Lessons From the Masters: 5 Rules of Storytelling

Storytelling doesn’t come naturally to everyone, but there’s good news: Storytelling can be learned. While we may not all achieve Shakespeare-level fame, we can learn the skills and tactics that make storied storytellers so great.

Before we jump into tips for telling a compelling story, it’s important to first understand the basic rules of storytelling, and how you can follow the fundamentals laid out by the likes of Hemingway, Shakespeare and more.

Understand the Rules of Storytelling

Some of the rules are basic: Avoid run on sentences. Don’t babble on. Stop stringing together sentences connected by one ‘and then’ after another. Remember, “Blah, blah, blah” translates to blah, blah and blah!

The rules of strong storytelling apply equally to business professionals, educators, executives and entrepreneurs. A terrific set of rules to get you started are Pixar’s 22 Rules to Phenomenal Storytelling.

Applying these rules can help you create lasting visual mental images that grab an audience’s attention. From building a deck to making a report rock or writing engaging emails, crafting powerful stories makes your ideas more memorable — and sellable.

Learn From the Masters

Okay, so you’re not Shakespeare, Hemingway or Vonnegut. Other than Shakespeare, Hemingway and Vonnegut, few are. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t learn from them.

Let’s take Kurt Vonnegut — one of the 20th century’s most gifted American writers. His satirical novel, Slaughterhouse Five, is recognized as his most popular and influential work. What served as his inspiration? His experiences at the Battle of the Bulge and the firebombing of Dresden as an infantryman during World War II. So try speaking — and writing — from experience.

Vonnegut often spoke about his ideas on writing. Some of his insights are included in his 1985 essay, How to Write with Style. These terrific tips apply to novelists as well as business professionals. They work for writers as well as public speakers. They’re summarized in this SlideShare presentation, Storytelling Tips from Kurt Vonnegut.

Your stories will have happier endings if you keep seeking better ways to tell them. Focus on subjects you care about, be authentic and know when to edit yourself. Most importantly, keep learning because your audience can definitely tell the difference between the amateurs and the prose.

Top Five Rules of Storytelling

1. Be relevant. Keep in mind what’s interesting to an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer.

2. Provide structure to your story. Once upon a time…

3. Find your passion. Why must you tell this story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of?

4. Know when to edit. Have the guts to cut. If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.

5. Be yourself. I find that I trust my own writing most, and others seem to trust it most, when I sound like what I am.

READ MORE: Make Your Presentations Poetic

About the Author

Gavin McMahon is a PowerPoint obsessive. He’s a founding partner at fassforward Consulting Group, and blogs about PowerPoint, Communication, Infographics and Message Discipline atmakeapowerfulpoint.com. You can tweet to him @powerfulpoint or find him Google+.

Photo: Inxti/Shutterstock

  • http://www.youtube.com/user/VelasquezCumplido Luis Velasquez Cumplido

    Great tips, very assertive and useful…

  • Carl Hartman

    Funny that your post is poorly structured and does not adhere to any of the rules set down by Aristotle in Poetics. You don’t even mention the top storytellers because you likely do not know who they are, but only those you attempt to parrot in pop culture. Its all so obvious, you are clueless about the real rules and structure of storytelling. Your top 5 rules are absolutely useless. Which once again proves what I say in our Content Marketing School that actually provides useful information on how to structure stories and why. Useless and clueless.

  • Kim Ulf Rehfeld Thoden

    Not exactly the best marketing for your “content marketing school” the way you so rudely dismiss this post, not someone I would take advice from….but again maybe you think that makes a good story :-) I liked it!!

  • qning

    “…what I say in our Content Marketing School…”

    Do tell!

  • Randy García

    I read all of your other posts and they are equally grumpy. You should go for a run!

  • Carl Hartman

    Hmmm. You need to learn about debate. Grumpy, but correct. The facts are the facts. I should be posting something if people can’t come up with good information.

    (BTW, I write for a number of magazines on the subject of content marketing and the editors tell me my articles are the few they get that are not crap. Most editors are so starved for decent content that they post the best of the garbage.)

    The facts from someone that has supervised two Emmy award winning teams. Me.

    Here it is. My slideshare on storytelling.

    http://www.slideshare.net/CarlHartman/20-story-essentialsummary

  • Carl Hartman

    One would assume that you would rather have someone stroke your ego than flat out tell you the truth.

    One of the things you learn if you go to a respected university to become an artist. “I liked it” is not a valid reason or description.

    Get armed with the facts. If you are a professional storyteller, give me the facts and description where he was right. Come up with a valid argument.

  • Carl Hartman

    Grump or invalid? You should go for a fact check. If you have the time to check on me, perhaps you should spend equal time checking the facts of this article.

  • RJF

    I watched your slideshow. Perhaps…just perhaps…you’re overdoing it a bit with a view to the ‘conflict’ element in your reactions here. Now show us how the master would lead this discussion to conclusion please. Happy to learn from you.

  • Lord Richards

    Aren’t there different forms for different contexts of storytelling? For example, in journalism, you start with the essence of the story (don’t bury the lede) rather than the beginning, middle and end format of the classic story. This little post is a light piece of web journalism, using a format you see replicated dozens of times in business newsletters and the like.
    That said, I like your slide deck. We psychologists have always known that everything is about sex and violence and it’s nice to see everyone else catching up. :)
    PS William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade should be read by everyone who is interested in storytelling.

  • Carl Hartman

    It is a fundamental law of storytelling. You can find any number of other experts that agree. Conflict is a requirement. NO QUESTIONS ASKED.

    You don’t need to argue with me, argue with Aristotle and Homer. Heck, argue with my good friend Lew Hunter that teaches the UCLA Masters level screenwriting program. More Oscars out of his program than any other. He says the same thing in his book on screenwriting. MBA (business!!!) students attend his screenwriting classes to learn how to create well structured stories.

    All good communication requires conflict – Question and Answer is the conflict used in educational constructs. – Contrast is conflict. Black and white is conflict.

    Experts in neural pattern development will tell you that conflict increases the emotional level to the point that things that happen during the conflict cement thoughts in the brain that happen during the conflict. (Conflict includes any action where contrast is involved. Conflict includes comedy. Love is conflict.)

    All stories require conflict. It is universally accepted as the essences of comedy, drama and tragedy – encompassing all stories, including education, marketing, drama…

    During the greatest conflicts in your life, you acquired your most steadfast memories.

    Want people to remember your product, use conflict! (Remember the puppy during the Budweiser commercial during the Super Bowl? Conflict/Contrast.)

  • Carl Hartman

    I must have done something right. Slideshare featured me on their homepage today.

  • Shipped Carbon Neutral

    To thank you for sharing the details most insightful. To add in my father once said it doesn’t matter once you close the door – your house – it can be anywhere – the takeaway was a regard as to thoughts with perhaps small change can make a big difference. With all the best kind regards

  • justin harris

    Vanity well fed is benevolent, vanity hungered is spiteful.
    – Mason Cooley

  • John_PopeXIII

    Does Lew Hunter, or any of the other “experts” on “neural patten development” you cited, also have a hypothesis about rambling, holier-than-thou idiots?

    If so, you should study that theory, too. And, make sure you study HARD.

    Best of luck.

    BTW: Even remotely suggesting that instigating “conflict” will make you more “memorable”, or in any way improve the quality of one’s life, is akin to saying: “you should light yourself on fire because it’s cold outside” – ipso facto, it’s a strategy for both idiots and sociopaths.

  • RJF

    Mmm…I wasn’t arguing against using conflict in a story. I just said you might be overdoing the conflict part a bit in your reactions. This reaction from you underlines that once more. I’m really not looking for a fight…I was simply hoping you could take it a bit further than just attacking everybody here and unfortunately it didn’t happen. May I conclude the story with this comment then, thanks.

  • justin harris

    You know, you’re probably a smart guy and If your goal with all of this was to generate traffic to your Slideshare presentation then congratulations it worked. I went and looked.

    If your goal was to turn that traffic into paying customers or long-term relationships. I would never hire or work on a project with you in a million years.

    The guy who wrote the article though. I would love to work with him. He seems smart AND nice.

  • acdcacdc

    > “I liked it” is not a valid response.

    By the same token, “You don’t even mention the top storytellers because you likely do not know who they are”: What is your basis for this unsupported opinion? There are many things he did not mention but that does not mean he does not know them.

    “Useless and clueless” : yep, very scientific and professional. Where are your facts to support this? Perhaps it is (useless and clueless) to you but then, again, the universal set consists of much more than one person. As you advise, can you give us a valid argument for your claim of “useless and clueless”? Then I will invalidate your argument by merely stating that several of us here found it useful.

    Oh, by the way, “I liked it” could also be another way of saying “I found it useful” but I guess it’s asking too much of a myopic eye to see that.

  • acdcacdc

    “You can find any number of other experts that agree.”

    To use your thinking: You don’t even mention the top experts because you likely do not know who they are. Its (sic – should be it’s) all so obvious, you are clueless about the real rules and structure of storytelling.

    Perhaps you should learn some basic rules of English (like when to use its or it’s) before advising about storytelling?

  • Carl Hartman

    Read Aristotle’s Poetics. All good writing/communication adheres to the three act structure.

    My wife is a psychologist. We have discussed this at length. Communication that bonds with the mind, requires emotions that are high. Educational constructs adhere to the same format, however use different nomenclature. So does journalism, if done well. Music has a much similar construct, particularly Pop and Country.

    Were you to diagram the structure of all effective communication, you see they are all very similar.

    Part 1 – Is always an introduction or set up.

    Part 2 – Has questions/answers, complications, etc.

    Part 3 – A resolving.

    Oversimplified, for the purpose of this.

    If you are into Freud, it is much like the emotions of relationships and sex. Foreplay, a number of highs and lows that reach a climax. Generally, we see similar brain wave patterns during something like a feature film that occur during sex. Other communication forms that “stick” do the same thing. Its why people listening to music during a very emotional time bond those two together. Hence, the woman remembering the song when she met that one true love. Or, me remembering the songs my mom had played at my dad’s funeral. The same thing works in education, when a teacher uses highly emotional stories to communicate an idea and then uses a “pattern interrupt” during the highest emotion and then return to the story.

    Fact is, each time you tell a joke, this structure is followed, as well. There is always the set up, the complication and the punch line/resolution. If you see patients, you probably use this too, but don’t consciously make the connection.

  • Carl Hartman

    Nice guys finish last. Ask Steve Jobs. Being dead not withstanding. Nice doesn’t equal brilliant.

  • Carl Hartman

    Hmpft. Well. Huge hits on our web site. That one slideshare is rocketing off the charts and… …now, trending on Twitter.

    Making sycophantic comments over bullshit is disingenuous and rude and the most hateful of all. It makes liars out of people and makes them feel right when they are wrong. It’s like giving all the kids in the class an award for existing.

    I don’t kiss the ass of my clients. If you want steak, you come to us. If you want McDonalds go to the others that stroke your ego. Its my job to do the right thing, not be a lapdog.

    BTW, storytelling has nothing to do with grammar. Again, people that focus on the wrong thing, the unimportant thing.

  • Carl Hartman

    I know. You wouldn’t know if I mentioned them. Do you need a slideshare of the topic of writing and communication? I can do it from memory.

    Like is a matter of opinion. I can back my statements with libraries of facts and statistics.

    Useful. Great. Not sure for what? I’d be curious what you are going to use it to do?

  • justin harris

    Yes, and I have heard of Steve Jobs before.

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