10 Commandments of Storytelling

Written by

Jill Martin

Recently, Michael Moon and I attended the Robert McKee Story Seminar in L.A. The seminar is geared towards writers in the motion picture and television industry, but also draws novelists, journalists, and this time two content developers from Duarte who happen to believe passionately in the power of a good story.

Many aspects of storytelling and structure were covered in the 3-day, 12+-hours-a-day class, and we may visit some of them in a future post. Today, though, I wanted to share McKee’s “10 Commandments of Storytelling,” and how we think they apply to creating great presentations.

1. THOU SHALT NOT TAKE THE CRISIS OR CLIMAX OUT OF THE PROTAGONIST’S HANDS (OR, NO DEUS EX MACHINA ENDINGS)

You may not have known your presentations have protagonists, but they do (or should). And whether the protagonist is you, your product, your cause or even your audience, IT must be primarily responsible for the major benefit or crisis you are trying to convey. If you’re selling a product or service, let it demonstrate exactly what it does. If you’re asking for funds, the audience may be the protagonist. Make it clear that they are the key to making it all happen.

2. THOU SHALT NOT MAKE LIFE EASY FOR THE PROTAGONIST (OR, NOTHING PROGRESSES EXCEPT THROUGH CONFLICT)

This is an example of how story does not mimic life. In life, for the most part, we eschew conflict. But in story, conflict is what makes it interesting and propels events forward. In presentations, conflict and tension can be created visually, verbally, with onscreen text, or using all of these. Set up “what if” scenarios that are “saved” by your product. Show a scene of chaos contrasted with one of calm and order. Create a crisis and let your protagonist save the world. Do this throughout the presentation to keep the audience riveted.

3. THOU SHALT NOT USE FALSE MYSTERY OR SURPRISE

This doesn’t mean you have to reveal everything on the first slide—real mystery and surprise are good. But you don’t want to hold back anything that’s integral to understanding your point. Be deliberate and considerate in what you share, and when. You don’t want to say something 30 minutes into your talk and have your audience collectively groan “why couldn’t she have explained that 20 slides ago?!”

4. THOU SHALT RESPECT THINE AUDIENCE

You don’t have to explain everything from the point of inception. Cut out the extraneous, keep the germane. Estimate the average knowledge level of the audience on your subject and aim your comments just a step above that. Be clear. And leave them wanting more (or, as my grandmother would have said, “save something for next time”).

5. THOU SHALT HAVE A GOD-LIKE KNOWLEDGE OF YOUR UNIVERSE

Know your subject really, really well before you get up in front of an audience. You don’t have to be the world’s leading authority, but you absolutely must have knowledge beyond just what you’re presenting—enough to answer questions intelligently. Because if you’ve done your job and your presentation has left the audience wanting more, they’re going to ask for it.

6. THOU SHALT USE COMPLEXITY RATHER THAN COMPLICATION

Two very similar words with really different meanings. Complicated stories are hard to follow, are full of extraneous information, often have loose ends or apparent dead ends, and leave people feeling confused. Complex stories, on the other hand, weave together meaningful story threads of benefits, concerns, actions and vision to form a rich tapestry and leave the audience with a deep understanding of the topic at hand.

For comparison, India is complex. Afghanistan is complicated.

7. THOU SHALT TAKE YOUR CHARACTERS TO THE END OF THE LINE

In a movie or book, the story isn’t over until the protagonist has faced the gravest challenge possible (within the bounds of the story), and a final, irrevocable conclusion is reached. In presentations, this rule means you can’t leave your audience hanging or even worse, feeling their time has been wasted. Build your story gradually, adding layers of complexity, using conflict and creating tension, until the final “scene” or slide sequence when it all comes together with finality.

8. THOU SHALT NOT WRITE ON-THE-NOSE DIALOGUE

On-the-nose dialogue is when characters say exactly what they’re thinking. It may work (sometimes) in real life, but on screen it’s B-O-R-I-N-G. In presentations this commandment is best followed by not reading your slides. Use slides for visuals or bold statements and fill in the details verbally.

9. THOU SHALT DRAMATIZE THINE EXPOSITION

Exposition is words: explanation, details, background information. Drop what you can (remember commandments 4 and 6), and when you do have to get into the nitty-gritty don’t just tell it, show it somehow. If you’ve ever read this blog before, you know this one already.

10. THOU SHALT REWRITE

Now I personally am famous for putting things (like this posting…) off until the last minute, thus cutting short the editing process. But I’m also the first to acknowledge how much better my—and anyone’s—work is when properly edited. So create your presentation, go do something else for a while and then come back and go through it with a critical eye. If possible, let at least a day go by between creating and editing. Then re-read, clarify where necessary, and cut, cut, cut!