Lessons From the Masters: 5 Rules of Storytelling

April 30, 2014

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