April 20, 2011

The Nine Steps of Story Structure by Doug Stevenson

Have you ever watched a movie that was too long, lost your interest or just didn’t work? How about a movie that was three hours long, but you were so engaged that you didn’t want it to end? What’s the difference between a movie that works and one that doesn’t? Great storytelling structure.

That’s what Star Wars, Sleepless in Seattle, The Bourne Supremacy, Bridesmaids, Shrek and the Matrix movies all have in common: great story structure. They’re basically all the same story told in different ways. Practically every movie you’ve ever seen follows a similar pattern or story structure.

When you understand the basics of story structure, you can tell a great story. Why is that important? People remember your stories. When they remember your story, they remember your point and they remember you. If you want to be memorable, tell a story. If you want to be forgettable, do a data dump.

Story Structure, Simplified

Basically, you’ve got a main character that sets out on a journey to accomplish something. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a love story, a thriller or an action adventure flick – the story structure is the same. The lead character has a goal or task to accomplish. He or she sets out to accomplish it, meets interesting characters along the way, and encounters a number of obstacles that have to be overcome. In the end, the obstacles are overcome and the story is resolved in a way that makes us feel good, and occasionally, teaches us a life lesson.

Stories Are About People

The best stories are about something that happened to you. You are the main character.  However, even when the story is about something that happened to someone else, you still were the observer or it affected you in some way. The story is still about what YOU learned from the situation.

Business stories are not about products, services or companies. They’re about the people that need and use products and services, or they’re about the people who created the companies or work in them.

Though the situations and characters change, the constant in good storytelling is story structure. When you understand solid story structure, you can use it to your advantage in crafting your stories for any audience.

What’s your story? In business, the ability to choose, craft and share a personal or business-related story will make you a more persuasive and influential leader. The right story can help you sell your idea, product or service. If you want and need to make an emotional connection, while ensuring that you make your message stick, tell a story. In a broader context, stories can inspire people to change their behavior, change their thinking, and improve their lives – both personally and professionally.

Whether I’m working with a sales team at Microsoft, a marketing team at Amgen Biotech or an HR team at Caterpillar, I quickly discover that the people in my audience already recognize that story is the most effective communication vehicle available. I help them choose, craft and deliver those stories to get better results.

People remember your stories. Facts fade, data gets dumped, but stories stick. Think about it. What do you recall from the last presentation you attended? Do you remember what was on slide 24? Probably not.  If you do remember any slides, it’s most likely because the slide had a picture on it. We remember pictures and scenes, especially if they are connected to an emotionally-charged event.  When you tell a story, you create pictures and scenes, in the imaginations of your listeners. And if the story is structured well, you create emotion, as well.

But you can’t be a lousy storyteller and expect your story to work! Story structure is essential.

Start with the Point in Mind

Here’s a common problem: If you don’t know where you’re going, you can end up anywhere. It’s the same with a story. If you don’t know what the point is – what you want the story to teach – you can go off on tangents that lead to tangents that end up in a cul-de-sac of confusion and lost attention. When you sit down to develop your story, you need to start with the point in mind.

The Nine Steps formula that I have created is an easy-to-use and effective way of crafting your story. Rather than spending twelve hours creating a PowerPoint deck that no one will remember, take two of those hours and craft the one thing they will remember: your story.

The Nine Steps of Story Structure, below, are explained in greater detail in my book, Doug Stevenson’s Story Theater Method. You can buy the book from my website or on Amazon (Kindle or hard copy). I’ve also created a You Tube video in which each of the Nine Steps is identified while I’m telling one of my signature stories about leadership. The link is: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GQ3BDkMN1LY

The Nine Steps of Story Structure

1. Set the Scene

Think back to when the event actually took place. Create the context within which this event took place. Consider which of the following is relevant to setting the scene for your story:

  • Time: year, month, day, time, season, holiday…
  • Place: city, state, country, home, school, office, bedroom, market, beach…
  • Atmosphere: sunny, rainy, gloomy, tense, joyous, comfortable, uncomfortable…
  • Event: board meeting, wedding, vacation, dinner, soccer game, seminar, movie…
  • Relationship: sister, boss, spouse, son, supervisor, teacher, friend, tour guide…
  • Data/Statistics: relevant trends and facts…

2. Introduce the Characters (Not necessarily Step 2)

Describe the main characters visually. Start with physical characteristics, age and clothing. Next, describe their personality and style. Describe anything pertinent about your relationship with that person. Introduce characters in the natural sequence that they arrive in your story.

Wendy was a middle-aged woman with long black hair that she wore pulled back in a braid. She always wore fashionable clothes – the latest styles and fancy shoes. Wendy always arrived late for meetings. She also had a tendency to apologize for things, even when she wasn’t responsible for the situation.

3. Begin the Journey

The journey is the task, objective or activity to be accomplished. It is what you are attempting to do before something goes wrong or you encounter an obstacle. Example: Going on vacation; running in a road race; meeting a friend for lunch; negotiating a contract; planning the annual meeting; working on a product launch…

4. Encounter the Obstacle

The obstacle is the challenge. It is a problem, dilemma or question. It may be a person, something to be overcome, or something to be learned. It’s who or what gets in the way of achieving your goals. Define the obstacle in your story.

Example: A delayed flight; a pulled muscle; getting lost in traffic and being late; hearing an unexpected objection; cost overruns…

5. Overcome the Obstacle: Using Step Five to Teach

This is the “how-to” step in the Nine Steps of Story Structure. It is the most critical step because it teaches the lesson on a subliminal level.

Two ways the story can teach:

  • A: You overcame the obstacle correctly, thereby teaching the correct behavior.
  • B: You overcame the obstacle incorrectly – made mistakes. You can show people through your thoughts and behavior what you don’t want them to do. Then, use the story as a spring board to discuss the correct or desired behavior.

In crafting this step, describe, in a linear sequence, each step in overcoming the obstacle. Think incrementally in little steps, not broad strokes. What came first: a thought or an emotion? Then what? Did you go into avoidance mode or take immediate action? Tell the truth. The magic is in the details.

Because this step is so critical to the lesson of the story, do not take shortcuts and leave out important details. Each action, reaction and decision is critical to the lesson you want to teach. Share your thought process as well as the actions you took.

Write it out. By writing it you will be forced to recall, in a logical and linear sequence, exactly what you did. Later you can then edit it down to the most important steps.

6. Resolve the Story

This step is relatively easy. Go back through your story script and look for details that need to be resolved. Ask yourself, “What will my audience be wondering about if I don’t tell them? How did things work out in the end?”

7. Make the Point

  • A. Bridge Statement leading into the Point After resolving the story, say, “What I learned from that experience was…” or “What that experience taught me was…”
  • B. Make the Point What is the ONE point that your story makes above all other possible points? (Each story should have only one point.) State the point as a “Phrase That Pays” call to action.

8. Ask “The Question”

The question formally transfers the learning point to each audience member. It asks them to take personal accountability in relation to a specific question. It is a YOU question that forces them to consider how the lesson of the story applies to them.  Example: “How about you? What do you need to do to lead by example?”

9. Repeat the Point / The Phrase That Pays

Re-state or repeat the point verbatim. Use the exact same words you used the first time you made the point. Memorize the sentence or Phrase That Pays.

Crafting your story using The Nine Steps of Story Structure will give you the foundational
architecture of a great story. Your audience will be better able to follow the sequence of your
story, and remember your profound message! With the Nine Steps as your “bones”, you can now
flesh out your story with acting and comedic techniques to make it amazing.

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Doug Stevenson, CSP, has been teaching people how to tell their stories more effectively for over 20 years. His clients include Microsoft, Google, Oracle, SAP, Caterpillar, Genentech, Mead Johnson, Sanofi-Aventis, Wells Fargo, US Bank, State Farm, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Verizon, Coca Cola, Nurses At Home, Lockheed Martin, and many more. Whether Doug is presenting an entertaining and informative keynote or conducting a one-day storytelling seminar, his presentations are high-energy, highly-interactive, and fun-filled experiences.

Follow Doug on Twitter @DougStoryCoach

Facebook: Storytelling Mastery Fanpage

You Tube: Doug Stevenson

To contact us about Doug providing a keynote, corporate training, webinar or executive coaching, email: deborah@dougstevenson.com or go to: www.storytelling-in-business.com/contact/.

To study this method with Doug, call 719-310-8586 and consider attending The Story Theater Retreat in Tucson, AZ, USA. The retreat is limited to four students and lasts 2 1/2 days. Go to www.storytelling-in-business.com/coaching-retreats/ for more information.

Check out videos, articles and learning resources on www.storytelling-in-business.com

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