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A Simple Structure for Great Stories

By February 12, 2020Articles

What’s the most memorable speech you have ever heard? How did the speaker grab your attention, pull you in and ensure that you remembered the speech? Compelling public speakers can connect with audiences using a variety of different tactics. One of those is by telling not only a story – but their own personal story.

A story is the human brain’s preferred method of sharing and receiving information. To connect with your audience, establish your own authenticity and subject matter expertise, and help increase the chance they’ll remember your message – tell them a story. When you shape a presentation around a clear, personal narrative, you work with your listeners’ brains, instead of against them.

If you haven’t done it before, sharing your story can be daunting – but it doesn’t have to be. Great stories are about the triumph of the human spirit – overcoming obstacles and remembering to appreciate the small, beautiful things life throws at us.

Your own personal life experiences have given you a library of stories that can be used to tell your audience more about you and illustrate key points about your presentation topics. Most importantly, sharing a personal story can help elevate your presentation from the mundane to the universal.

Where do I even begin? 

Consider the key turning points in your life. These are the main events that altered the trajectory of your life story. Turning points can be choices, realizations, or actions that change you forever. One of the turning points in my life was the first time I auditioned for a play in high school – Nun #9 in The Sound of Music. I had never acted before and didn’t expect much from the experience, but it opened my life to opportunities that I couldn’t have anticipated.

Next, ask yourself — How did it change me? What did I learn about myself? For me, auditioning for the play was the first time I truly experienced the joy and power that comes with finding something you’re really good at.

Where’s the story?

Often when I ask people to tell me a story, they describe aspects of an event like I did in the paragraph above. But a description is not a story. A story strings together several events into a narrative that has a beginning, middle, and end. You can construct a great story using this simple narrative model that I call OORN, which stands for:

OLD STATE – What was happening before the turning point?

OBSTACLE – What did you overcome?

RESOLUTION – How did you overcome it?

NEW STATE – How did your life change?

A story about my first high school play might go like this:

(OLD STATE) In my sophomore year of high school, I was looking for some extracurricular activities to round out my schedule. One of my choir buddies told me she was auditioning for the school musical. I’d always been curious about acting. I’d watched tons of movies. How hard could it be? I signed my name on the audition sheet, checked out a book of monologues from the local library, and memorized the lines.

(OBSTACLE) On the afternoon of the audition, I walked into our big 1,300-seat proscenium theater, which was filled with kids who were also there to claim their spot in the play. I saw one great performance after another, and I got more and more nervous. Finally, my name was called, and I was filled with such panic that I had an out-of-body experience. One moment I was in my seat and the next I was standing on the stage. I heard someone talking and I realized it was me. Thankfully the words I’d rehearsed continued on their own volition, because my brain had completely short circuited.

(RESOLUTION) At some point in my monologue, the reality of the situation struck me: here I was on a stage all by myself, lit up with lights, and every eye in that theater was on me. For as long as I was up there, I was in control and I could affect people just as all the actors in my favorite movies had affected me. My terror turned into exhilaration, and I started to loosen up, play with the lines, and have fun.

(NEW STATE) When I finished, the audience clapped and hooted, and a rush of pride pulsed through me like I’d never felt before. It was the first time that I had experienced the joy and power that comes with finding something you’re really good at and in that moment my identity became clear – I was an actor. And I felt that rush on many stages and movies sets as I pursued acting as a profession.

The OORN structure takes the audience on an emotional journey that transforms a personal story about stage fright into a universal story of self-discovery – something everyone can relate to.

How does this help my presentation? 

In the context of a presentation, your personal story can’t stand in isolation. You must use it to teach a lesson or strengthen a key message. To connect your story to your topic, tie it to an overarching theme that your audience understands (i.e. leadership, courage, loyalty) or to a personal life lesson they can connect with (what did you learn, how did you change?) Here’s where you can get creative. I could use my high school audition story to encourage a leadership team to create a culture of pride around their core competency. Or, if I was talking to a group of young professionals, I might use it to illustrate the importance of leveraging personal strengths as they build their career. I would just tack on a connecting phrase to the end of my story, like: “I share this story to illustrate the importance of knowing what you’re good at and leveraging your personal strengths as you build your career.”

To make your presentation more impactful, use the story to introduce yourself, your topic, or your key message in the beginning, or to wrap up your presentation memorably at the end. Or, weave short personal stories throughout to hammer in your key messages and engage your audience.

Some speakers are reluctant to share personal stories in a presentation because they feel it’s inappropriate to share personal details in a work setting or because they’ve been on the receiving end of one that just didn’t work. My recommendation is to take the chance. Sharing your own story might be intimidating, but the results are worth the leap of faith. By establishing your authenticity and credibility, connecting with your audience on a personal level and asking them to reflect on their own turning points, you can make your presentation memorable long after you’re done.

To improve your own storytelling keep these tips in mind:

  1. Follow the OORN (old state, obstacle, resolution, new state) storytelling structure.
  2. Be short and sweet – get to the obstacle as quickly as possible because that’s where the conflict is.
  3. Establish a clear takeaway from the story and connect it to your main presentation message – don’t make the audience guess.


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