People Like Stories but they Love Funny Stories

Here is how to tell one

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“Stories are the creative conversion of life itself into a more powerful, clearer, more meaningful experience. They are the currency of human contact.” — Robert McKee

Many of us will have been to a comedy club and laughed hysterically at the comedian, but struggle to remember his/her name or what exactly was said. The same applies to business speakers. When they deliver information as a series of facts or opinions, it’s hard for our brains to recall them all. Our aim as public speakers is to be more memorable and have our audience spread our message for us. The best way to do this is by wrapping the information in a story and better still, a funny story.

Ann Handley is a content marketer who inspires an entire industry. When it comes to storytelling she says, “Some brands are doing it really well, but storytelling is not a skill marketers have necessarily needed over the last few decades. It’s a new skill the marketing industry is developing.” The same can be said for those who need to self-market. It’s a skill that you need to develop and starting now will put you ahead of the curve. Whether your experiences tell how you fell off your bicycle or how you lead your company out of disaster, the same basic principles apply. You are always telling a story. How you tell it makes all the difference.

“Who wants what and what stops them from getting it?”

This, according to Golden Globe-winning writer and three-time Emmy nominee Bill Grundfest, is the secret sauce of all stories in its most simplified form.

What makes stories great is the detail we add in. Essentially, we need to put meat on the bones of our story and make sure to do the following:

Have a hero/protagonist. Decide who will be the central character of the story. Often people remember the characters more than the story itself.

Describe what your hero is up against. What challenges does the character have to overcome? What do they want and what is stopping them from getting it? This is your story’s source of tension. Build in a specific transcending emotion. You need something that breaks down barriers; love, lust, greed, passion, and loss are perfect.

Include a clear lesson or transformation. Make sure your characters move towards their goal/objective/solving a problem.

Add twists and turns to the story. Try not to make it predictable for the listener. Introduce a question or challenge and don’t be too quick to solve it.

Make it believable. It is essential that your story allows the listener to suspend their disbelief, listening to what you are saying rather than questioning the truth of your words.

Have a clear incident that makes the story really take off. Often referred to as the Inciting Incident, it is a concept popularized by the master of story, Robert McKee, in his famed three-day “Story Seminar” given all over the world. It is described by Steven Pressfield, author of The Legend of Bagger Vance and The War of Art, here: “The inciting incident in a screenplay or novel is that event that gets the story rolling. In The Hangover, it’s the moment when the guys wake up in their trashed villa with no memory of what happened the night before–and realize that they’ve lost their friend Doug. With that, the story kicks into gear. Everything before that is just setup. Ask yourself of your project, “What is the inciting incident?” “When does the ‘story’ take off?” You’d be surprised how many would-be novels/screenplays/restaurants/startups don’t have inciting incidents. That’s why they don’t work”.

Know where you want to end up (the punch line) from the outset. The last line should be the first line you write. Then work backwards towards your inciting incident and set up.

Quickly build in a hook to grab your audience’s attention and draw them into the story. This is especially important in light of today’s ever-decreasing attention spans. You’re your audience’s reason to keep their phones in their pockets.

Reference your opening lines/setup in the conclusion of your story. This is referred to as the Bookend Technique and it will give your story a feeling of completion or symmetry

Frame your story within a three-act structure: 1 Setup (Beginning), 2 Confrontation (Middle), and 3 Resolution (End). The hook and inciting incident usually happen within the first act. “People have forgotten how to tell a story,” said Steven Spielberg. “Stories don’t have a middle or an end any more. They usually have a beginning that never stops beginning.” If one of the most awarded directors of all time says that’s a problem, it’s a problem. Make sure you don’t make the same mistake.

Build in entertainment. Modern day storytelling is joke telling. Today’s audiences expect some light-heartedness and entertainment. A story should make people care by including personal experience that the audience can relate to themselves and to their own lives. The most powerful stories are not about the storyteller, they are about the person who is hearing the story. Most marketers and presenters forget this.

Sometimes, building in entertainment doesn’t even require you to tell jokes. In his book, Talk Like TED: The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds, Carmine Gallo reminds us, “The funny thing about humor is that you don’t need to tell a joke to get a laugh.” It can be enough to simply not take yourself too seriously—or to be willing to be brutally honest.(See this post to add humor to your story)

Maya Angelou said “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Many of us remember a childhood with a lot more laughter. The time has come to restore some of those lost laughs now that we are all grown up.