Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Tell it better: Storytelling with themes and symmetry

Call me the theme-spotter. Time after time, speakers will send me their scripts for talks in the style of TED, or for TEDMED or TEDx conferences, and they'll fail to connect the dots, develop the theme, or bring the story back around to a point established earlier.

I might blame presentation style for our lost ability to recognize themes and symmetrical structures and bring them forward in stories. After all, in an informational presentation, there's an unwritten rule that you need to build one new fact upon the last, in succession. But numerous facts that top one another aren't always the best approach. And I can't solely blame slides here. We've just forgotten how to tell stories.

Cycling back to show us a theme or symmetry may take fewer points and make more out of them. Here are some ways drawing out themes and symmetry in your stories may not be working now, and how to fix that:
  1. You've got crisis or failure without redemption: Audiences of all sorts have long loved stories of personal failure or crisis, and every dramatic arc relies on the high point of a crisis to put the drama in the arc of a story. But if we love crisis and failure, it's because we're hoping for redemption: what you learned, what changed, where it led you, why it's better today. I see lots of speakers aiming to emulate TED talks who do a great job on the failure, and forget the redemption. Consider redemption an essential mirror for a failure story. Without it, we're looking in a mirror with no image coming back to us.
  2. You've only told one side of the story: I'm not advocating a he-said, she-said argumentative approach. Rather, this is just a simple plea to read your story--whether it's a blog post, a long caption, a podcast, or a speech--and listen for whether the perspective is all one-sided. Why? If you don't provide that counterpoint, we'll be reading or listening and supplying it in our minds. So dig in and show us the symmetry of what others might have said or done, and why you chose the path you did. Adding some perspective other than yours makes the story richer. It may suggest a major theme, add the missing drama, and keep your story from sounding like a press release.Think of that opposing viewpoint as a mirror for your protagonist: What can she learn about herself looking into that opposite view?
  3. Your theme is hiding in plain sight, but not made clear: When I'm working with a speaker prepping a TED talk, the speaker often has a group of stories or examples she wants to consider including in the talk. Time after time, I see rough drafts that include anecdotes, facts, and story sections that could be tied together thematically, but aren't even noticed. It's a case, many times, of being too close to your own story. Ask a colleague to do some theme-spotting for you, looking at your story for similar situations, words, descriptions, or just one particularly juicy one. Recently, I helped a scientist with a talk in which she was describing the impact of citizens making different choices as an aid to conserving natural resources. She had a line about what different people in community gardens plant. This led us to a discussion about gardening, whether she had one (she does), and my confirmation that the garden is a powerful metaphor for the environment--one that's easy to grasp. That led her to recall a saying of her mother's, also garden-related, that helped tie the talk together.
If your storytelling is missing the element of themes and symmetry, it will be a poorer story for it...and we'll be a poorer audience, too.  Call *that* a missed opportunity to make a clear impression on your listeners and readers, whether you're doing a speech or social media.

Storytelling's the big buzz word in communications and marketing. But we've forgotten how this ancient art works. This "Tell it better" series hopes to revive and hone your storytelling skills for any format, from public speaking in the style of TED to social media. Want a storytelling workshop? Email me at eloquentwoman AT

(Photo of and by my friend gallery director Ksenia Grishkova, next to her mirrored portrait by artist Timothy Johnson at Touchstone Gallery in Washington, DC. Check out more of his work at the link. Images used by permission.)

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