Happy Meals or Happy Tales: Serve Up Stories Made to Order
A Systematic Approach for Serving Up Stores Made to Order
Look, I get it. As speakers, it’s drilled into us. “You must have great, unforgettable stories or you’ll fail miserably and end up getting a job where you have to wear a paper hat and ask people if they’d like their order super-sized.” And while I have no doubt that Lou Heckler, CSP, CPAE, could serve a McDonald’® Happy Meal® with the best of them (and would look amazing in the paper hat), the world is better served by having him on the platform. I think the same is true of you as well. So you need the stories. But where do you find these great stories? And, once you’ve found them, how do you develop them into a tight piece of material that works over and over again? I developed a simple, five-step system to do just that. It certainly isn’t the only system out there, but it’s one that’s worked for me, and I think it can work for you, too. So let’s get to it.
Overview: The Structure
Before we get into the system itself, let’s talk about basic story structure. Very basic story structure. Like, beginning, middle and end. (I told you it was basic.) Now, many of our advanced speakers are already familiar with these three story stages: beginning, middle and end. But most people don’t realize that each of these stages has a specific job within your story. The best description I’ve ever heard is this:
Beginning: Get your hero up a tree.
Middle: Throw rocks at him.
End: Let him down.
I wish I knew whose description this is, but I don’t, so let’s just attribute it to Lincoln. Okay, with this structure in mind, let’s get to the five-step system.
1. Ask the Magic Question
When I’m working with other speakers to help them find great platform stories from their own experience, I find that invariably they ask the wrong questions. They ask themselves, “When did something interesting happen?” or, “When did something funny happen?” And they come up with one or two big, obvious ones (“I got shot by a mugger and escaped by climbing Mt. Everest while paralyzed,” or, “On a cold Saturday in 1983, I single-handedly saved 1,784 starfish from certain death”). But then they go blank, because they’re asking the wrong question. The right question— the Magic Question—that will unlock dozens, if not hundreds of great personal stories is, “When did something go wrong?” Comedy and drama are both based on conflict, and conflict is when something goes wrong. So Step 1 is to ask yourself the Magic Question and make a list of every time in your life that something went wrong—little things as well as big things. Each thing you write down could be the starting point for an unforgettable story.
2. Channel Joe Friday
Back in the Taft administration there was a TV show called Dragnet. It featured a stony-faced detective named Joe Friday, who was famous for his tagline, “Just the facts, ma’am.” (And let’s not worry about the fact that he never actually said these words on the show. I didn’t see you getting all hung up about Lincoln and the rocks.) So what do I mean by this? I mean that the beginning of your story (see Overview: The Structure) is where you introduce the facts that your audience will need to know in order to understand the rest of the story. Who is the “hero”? (And by “hero,” I don’t mean Superman. I just mean the person that the story is about—in most cases, you. And unless your name is Nido, you’re not Superman.) What is he/she trying to accomplish? Are there other characters your audience will need to know about? Who are they? What is their relationship to you and each other? Is the weather important? Time of year? If it is, put it in. If it’s not, leave it out. You get the idea. Don’t clutter it with things the audience doesn’t need to know. Just the facts, ma’am. So pick an item from Step 1 and then make a list of all the things your audience needs to know in order to “get” the rest of the story. Introducing these facts (in an interesting way, of course) is what the beginning of your story is all about.
3. Plant the Crap
There’s a crucial moment in your story that I call the “Oh crap!” moment, because this is the moment when your audience should suddenly think, “Oh crap!” It’s the moment—usually bad, but not always—when everything changes, and there’s no turning back. For example: “I rush out of the store with barely enough time to still make it to the wedding, I look around, and it hits me. My car has been stolen.” This is the incident that propels the rest of the story forward. And, ideally, this will happen about 25 percent of the way through your story. Don’t believe me? Next time you go to a two-hour movie, watch for the pivotal scene at the 30-minute mark. It’ll be there. So find the “Oh crap!” moment in your story—the moment when everything changes—and craft it so that it appears one quarter of the way through your story. Incidentally, when you get to the “Oh crap!” moment, your hero is officially up a tree. This moment marks the transition from the beginning to the middle of your story (which also means that the beginning should be about 25 percent of your story).
4. Go Rock Collecting
Now that your hero is up a tree, it’s time to throw rocks at him (or her). This is also the fun part—for you and for your audience. This is where, during the crafting stage, you come up with a list of everything that did—or could—go wrong to make life even worse for your hero. Jeanne Robertson, CSP, CPAE, of course, does this beautifully. And here’s a tip: Try to make the rocks increase in intensity as the story moves forward. I call this “escalating the conflict.” What’s even more fun is if you can make one rock be the consequence of a previous rock that the audience may have forgotten about: “And this is when Frank, who was still hiding in the closet … started to cough.” So, how many rocks should you throw? It depends. Here are some of the factors: How long is your story? Is it a two-minute “quickie” or a 12-minute signature piece? What’s the nature of the story? Serious? Humorous? Farcical? In general, the more humorous or farcical, the more rocks you can throw. Are you moving the story forward, or just treading water? Throwing rocks is fun, but you don’t want to get to the point where your audience is thinking, “Is this going anywhere?” A story has to have momentum. The “rock collecting” part of your story (which is the middle of your story) should comprise roughly 55 to 70 percent of your time.
5. UPS It
What do you do when you take a package to UPS to ship? You wrap it up and tie it together, right? Well, that’s what the ending of your story should do. Look, I’ll be the first to admit that endings are hard. That’s because reality doesn’t generally provide a great ending; we have to help it along. So how do you find your ending? You look at what’s already happened. The seed for your ending should have already been planted within the body of your story. Just like in a well-written whodunit, the ending should be surprising yet logical; it should wrap everything up and tie it together. Here are two (related) techniques for doing just that.
Find the Callback
Dave Barry was a master at this technique when he was writing columns for The Miami Herald. Most of his columns ended with a “callback,” which is a reference to something from within the column. In fact, Dave once told me that he would intentionally re-read his column so he could find something to call back to for his closing.
The Mirror Technique
With this technique, you take something that appears in the first minute or two of your story and mirror it—bring it back—in the last few. It’s even better if you can use the exact same words, except that they now have a richer meaning for the audience because of the journey you’ve taken them through. For example: Beginning: “I was never a cat person—a claim my wife decided to put to the test … on Thanksgiving Day, 1998.” Ending: “I was never a cat person—until Thanksgiving Day, 1998.” And then, of course, comes the most important part: When you bring it back to their (your audience’s) world. But you know that part already, right? That’s why you’re serving up keynotes instead of Big Macs®.