions where at play?  You want your audience to be in the shoes of the protagonist.  To hear what they hear and see what they see and experience it like the hero experienced it.  This way they are invested in the story.

Technically I use a lot of metaphors and similes.  I use the rule of three.  I try to use different and unexpected vocabulary.  I use different length sentences to pace the action being described.  Since I’m mostly writing for myself I will throw in cute literary references, (like I did above), and this is a product of the 7th deadly sin, Vanagloria (vainglory).

All Joking aside, much of this technique is in my head from being a lifelong reader.  I see and hear the music of good prose just from being exposed to so much of it throughout my life.  Read good books and you will start to recognize the ghosts in the prose machines.

The second part of this is practice.  I try to write as much as I can. I enjoy the act of writing.  I find it fulfilling.  It makes me happy.  Whether it is a race report or a blog post or a zombie story I get a kick out of it.  If you write consistently you will get better at it.  Not as work, but as play.  Writing is play for me.

What about delivery?  One of the biggest reasons I started my podcast was to force myself to not only write consistently but also practice my delivery.  When you hear me on my podcast I am reading.  But, I would humbly suggest that it doesn’t sound like I’m reading a script, does it?  Why?  Because I have learned to ‘write for the ear’, i.e. there is a certain cadence that supports the spoken word.

The metaphors, the rule of three, the repetition of key phrases, the vocabulary, it all supports the reading.  You can hear me metaphorically, gleefully rubbing my hands together and licking my chops when I give myself a string of 10-dollar words to enunciate, or a particularly interesting metaphor.  You can hear me enjoying myself.

This is the music of the prose.

Listen to the way I use volume, cadence, tonality and emotional shaping.  Listen to how my voice drops and my cadence slows as I approach that climax or lesson endpoint.  I’m signaling the audience that what I’m saying is important and that they should pay attention.  Conversely you can tell when I’m rushed and it just doesn’t’ flow as well.

All I’m doing is reading a script I wrote.

More challenging is doing this in front of a live audience.  When I present I try to use all those same speaking techniques around cadence and tonality.  When I’m public speaking I don’t have a script.  I have a mental outline.  I will still write out a script, but I’ll memorize only the major waypoints in the script.

Public speaking is hard for people.  It’s hard for me too.  There are basic technical things that you need to master.  Eye contact, body movements, un-words – all those cringe worthy things we’ve all seen or done.  This is the ante, the basic requirement.  Organizations like ToastMasters are good for this basic stuff.

I try to focus on connecting to the audience.  I make sure whatever I’m talking about is in the context of what they care about.  I try to avoid the me, me, me trap that most presentations fall into.  Just like a race report I try to start with that one nugget that they really care about and work backwards from there.

The only way to get reasonable at public speaking or storytelling is through practice.  Practice, practice, practice.  You may have to manufacture that stage time.  You will have to be ok with being terrible the first, second, third, forth and fifth try.  Get those reps in.  Embrace the failure as learning.  Eventually you will be good.

Whenever I give a ‘real speech’ I follow a process.  I inventory the topic or themes.  I write a script.  I read that script out loud 2 or 3 times and edit it down.  I then reduce the script to major way points and practice ‘live fire’ presenting it to an empty room.  I’ll get as many practice runs in as I can.

Why? Because if you can become comfortable with the material then you can begin to put your energy into the good stuff.  The cadence, the tone, the audience.

And finally, I study the craft of others.  Just like reading fosters wonderful prose, listening to great storytellers shows you how it’s done.

Listen to Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a Dream’ speech.  It starts as a historical, linear speech that he’s done many times before.  But then he senses that he’s losing the audience. He reads the audience and switches into the ‘I have a dream…’ theme.  It’s masterful public speaking.

Watch TED Talks.  Listen to the MOTH podcast.  Observe what they are doing.  See the structure of the story under the delivery.  Watch Steve Jobs present a new product.  Watch a great mega-church preacher give a sermon.  They are all weaving from the same body of storytelling knowledge.

Read, observe, practice and try to connect to the JOY that is inherent in telling a good story.  When you can do that, when you can find that rich vein of joy you will feel the force of the universe resonating in your heart.

Hope that helps,



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