The 2 essential building blocks for organizing your story

Feb 13, 2019

I often find that there are two camps when it comes to telling your story.

Camp one: The people that say, “I don’t really have a story.”

Camp two: The people who say, “I don’t know what part of my story to tell because it’s all important and it’s so long and detailed.”

What I’ve come to realize is that people in both camps just need help organizing. One of my go-to guys when it comes to learning about good storytelling is Ira Glass, the host and executive producer of This American Life. He has studied the art of storytelling and has boiled it down into two main building blocks. 

Now before we go any further, I know that some of you out there may be saying, “But this isn’t a story. It’s my life. It’s what I am experiencing.” And I hear you loud and clear – I promise. But, if you want to share your experience with others and have people pay attention and have them feel compelled to take action (whatever action you are asking them to take), then you need to engage them in real, meaningful ways so you and your story will be remembered long after they’ve heard you speak.

The 2 building blocks of any story, according to Ira, are ‘anecdote’ and ‘moment of reflection.’ What does this actually mean?

The definition of anecdote is “a short amusing or interesting story about a real incident or person.” It’s basically story in its purest form. As Ira says, it’s the chronological sequence of events. As you tell the events, you create momentum in the story – basically taking people on a ride with a destination in mind.

Now, you might be thinking that telling your story in chronological form is exactly what you do. So you’re all set! But there’s more to it than just saying, “I had this pain. And I went to the doctor. And they did some tests. And then I was diagnosed. And then I drove back to the doctor. And then…and then…and then.”

Along with the events, you need to pull your audience through the story by raising questions and suspense, making them genuinely interested in finding out what happened. An example from a story I heard recently: “The doctor called me and asked me to come back to her office that afternoon. What could she possibly need to tell me that she couldn’t just say over the phone? I knew it couldn’t be anything too terrible as I felt absolutely fine.” The unanswered question creates tension, leaving the audience in suspense with the storyteller. We all want to find out what happened when she went to the doctor.

The second is the ‘moment of reflection.’ It’s the moments in the story when you get to the point of why you are telling this story in the first place, why your audience is taking the time to listen to this story, why your story is relevant to them.

 And if you put these two parts together, the story feels complete.

These are the bare bones of telling a story – it’s the way to start. You have to have the facts of the story and you have to have a reason for telling the story.  

  • You could have very simple, mundane facts, but a great reason to share the story.
  • You could have a really interesting story with lots of drama, but no point to your story.

 Neither of these scenarios will work.

BUT, if you can interweave suspense and unpredictability into your facts (even if the facts are pretty simple), with the concept of something bigger that you’re driving at by telling the story, then you can make something that is larger than the sum of its parts.

 You will organize a story that people will want to follow, share, and act upon.

Now, I’m not saying it’s simple to tell a good story. But these two building blocks should at least help give you a place to start.

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