Getting Your Point Across

The best stories follow a structure.  It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about stories in the newspaper,  bedtime stories, or an anecdote told by a friend- most of them have a backbone of some sort.  It can be a basic story arc- beginning, middle end.  It can be the pace at which stories build (hat tip to Ira Glass)-  action, action, action, pause and thought/commentary and repeat.  It can be a loosely associated group of stories that are all brought together at the end into a “And the morale of the story is…”

Most movies and the majority of stories follow a sorty arc, or the 5 part story structure. This is the classic drama or Shakespearean format of Setting, rising action, climax,  falling action, and denouement.  Lots of people dismiss this as too rote and formulaic, but it does work and meet the general expectation of most people- after all, this is the basic structure of stories we’ve been told all our lives.

Fewer films and stories take a different view- they may weave together characters from disparate circumstances as a novel or movie progresses.  Lives may intersect and later vear off after the pivitoal interaction.  Some are constructed through a series of flashbacks, intermingled with the present.  Some are told backwards.  Regardless of your viewpoint on story structure, traditional or experimental, the most important thing to remember is that the whole point of telling a story is to communicate information of one sort or another, even if the only purpose is to entertain.

If you’re trying to communicate information to someone else, you probably should try to do it in a way they understand.  I could sit in on a class about coding, for example, or about mandarin Chinese, but if I don’t have a framework or any background knowledge ahead of time, it’s going to be hard for me to communicate in the class and understand what is going on.

If you are presenting information to a group, I would argue that you need to make your presentation relevant for them.  You need to include them in your presentation, speak to their needs, and make sure they get something out of what you have to say.  Your thoughts and ideas may be fascinating, but unless you structure it so you give your ideas handles- unless your stories and ideas are relevant to your audience, you are not going to be as successful for getting your ideas across.

I had to do a presentation today that had many parts.  There are many ideas involved, and the project is likely one that’s going to be long and complicated.  It required taking a broad view, laying a common framework, and then filling in the details.  I tried to use IDEO’s model for design- first understand the situation or problem, then make real life observations, moving towards brainstorming possibilities and then prototyping the best ideas into things to try.  I think it worked, somewhat- I think I could have simplified it a great deal, however.  We made some decisions about the path moving forward, and I am excited about that- so to that end, it worked.

With every presentation I give, I try to critique my work and figure out how I can do a better job the next time.  How can I make the story as short as possible?  How can I add anecdotes, case studies and other pieces in such a way that it makes the ideas contained within come to life?  How do I drive home the morale of the story, and make it all meaningful to the people in the room?

That’s ultimately my goal as a speaker, as a writer, as a storyteller.  Some of it is for me.  Most of it is for the audience, and as much as I love skipping from subject to subject, they may not understand my drift, my thread,or  my multitrack mind the same way I do.  That’s when I have to step back and realize my job is to tell them what they need to know, but that I need to do it in a way that works for them, not what entertains or works for me.  It’s much better to connect the dots for  people- to make yourself clearly understood, rather than rely on implication and people drawing their own conclusions.  They’ll do that anyway, but at least you’ll have implanted what you hope they got out of the piece and what your goal was, even if it means something much different to them.

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