Most people tell anecdotes to each other, thinking they’re telling stories. An anecdote is a story about something that happened. A story has a structure that helps it stand out. Stop telling anecdotes and start telling stories if you want to be an effective communicator.
Consider the following example:
I met a lovely lady the other day at a party. I shouldn’t have gone to the party because it was at someone’s house who doesn’t like me. But the woman was stunning.
That is an example. This is how you make it into a story:
I met a lovely lady the other day at a party. I fell in love with her at first sight. But when I found out her name, it turned out she was from the family of one of my sworn enemies. Regardless, we married in secret. The next day, when I ran into a group of my enemies in the market, I got into a fight with one of them and killed him. Now I’ve been expelled from the city, and my wife is under pressure to marry someone else.
That’s a story, or the beginning of one, and you’ve probably heard of it: Romeo and Juliet. You’ve probably heard the rest of the story: Juliet takes a drug to make it appear as if she is dead in order to avoid marrying the other guy. Romeo does not receive the message in time, finds her apparently dead, and commits suicide. Juliet awakens and kills herself after discovering Romeo’s body. It’s a calamity.
What is the structure of such a story? The structure of all great stories is the same. Stories usually begin with a meeting or a significant change in circumstances. (Romeo falls in love with Juliet.) Then there’s a complication that ups the stakes (Romeo marries Juliet). Then there’s a crisis that brings the story to an end (Romeo kills Tybalt). That leaves you with a question that must be answered yes or no (will Romeo and Juliet be able to coexist peacefully? No, it does not.
It’s critical to understand that each of these steps is final. That’s what makes a compelling story – the force of circumstance tests and reveals character, and that’s what we find fascinating. People cannot ‘unmeet’ once they have met. Romeo and Juliet were unable to ‘unmarry’ once they had married. And Romeo is still unable to bring Tybalt back to life once he has killed him. Comedies respond with a resounding ‘yes,’ while tragedies respond with a resounding ‘no.’
How do you use this story structure in your communications? Consider providing your audience with information that alters their perception of things in such a way that it cannot be reversed. Build one realisation on top of another, as in Romeo and Juliet. Build up to a question that you will answer at the end. Your presentations will then rise to the level of a classic story, with your audience hanging on every word.