Storytelling Part 2: Structure

Every good story has a structure, and if you make it explicit ahead of time, you can spot gaps and make improvements. Below we’ll go through a simple tool to make your structure clear, how to use it, the elements of the classic story, some variant story structure options depending on intent, and finally some alternatives to consider. 

You can craft stories with a lot of different structures, but for all of them, you need a tool to make the structure explicit. I recommend the storyboard. Storyboarding originated with Disney, and if you plan on any kind of visual storytelling, the original use of pictures will serve you well. If you’re not artistic, and you aren’t writing a movie or a comic, don’t worry - the pictures are not necessary for using a story board.  Storyboarding forces you to do two very useful things: think in discrete chunks and focus on the most important element of that chunk. The first habit prevents you from falling into the habit of letting stories become long, rambly messes, and the second keeps your attention on what really matters in your story. Simply by chopping your story up into pieces and distilling each piece into what matters, you’ve already done most of the hard work of creating a compelling story.

Storyboarding will help you out for all sorts of storytelling, and you don’t have to have any drawing skills to do it. While you might find some value in creating thumbnails the way movie storyboarders do, you can usually do a great job entirely verbally. Instead of a picture, distill every chunk of your story into one sentence - that’s your headline. These become the fundamental building blocks of your story. What you do with these headlines varies a bit depending on your intent. For longer form text (like blog entries) you might use the “plain english outline” technique from Ramit Sethi’s Call to Action course, where each headline gets fleshed out into a paragraph. If you’re giving a presentation, those headlines make great titles for powerpoint slides. You build your story using these headlines as blocks, but for maximum effect, you need to sequence them right.

Just about everyone has heard that a story needs a beginning, middle, and end. Simple enough, right? But that can be pretty boring on its own: “I wanted a burger. I drove to Whataburger. I bought one.” Not a great story, right? Turns out there’s a little more going on here than just chronology. In a story that works, the beginning kicks off with a hook, the middle builds the tension, and the end delivers a payoff. A hook knocks the protagonist of our story out of whack, disrupts their day to day life. The middle build introduces complications and makes clear why dealing with the hook is both challenging and important. Finally, the payoff gives the audience something satisfying based on the sort of story you’re telling - in a TED talk the payoff might be an inspirational success, whereas in a joke it might be a ridiculous failure. 

Let’s take my boring story and improve it with what we learned: “My pregnant wife got a craving for Whataburger. Trouble is, there was a hurricane raging outside! Still, I drove through wind and rain, passing dozens of closed Whataburgers while I watched cars, livestock, and buildings float past me. At last, the orange W shined out through the storm, the only one open in the city, and they saved my bacon with a bacon cheeseburger!” Okay, okay, It’s still not that great, but it’s better. The hook has some urgency to it (pregnancy cravings), the middle build introduces complications (storm, closed stores), and the payoff resolves the hook (getting the burger despite the challenges). Depending on what I wanted to do with the story, I could have gone in different directions for different payoffs - like trying to pass off an inferior burger from somewhere more convenient and getting in trouble for it (“you should have known better, you dummy!”), getting more and more ridiculous to make it clear this is a joke (humor), or narrowly escaping some danger and realizing it’s more important that I’m around to help out than that I satisfy a temporary craving (life lesson).

Not a true story, by the way, in case you were worried.

Okay, so all of that stuff about protagonists and hooks and what not is well and good if you’re trying to write fiction, but how can you apply it in business situations? Well, Dan Roam has created a wonderful set of tools called the PUMA presented in his book Show and Tell that answer exactly that question. PUMA stands for “Presentation Underlying Message Architecture” and was definitely made up to get a cute acronym - but don’t let the name turn you off from one of the most useful tools I’ve ever encountered. The core elements of a story that we discussed above have been documented throughout history by the likes of Aristotle and Joseph Campbell and are frequently known as the “hero’s journey”. Roam takes that core structure and maps it onto the four different presentation intents: sharing facts, explaining how to do something, convincing people to take action, and getting people to change their worldview. For each of these intents, he provides a template PUMA and works through an example using it. If you take nothing else away from this post, I hope that you start using PUMAs to structure your business presentations.

To get you started crafting your own PUMAs, I’ve created a spreadsheet storyboard template for all of the PUMAs that you can find here. First,  select the PUMA relevant to what you’re trying to do - Report, Explanation, Pitch, or Drama. Next, write one sentence per column to address that column’s prompt - this creates the spine of your story. Then detail out any supporting headlines you need in the relevant columns. Share with any collaborators or teammates, tweak until it works, and only then build your presentation slides (if you even need them). Getting everything out on one page will save you tons of headaches down the road.

We’ve focused on telling a story in a compelling and human way by using a variant of “the hero’s journey", but you can use other structural tools to organize your message. One popular option for business presentations is Minto’s "pyramid principle.” With this structure, you present the answer first, and then bring in supporting arguments in a logical sequence. This method allows people to engage as deeply as they want (or not) and is ideally suited to busy executives. You can also invert the pyramid and present your facts first and build to a conclusion to create a feeling of inevitability, but be careful with this one! Most of us over-estimate how compelling our message really is and count on people to wait in suspense for the reveal without doing any of the work to make them care. If you don’t have a particular recommendation, you can try some other options: you might present a problem and explore possible solutions, you might demo a product, or you might just relate things chronologically to keep it simple. Regardless of what tool you use, the key concept is to pay attention to the point of your story and intentionally choose a structure that supports it. 

Nailing your structure will buy you a lot of wiggle room in the other areas of your story. Trying to focus on fancy delivery techniques without a solid structure, no matter how well practiced, is like polishing a turd. Nobody gets structure totally right on the first try, which makes our next topic vital: practice.

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