tell stories people will never forget

How To Tell Stories People Will Never Forget

Be Storyworthy – How To Tell Amazing Stories

“I teach professors, schoolteachers, ministers, priests, and rabbis who want to improve their lectures and sermons and hold the attention of their audiences. I teach storytelling to people who want to improve their dating skills. I teach people who want to be more interesting at the dinner table. I teach grandfathers who want their grandchildren to finally listen to them. I teach students who want to tell better stories on their college applications. I teach job applicants who are looking to improve their interview skills. I teach people who want to learn more about themselves.”

Mathew Dicks – Storyworthy

This book had a tunnelling effect on me.

It’s called Storyworthy, and it’s written by the master story teller Matthew Dicks. He’s an aficionado who has practised and honed his craft over an experienced lifetime.

The idea central to the writing makes it one of those books which manage to wriggle into and throughout your head circuitry. The central idea quite intrusively gravitates itself all the way to the worldview centre of your mental framework. Usurping opposing ideas and purchasing prime neural real estate in your mind.

I’ve always told people that sales and communication are the most important transferable skills they can develop. You can level mastery in most any specific skill, and yet without the ability to communicate, still be stifled.

The world is tragically full of unqualified noise.

Your ideas are in competition with this noise. It is not fair, but that does not make it any less true. You need to be able to communicate and convince.

And the most certain way to achieve this, is by spinning compelling yarn… of which Mr Dicks, is most qualified to teach you.

It’s a human need to be told stories. The more we’re governed by idiots and have no control over our destinies, the more we need to tell stories to each other about who we are, why we are, where we come from, and what might be possible.

Alan Rickman

How To Tell A Compelling Story

We all know that one person, who, no matter what they say, when they speak people listen and pay attention.

Supposedly, as I’ve been told, some people are just natural storytellers. They effortlessly hold your attention, you can always somehow recall what they say.

The truth of the matter is, rather than these people being natural storytellers, they are more likely a lucky combination of experience and personality. The mix of high openness and a larger than life family. Perhaps they are the eldest sibling. Perhaps their parents were equally charismatic.

Storytelling is easier for some… but need this mean that only the naturals can tell compelling stories?

Absolutely not!

This article is going to analyse a story from my life which I wrote as soon as I finished reading Storyworthy.

The story is written with consideration for many of the lessons taught in the book. Those lessons of which are most important, I will highlight and make obvious for you as tangible takeaways you can apply to your own stories.

Your Story Shopping List

  • Set The Scene.
  • Create Stakes.
  • Eliminate All Fat.
  • Deliver Your 5 Second Moment.
how to tell a compelling story

Pride & Grief – My Personal Story

I don’t care how fucked up my Uncle was. I am at his funeral and it’s as if no-one cares.

I am walking down the centre aisle of your typically stale and lifeless modern church. My Grandfather and I are in lockstep making our way to a pew. It is his son who lays in the casket.

The mood was awkward, mild, and the room was full of natural light. It was a Queensland summer, extremely hot and very sticky.

As we made our way to our assigned seats my Grandfather purposely darted and pulled me over to the left side of the church, away from the rest of the family, away from his wife and his only living child. He decisively wanted to sit away from anyone who might see him weak, so he directed us far away as he could. Our whole family were seated on the right side of the church while together, him and I, sat alone on the left.

I expected someone to say something! Someone to help me redirect my Grandfather towards the comfort of his family, but just like the mood of the whole occasion, people just ignored it, it was as if they didn’t care.

What I quickly realised though, was that it was not for a lack of care the mood was so mild, but it was for exactly the opposite. All of the 18 attendees at this funeral where completely swelled up with agony, but to misguided by their pride to allow themselves to weep. And so because everyone was ready to burst, no-one dared be touched.

My grandfather wasn’t the type to hold hands, so when he took my hand and squeezed it firmly it felt entirely unnatural. It’s quite hot, so our hands quickly sweat but I don’t mind the discomfort. I was 21 years old, and my Grandad was showing me for the first time in his life, sensitivity. He was pleading with me that I help him keep it together, but I couldn’t for the life of me understand why he felt like he needed to keep it together. You are at your sons funeral! It’s ok to cry.

My grandfather was born in 1930’s rural Australia. They were bred tough. So tough it seemed I was coming to realise, that as we continually deepened into the procession, it became clearer and clearer to me that my Grandfather intended to bury the sum of all emotions he could possibly endure.

He did not even permit himself to cry at his own son’s funeral. In his welling eyes, I could see misplaced pride wrestling with grief.

He insisted that we talk throughout the service, asking me how the drive there was, whether we found a park, anything that would distract him from addressing the moment.

I had never before seen him so unsettled. “No mate!” I said firmly, “pay attention, dad’s speaking”, my father gave his brothers eulogy.

We sung a hymn. He loved to sing so much, yet he held back tears through a shaky voice and gritted teeth.

This experience shone an insight into Australia and the older generations. As I surveyed the room I was disturbed to realise there was barely a tear was shed the entire service, from anyone, and as I came to realise this, not even from me.

Maybe this is a consequence of the subject of the funeral, but I doubt it. I think what I was witnessing was the wicker end of a tougher generation. Even my father, up there in front of 18 people speaking of the life of his dead brother, even he wouldn’t dare allow himself expose a crack in the armour.

There was a sad, overwhelming sense in the air to simply, ‘just get through it’. Let’s get through the formalities so we can put this behind us. I hated this mood. Why are you all too tough to cry? It’s your family for god’s sake! But then I realised again, I had barely come close to a tear myself. What is happening?

People wouldn’t allow themselves to settle in the moment out of fear or embarrassment onto others their shedded weight of grief.

The service was coming to an end and I couldn’t help but feel as if the funeral felt incomplete. I sensed that the moment had not been properly unwrapped. We hadn’t yet properly acknowledged why we were all there. I expected everyone to avoid their tears. I expected no-one to be able to talk about this on the ride home. I expected my parents to insist that we not bring up the funeral in the future. I was ashamed in myself and everyone in attendance for not having the courage to show that they care.

But then what made the service beautiful. What made the service memorable. What justified the impact that my Uncle had onto others, was what happened to the room as we began filing out the church.

The wrapping seemingly shed.

As the left and right columns filed into the centre aisle to make their way out to the car, my Grandfather met my Grandmother in middle having just separately celebrated the life of their youngest son, she, at the sight of my Grandfather, frail and vulnerable, finally let her guard down. She collapsed into her husband’s arms and allowed herself to cry.

She said through her tears, “It was a lovely service wasn’t it” – in response to which, my grandfather, the man who squeezed my hand for misdirection and wanted above all to be distracted from his own sons funeral, who under no circumstances would let anyone see him cry, finally buckled at the knees, and let loose his carried grief.

Tears streamed down his face as he embraced my grandmother. They held each other for the first time in years, sharing the grief for their lost son.

This moment then cascaded permission for my father to cry, the sight of which, then drew tears from others and then, to my surprise, even me. But for some reason, true to my lineage, I didn’t want anybody to see me cry. So rather than embracing my family I swiftly exited the church, hid around the corner, and sobbed cathartically.

Nothing softens the eyes quite like seeing your parents cry. But a beautiful justice was done for my Uncle. Because in one moment, the moment when my grandparents embraced, the whole audience was given permission to let emotions spillover.

The mood of the church lifted, and people were relieved of their grief having done service to a man who left so powerful an impression on the few he touched.

Let’s Tackle The Ingredients In Reverse

I am an amateur, let’s make this plain and clear. My story above is packed with emotion and interesting revelations about family dynamics, differences between generations, and a highly charged funeral setting. It should make for a really good story – I will let you be the judge. The reason I point this out is because, that with this material, Matthew Dicks would be able to tell a guaranteed tear jerker.

The way I constructed this story was by adding my flesh (content of the story) over Matthews bones (Storyworthy framework).

As the book makes evidently clear, you can do this as well. Everyone has a story to tell, in fact, everyone has many stories to tell. The best stories aren’t boozy nights out or superhuman feats that are completely unrelatable. The best stories are actually the hidden thread of the everyday and mundane. It is remarkable how much experience you have to share.

The 5 Second Moment

Let’s consider the ingredients in reverse…

Mr Dicks wants to make one point above all explicitly clear: A stories memorability is entirely hinged on it’s 5 second moment.

The 5 second moment is the heart and emotional appeal of the story. It is the moment of transformation or realisation. Your story can have explosions, high stakes, sex and rock’n’roll, but those things alone won’t make your story memorable.

Stories are enhanced through these embellishments, and they are certainly worth including, however, stories aren’t hinged on the gravity of their embellishments. They are hinged on the subjects character arc. A transformation or realisation.

But for some reason, true to my lineage, I didn’t want anybody to see me cry. So rather than embracing my family I swiftly exited the church, hid around the corner, and sobbed.

5 Second Moment – Pride & Grief

Your 5 second moment can be anything. Mathew Dicks breaths clarity to this idea when he frames his 5 second moment as the most banal part of one of his extremely embellished stories.

In a story that includes car accidents, death, hospitals, and all around high stakes, the moment that hinges the story is a heartfelt interaction he has with his friends as he’s wheeled through the hospital.

In my story, after me judging everyone in the funeral for not having the courage to show their emotions. I end up running away myself to hide to my emotions, while everyone I was judging before was now embracing one another. It is a character arc of sorts. I come to the realisation that I am in fact no different from my father or even his father. I might think I am high and mighty to judge them for not having the courage to cry at their own family members funeral, but then when I am faced with the same dilemma, I behave in exactly the same way.

Eliminate Anything That Doesn’t Contribute To The Story – Cut The Fat!

This point should be quite plain and obvious to digest.

When telling a story, you must apply the most ruthless economy of words. Other storytelling mediums such as books and movies must also apply economy, however not nearly to the degree as a good story must.

You have somehow managed to get someones attention. I am humbled to think that someone might be reading these words as you read them now. But once attention is gained, you must treat it with the respect it deserves. Cut the fat from the story!

I could have possibly further tugged the heart strings by explaining a bit of the tragic life my Uncle led, or perhaps the tough words in my father’s eulogy, the types of people that were in attendance at the funeral. But none of this is mentioned. If it does not add to the story then cut it out! I am sure that as you were reading the story as I have written it above you might have noticed some fat which has slipped my attention.

The story is not about my Uncle, nor is it about my family. The story is about how people wrestle between pride and grief, and therefore any mention of my Uncle or my family beyond what contributes to the dual themes of pride and grief. It must be cut!

Create Stakes – The 5 Key’s To Building Suspense

There are 5 very clear steps to building suspense. Not all of them need be used, but think about them when framing your story.

I found the application of some these quite difficult because it was hard to see how to insert them into the story. However, for a master storyteller like Matthew Dicks, you can guarantee that these 5 key’s of suspense are seeping into every line of one of his stories.

The Elephant

You’ve all heard people anecdotally talk about ‘The Elephant In The Room’ before.

This is step one in creating suspense. Why am I going to listen to the next few lines? What is that carrot hanging in front of me that I must figure out?

After I thought about this element more I eventually changed my opening line from…

“I am walking down the centre aisle of your typically lifeless and stale modern church. My Grandfather and I are in lockstep making our way to a pew. It is his son who lays in the casket.

Pride & Grief

to

I don’t care how fucked up my Uncle was. I am at his funeral and it’s as if no-one cares.

Pride & Grief

The difference between these two opening lines is enormous from the perspective of building suspense. It is true the first option does its job by setting the scene and creating some suspense (after all we are at a young man’s funeral… what happened?). But when I inserted the second option in as the opening line, the suspenseful sensation increased tenfold, especially when you consider that I then followed it up with the second line.

Both of these lines essentially deliver you the same information. I am at my Uncles funeral, and he was seemingly a young man. The key difference is the emotion which line two delivers that line one is without.

I use the word ‘fuck‘, I suggest that no-one even cares we are at a funeral. It is emotionally charged, and much closer to the mood I was feeling than the first lines more sombre connotations.

The Elephant In The Room becomes clear straight away. it goes from, ‘how tragic this man died so young’ to, ‘what happened between my Uncle and his family’. That question is not ultimately answered, but the suspense was created nonetheless to keep you reading onto the next line.

Backpack

The idea of the backpack is that you carry with you at all times the emotional charge to your story.

To maintain the stories stakes, reinforce the moody undertone of your story with a highly specialised choice of words. The backpack should never be obvious to the reader. You want your audience to be as surprised as you when a twist occurs. You want your reader to be as disappointed as you when something doesn’t go according to plan.

This is only achievable if the backpack is well applied. I found this key to suspense quite difficult to apply in this story, perhaps it is because of the subject, but I doubt it. I am sure that Mr Dicks would be able to pin a backpack on anything. And so should you! Find a backpack that works.

Can you figure out the backpack in my story? I believe it is this paragraph…

The service was coming to an end and I couldn’t help but feel as if the funeral felt incomplete. I sensed that the moment had not been properly unwrapped. We hadn’t yet properly acknowledged why we were all there. I expected everyone to avoid their tears. I expected no-one to be able to talk about this on the ride home. I expected my parents to insist that we not bring up the funeral in the future. I was ashamed in myself and everyone in attendance for not having the courage to show that they care.

Backpack – Pride & Grief

I am setting up what my emotional state was at the time, and also getting the audience to feel as I felt what the predictable and disappointing outcome to the funeral this would be. If the backpack worked properly, then hopefully you were as surprised as I was when the whole church eventually shed their grief and broke down in tears.

The expectations created the suspense, and then having the expectations defied hopefully resolved the suspenseful feeling without being underwhelming.

Breadcrumbs

Think of breadcrumbs more along the lines of foreshadowing opposed to that trail of biscuits which lead your audience down the path you wish to take them.

I keep emphasising one point. Why is no-one crying?

For the purposes of suspense, you need to be foreshadowing a focused point that your audience subconsciously wants answers. Again – this is for the purposes of suspense. Your reader has a million things they can do, yet they have given you time and attention. You have to earn it, keep them engaged. Some nifty foreshadowing can certainly do the trick, and will also reinforce the theme of your story once complete.

One of the most memorable lines from ‘The Dark Knight’ is when Harvey Dent pronounces, “You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become a villain”. If Harvey Dent had just faded into obscurity as many characters could have, this line would have meant nothing. But because the foreshadowing was addressed, it becomes memorable.

I keep reinforcing the idea of people crying, and people holding back their tears. And hopefully, when the story comes to its conclusion, this consistent dropping of breadcrumbs had the accumulative, suspenseful, effect.

Hourglass

This is a really nifty trick from Mr Dicks.

The ultimate trick for low hanging suspense. This is such a good one because it is very easy to overlook, but once you understand it, becomes very easy and ubiquitous to implement.

The Hourglass is simply about drawing out the punchline. You write in your hourglass just before you are about the release all the tension that your suspense has been accumulating. You have gotten your reader to go down with you to the final, most important step of the journey, but you are a selfish bastard, so rather than giving them what they want, you make them wait and wait for what seems like years. You don’t do this by adding words, you do this through repetition and reinforcement of what you have already been through.

In my story I believe this is the hourglass…

But then what made the service beautiful. What made the service memorable. And what justified the impact my Uncle had onto others, was what happened to the room as we began filing out the church.

Hourglass – Pride & Grief

I could have easily ended this paragraph after the first sentence, but instead, I write in redundancy in the second and then add emotional fluff in the third. This is the hourglass, you know you have come to the high point of the story. The crux of the meaning and the release of the suspense. But rather than just letting you have it immediately, you add one final layer of suspense with a nice little, drawn out, hourglass.

Crystal Ball

I think of the Crystal Ball along similar lines of both the Hourglass and the Breadcrumbs. The crystal ball frames what your expected outcome is going to be. A good story will almost always prove your expectations were wrong. Therefore taking your readers along with you for the ride, but that is the essence of the crystal ball. As a tool of suspense, it creates stakes between you and the audience over what your expectations were for this situation.

In my story this is the crystal ball…

I expected everyone to avoid their tears. I expected no-one to be able to talk about this on the ride home. I expected my parents to insist that we not bring up the funeral in the future. I was ashamed in myself and everyone in attendance for not having the courage to show that they care.

Crystal Ball – Pride & Grief

I am predicting for the audience what I think the outcome of this event is going to be. If this was done correctly, then it would mean my audience also expected this outcome and now have a further reason to read through to the end.

Now, my story ends with everyone crying (spoilers) so clearly, my Crystal Ball functions as a tool for a surprise as well.

Set The Scene

This is your one chance to show off some flair with fatty, descriptive language.

Setting the scene also sets the mood. You must create suspense, but you must also be hyper vigilant to illuminate extremely clearly what you want your audience to focus on while at the same time putting everything else out of perspective. No mean feat.

This runs along the lines of trimming the fat, and I would argue is probably the hardest part of the storytelling journey. This is because you could have the greatest story ever told but no one got there because you set such a vague and uninteresting opening scene.

In my story, I am purposely provocative in setting the scene. I want the audience to realise there are some stakes to this story and you might be triggered emotionally at some stage throughout.

I don’t care how fucked up my Uncle was. I am at his funeral and it’s as if no-one cares. I am walking down the centre aisle of your typically lifeless and stale modern church. My Grandfather and I are in lockstep making our way to a pew. It is his son who lays in the casket. The mood was awkward, mild and the room full of natural light. It was a Queensland summer, extremely hot and very sticky.”

Setting The Scene – Pride & Grief

In 4 sentences I set the mood, explain the scene and hopefully transport you into that hot, well lit, uninspired room. I am purposely disdainful towards the church. I am extremely brief in explaining the environment, but also paid a lot of attention to the economy of words I used. Awkward was a word I deliberated over for a long time.

Setting the scene is a wonderful interplay of how well you can manage dichotomy. Can you be both descriptive and economical? What about also being suspenseful while informative?

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Cheers for reading through to the end you legend!

Every month (or couple of weeks) I write a short, popular email which highlights the biggest insights I’ve distilled through all the noise of the previous month. This includes extremely cool ideas, exceptional companies, massive stories that weren’t given attention, the music and podcasts that defined that month plus of course the best-written content I came across.

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