Story structure – the hidden framework that hangs your story together
Gavin and Peter Watts Paskale outline the core principles of telling powerful stories in every presentation you make. It’s one of our ‘Must-Reads for Every Presentation Professional‘ that we think should be required reading for every presentation designer, speaker and coach if they want to shine in this industry.
Gavin McMahon is a senior partner and co-founder of fassforward Consulting Group. Their game Dirty Rhetoric aims to provide a comprehensive list of rhetorical techniques explained in easy-to-understand terms. Peter Watts Paskale is a writer, trainer and speaker on all aspects of presenting. He coaches business executives on how to be at their best when on their feed. His blog, The Presenters’ Blog, examines cored disciplines of public speaking and how those disciplines are being illustrated by new stories around the world. Follow him @speak2all.
Take an A-list film star, a bestselling novel and $44 million, and you have a recipe for…
No this isn’t the start of a joke. Or maybe it is. These are the ingredients of Battlefield Earth. If you haven’t seen it, Google, “worst movies ever,” and you’ll realize you don’t want to. Critics panned it. The Washington Post opined, “A million monkeys with a million crayons would be hard-pressed in a million years to create anything as cretinous as Battlefield Earth.” Roger Ebert called it, “shapeless and senseless, without a plot .”
We’ve all seen bad movies, where the trailer covers the whole plot. Or listened to stories that made no sense. Or snoozed through presentations that went on, and on…
Our brains want structure and routine. They help us make sense of the world, and help us feel comfortable.
The same is true when you’re building presentations. We’re unconsciously familiar with structure. That’s why it works. Without it, we’re thinking, “what the hell’s happening?” or “when is this going to end?” In a business setting, no structure means no credibility. It wastes the audience’s time, and your time.
Structure is the hidden element that helps your pitch fly or flop. With it, your story sings. Without it, your story sinks.
What’s the best way to put structure in your presentation? You could take Lewis Caroll’s advice from Alice in Wonderland:
“Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”
But there are better ways of structuring your next presentation.
Here are some we’ve found useful. They give your story spine,and leave a framework for surprise. Everything from Aristotle’s three-act structure, to the hero’s journey. Advice from Kurt Vonnegut, to the modern-day methods of presentation experts such as Dan Roam and Nancy Duarte.
Aristotle’s three-act structure
Aristotle left us the first guide to the underlying structure of story. Just like Lewis Carol’s King from Alice in Wonderland, we need a beginning, a middle, and an end. So far, so familiar.
Where Aristotle differed was that he was creating for the theater of Greek tragedy. For him, it was play, not PowerPoint. The ‘presenter’ burst into song instead of talking sales revenue.
There’s no longer an expectation for you to burst into song (unless of course you want to) – but still the essential guidance remains. ‘Prologue, episode, exodus’ – ‘Beginning, middle, and end’.
Your story can’t be a straight line connecting A to B. That would lack the emotional and logical jolt essential for connecting to people. Nancy Duarte uses a sparkline structure to analyze and build presentations¨.
(¨Duarte, Nancy. “2 Lessons from Myths and Movies.” Resonate: Present Visual Stories That Transform Audiences . Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2010. 3637. Print.)
That structure gives your presentation power by adding the concept of tension and release.
Duarte suggests switching the audience back and forth between a state of what is, and what could be. Think of it as alternating between challenge and solution, between pain and pleasure. For example – ‘competition is becoming more ferocious’..but.. ‘we can disrupt that competition with a whole new product offering’.
Campbell’s Hero’s journey
American scholar Joseph Campbell wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces˜.
(˜Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces . Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1972. Print.)
In it, he proposed the hero’s journey. His work influenced the structure behind everything from Star Wars to Shrek.
Every good presenter should ask, who is the hero of my story?
Well, it isn’t you!
Imagine making up a bedtime story for a small child. Who do we put at the center of the action? The child. In their imagination, they become a princess, warrior or wizard. This lets them sit at the center of the world you’re describing. When telling stories to adults, it’s no different.
The hero’s journey starts with an ordinary world. That world contains an ordinary character, going about an ordinary life. Something calls them away from that world – a threat or a quest. Although reluctant, circumstances compel the hero to take on the quest. They face hazards and threats. Helpers appear along the way to guide and assist. Through a series of trials, the hero triumphs. They return back to their old world and see it through new eyes.
You can be present in the story, but only as that ally or helper. What Campbell prods us to remember is that it’s always the audience who play the hero.
Booker’s seven basic plots
In 2004, journalist Christopher Booker published The Seven Basic Plots , his treatise on why we tell stories. 3 He argues that every myth, movie, novel and TV show follows the same structures, and proposed seven of them.
In Overcoming the Monster the hero sets out to defeat evil, which threatens peace and prosperity in his world. Jaws , James Bond, and The Magnificent Seven are all archetypal examples of this.
Classics such as The Wizard of Oz , and Alice in Wonderland meanwhile, are Voyage and Return stories. They’re structured around a journey to a strange land, fraught with danger. In the end the hero returns better for the experience.
Rags to Riches is the coming of age tale in which the hero acquires (literal or figurative) wealth and fortune, loses it, and grows as a person. Aladdin, Cinderella and Jane Eyre are all examples.
The Quest is the story of hero(es), who set out on a journey to find their holy grail. Along the way they face obstacles, temptations and dangers. See everything from Lord of the Rings to Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.
Booker’s other plots are Tragedy, in which a flaw or mistake leads the main character on a downward spiral; Comedy, and Rebirth.
Vonnegut’s shapes of stories
Before Kurt Vonnegut – great American novelist, there was Kurt Vonnegut – University of Chicago anthropology student. There, he pitched a Master’s thesis on the shapes of stories. It was rejected however, because it “looked like too much fun.”˜
(˜Vonnegut, Kurt. Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage . New York: Delacorte, 1981. 285-87. Print.)
Vonnegut aimed to plot the structure of all mankind’s stories onto a simple graph — the vertical axis descending from good fortune to ill fortune, and the horizontal axis moving from beginning to end.
With that, he described shapes of story: Man in Hole, Boy Gets Girl, From Bad to Worse, Creation Story, Old Testament and Cinderella. This video gem shows Vonnegut humorously describing some of the shapes, Man in Hole, “Somebody gets into trouble, and out of it again.”
And Boy Gets Girl, where boy, “finds something wonderful, oh goddammit, got it back again.”
Roam’s Four Storylines
Dan Roam proposed four structures˜ for extraordinary presentations.
(˜Roam, Dan. Show & Tell: How Everybody Can Make Extraordinary Presentations . New York: Portfolio Penguin, 2014. 31-141. Print.)
He argued that, “clear storylines are our best defense against confusion.” For Roam, which storyline you pick depends on what you are trying to do. Are you changing the audience’s information, abilities, actions, or beliefs?
According to Roam, The Report format conveys the facts.
The Explanation meanwhile, teaches new insights or abilities.
The Pitch recommends a new action or solution.
And The Drama, based on the hero’s journey, inspires a new belief or way of looking at the world.
In the consulting world, or in Business-to-Business sales, Situation-Complication-Resolution is a common presentation structure. Like so many others, it can trace its roots back to myth˜.
(˜Burridge, Kenelm. LéviStrauss and myth. Tavistock, 1968.)
It’s essentially a three-act structure, linked by two magic words, “but” and “therefore.”
Hook Meat and Payoff
At fassforward, we like to keep things simple. We’ve found that most presentations work really well with a really simple formula — Hook-Meat-Payoff.
The Hook should get your audience on the edge 7 of their seat, leaning forward, and give them a sense of what’s coming. It could be a rhetorical question. It could be a personal story. It could be a bold statement.
It isn’t an agenda slide. That’s an anti-hook. Yes, it tells people what’s coming, but it’s a recipe for settle back, relax and take a snooze.
The Meat is how you organize your content. It has to organize what you say in a way that engages and makes sense to your audience. It could be a list, “7 things you need to know about our new brand positioning”. It could be a timeline. You could adapt one of the structure formulae above. Whatever you do, chunk the meat of your presentation into chewable, tasty bites.
The Payoff serves a number of roles. It’s more artful than staggering to the end with a, “… er, that’s it.” The Payoff concludes your presentation, allowing you to summarize and wrap-up. The best way to do that is to connect back to your Hook in some way. Remember, you want someone to buy into your idea, or buy your product. Now all you have to do is close.
You do that by asking the audience to commit to the next action that you want from them. It’s amazing how many presenters forget to do this. Presentations without action just add to the noise.
Strong stories have strong structure
Structure comes to life with Words and Pictures. Together, they’re the three amigos of great story.
Words — the turns of phrase you use to get your message across. Pictures — the images you show, or the experiences you create in the mind’s eye. And Structure — the compelling thread that holds it all together.
You can get really detailed on structure. And if you’re a professional presenter, author, screenwriter, or content creator, you want to. Whichever method you choose is up to you. It’s a little like exercise. If your doctor tells you it’s good for you, then you should probably do it. It’s your choice to walk, run, or swim.
1st December 2016 at 7:31 pm
Thank you for showing Dan Roam’s 4 story lines. I bought Show & Tell in both hardcover & paperback. But it was hard to copy on a copier. I wanted to show my church the drama story line, as we are in the midst of a fundraising campaign to buy and renovate a church on a nearby decommissioned military base. It has been our experience that member’s testimonies regarding their life before and after joining the congregation is what touches the heart of others. Again, thank you for putting up this valuable informaation
2nd December 2016 at 9:06 am
You’re welcome Armando – thanks for your kind comments and we completely agree. Personal stories based on the experience of the speaker – especially if they are stories which your audience can relate to – will always help them connect better with the message.
1st September 2017 at 1:08 pm
Impressive summary of structures. Really great thanks!