Speak With Passion: Your Storytelling Structure

Storytelling Structure

Photo by Alan Levine

When you consider how to tell your story, you’d do well to follow some of the more popular storytelling formats. Using these age-old formats helps to shape expectations and therefore easily have people know how to receive your speech.

The sales speech is basically a long advertisement for a product or service. It’s goal is to have the listener take a specific action. Sales speeches generally showcase the risks of not buying and the rewards for buying your offering. These may combine elements of biographical speeches, but instead of simply connecting with the listener’s emotion, you want to connect with the listener’s wallet.

A lecture demonstrates how to solve a problem. A college lecture, for example, will start with a question, and offer best practices for solving the question. A cooking demonstration shows how to make something delicious. The format of the lecture is a “cookbook” for solving the problem so that you can go home and reliably reproduce their results.

The inspirational speech is best exemplified by Martin Luther King’, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech. Inspirational speeches are ideal for when you want your audience to share your vision. The format is a series of short contrasts: this is what life is like today, but this is what life can be like. The contrasts showcase the divide, and your speech can focus on the steps the listener can take to obtain your vision. These speeches need to be kept relatively short, otherwise they become sermons that people will tire of (too many contrasts become repetitive and few speakers can enthrall their audience for a long time).

The biographical speech shares your personal history with the audience, using specific anecdotes to highlight key points you wish to make. Biographical speeches are great for showcasing how a series of events contributed to the learning you’re imparting, and the stories help the audience remember your “teachable moments”. These speeches can be much longer, but can suffer from the “Yeah, that was your experience – and it doesn’t relate to me at all” feeling. It’s important to somehow take your specific story and generalize it for others to learn from.

The fairy tale is the most ingrained form of storytelling, since these are the stories we heard when we were young. Fairy tales have both a specific format (every day…until…and because of that…and because of that…and ever since then…) and an underlying moral. A fairy tale is a powerful storytelling structure since it allows you to combine fantasy and reality in a simple package with a powerful punch. Crafting a fairy tale is hard – since you really need to distill the characters, their actions, and reactions to their essence to make it truly fairy tale-like. Otherwise, you story becomes a biographical speech, which doesn’t pack the childhood innocence-like feeling you’re trying to evoke.

While it might be tempting to mix-and-match the structures (a fairy tale that’s also a sales speech), be very careful doing so. Your audience won’t know what you’re trying to convey, and are likely to internally have resistance to enjoying your story. Instead, if you want two structures, put them back-to-back, creating a separate “chapter” of your speech.

By matching your speech goals with the right storytelling structure, you make it easier for your audience to “get” your message.

For some great examples of some of the speech structures, I suggest watching Nancy Duarte’s TEDxEast talk:

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