Storytelling Part 4: Delivery
Now that your story has a great structure and you know what good practice looks like, let’s focus on what you’re actually trying to improve with your practice: the delivery of your story. I’ve gotta tell you, this was the hardest post for me to write in this series because delivery is so dependent on your medium - public speakers care very much about maintaining their posture and projecting their voice, comic book artists not so much. As I reflected, though, I realized that there are three principles underlying good execution in storytelling regardless of medium: clarity, pacing, and emotion.
The first principle of effective story delivery is Clarity. You might have interesting content, solid structure, and dedicated practice, but if you do not convey your story clearly, it will be wasted. Clarity means boiling down what you have to share to its essence. I especially struggle here, because I tend to be pretty verbose, as you’ve probably gathered. In writing, especially persuasive writing, a few easy rules will greatly enhance your clarity: stick to active voice, use short sentences, and keep your words simple. For visual storytelling, you want strong forms in a clear composition. When telling a story in person, speak up and enunciate. In all cases, make your medium as transparent as possible - you want your audience too caught up in the story to notice how it’s being told to them.
Closely related to clarity is the principle of Pacing. Your structure builds the macro level pacing of your story, but to really nail it you need micro pacing within it. Stand up comics master the art of pacing because jokes require tiny manipulations of timing for comedic effect. Not just jokes, but all storytelling relies on pacing to build anticipation, excite the audience, and hold attention. Check out just about any cartoon ever made by Genndy Tartakovsky for visual pacing par excellence. In writing, you can tweak pacing at a few different levels - at the most micro, you can vary sentence length to affect pacing (I know I just told you to keep sentences short, but some variation is good), and at a more macro level, you can build anticipation and excitement between scenes and acts.
The final element of quality delivery is Emotion. You want to skillfully vary emotional ups and downs to create a rich experience for your audience. The Story Grid provides a method for tracking the charge of emotionally resonant values scene to scene that is just fantastic. Basically, every scene needs a change in the value that’s at stake in the story - either between positive and negative, or from positive to extra positive (or negative to extra negative). For example, in action movies, the value at stake is Life vs Death, so let’s take a look at one of my favorites: Goldfinger. A famous scene opens with Bond tied up and about to get lasered by the eponymous baddy. The scene begins negative on the value of Life/Death (Bond is about to die!), builds suspense by convincing you that the villain really means to kill Bond and that he really is helpless, but then surprisingly ends positive (Bond survives!).
To convey these emotional shifts, first figure out what your emotional value is, and then whether the shift is positive or negative. Once you have that figured out, make the emotional shift intense by using clarity and pacing. Think of a horror movie: the storyteller wants to scare you by taking a scene from Life to Death. Every shot focuses on the soon-to-be victim or on an environment that could hide a lurking threat. They use pacing to draw out the apprehension and build up a sense of dread. Check out this fantastic example from one of my favorite horror films.
Putting it Into Practice: Public Speaking
Now let’s put these principles together with a concrete example: public speaking. First off, I can apply all three principles equally well to the preparation of my materials as to the actual speaking. Once I have my structure down, I’ll go through the content with an eye toward clarity - eliminating any cruft, checking that my supporting points help my main idea, and making sure the sequence has a clear progression. Next, I’ll take a look at each section to get an idea if my pacing is on the right track, and I’ll review my overall presentation to see what emotional shifts I’m looking to bring to my audience. With that in mind, I think about how I’ll do it in the moment - when will I tell a joke, pause for effect, get quieter, and so on. All of that tells me what elements of in-the-moment delivery to focus on during my practice. I will make sure to speak loudly and distinctly (clarity), slowly (pacing), and to emphasize the right words with tone of voice, gesture, and facial expression (emotion). Also, I’ll maintain a strong posture without moving too much (clarity and emotion) and when I do move, it will be deliberately and at a speed that reinforces the energy I want to convey to the audience (emotion and pacing). With these elements in mind, I can target the feedback I get specifically, which makes the practice much more valuable.
For any given medium, we could get into pages and pages of material on good delivery. There are books written on the subject for every field, and with this post we’ve barely dipped our toes in the water. What I hope you take away, though, are the strong principles underlying the tactics and techniques of different mediums. With these delivery tips, you now have a complete, if basic, toolbox for telling quality stories. Next time I’ll share some of my favorite resources for diving deeper and building out that toolbox.
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