The art of story design


Melinda Seckington

In this session from DevRelCon London 2019, Melinda Seckington completes her three-part series on how to create great developer communications. Here she explores the mechanics of storytelling and looks at several storytelling structures to help you craft more impactful talks, blog posts, and conversations.

See the previous installments here:


Melinda: Once upon a time, there was a little girl called Melinda. Melinda was a very shy girl, and if there was one thing she absolutely hated, it was telling stories to other people. Now, Melinda’s school, though, had this activity every Monday morning where all the kids would sit in a circle and one by one, they’d have to share something about their weekend. Melinda always dreaded these Monday mornings. She’d always get incredibly nervous and stumble over her words and make a complete mess of describing how her weekend went.

Years went by, and although Melinda still hated telling stories, she adored hearing and watching and experiencing stories. She loved reading books and watching movies and playing games. No matter the format, if there was a story within it, Melinda would bask in the storytelling and savor the tales that were set before her. Then one day, she had to tell a story again herself. She was terrified and nervous and scared, but she didn’t have to worry. She soon realized that all her reading, all her watching, all her playing, it had made her absorb the art of storytelling. She knew how to tell a story now. She had seen so many examples of good storytelling that she knew what she had to do, and she was able to spin her tale and delight a room full of avid listeners. No matter where you look, stories are all around us. It’s easy to think about the movies we watch, the books we read, the games we play, but stories go beyond those obvious things. Stories are what we use to tell our friends and family how our day has been. Stories are used to reminisce about favorite holidays, favorite events. Stories are used to explain what we did during the weekend.

Now, not every conversation or piece of text is going to be a story, but a lot of our daily communication has some storytelling aspect to it. Stories are the way humans convey concepts and ideas, memories, events, and emotions to one another, so learning how to do so in a way that is memorable, relatable, and impactful is really, really, really valuable.

I’ve spoken here at DevRelCon for the last two years, and this is the third in the series of creating better presentations. The first year, I spoke about how do you create effective slides, so how do you use your slides to support your story? Then last year, I looked at how do you create effective talks, so figuring out what story to tell in the first place. And this year, the focus is, well, how do you then actually go about telling that story? Once you know what you want to talk about, how do you design the story in such a way that it has the best impact it could have? How do you structure your talks so that the audience gets the most out of it?

So before I go into more details, I do wanna make clear that I’m not gonna be talking about the one true way of telling stories, ’cause there is no such thing. This is more about highlighting some of the techniques that I use and then hoping that people who struggle with this will have a better understanding of applying this stuff themselves. So often when we talk about story structure, we start with beginning, middle, and end ’cause it’s the obvious way to talk about stories. But in a way, it’s too simple. There’s nothing about beginning, middle, end that gives you any real information on what impact a story will have.

A more useful way of looking at your story structure is this model from Nancy Duarte’s book, Resonate. Your audience at the start of the talk will be in that what-is phase. By the end of the talk, you want them to be in a what-could-be phase. At the start of the talk, the audience might be uninformed and you want them to be informed. They might be pessimistic and you want them to be optimistic. They might be scared and you want to move them to confident. It’s all about understanding what goal and what impact your talk should have. Well, it still doesn’t tell us anything about the structure itself. You really need to understand what that goal is before knowing what story to tell. In this case, you do need to understand your destination before planning out the route that you’re trying to take there.

So once you know where you want your audience to be, how do you get there? The most common model for structuring stories is the three-act structure, so this echoes the beginning, middle, and end format, but it’s more a useful way of framing the story. You have setup, where you establish the main characters, what their backgrounds are, where you set the scene. Rising action, where the main characters deal with conflicts and obstacles that are stopping them from what they want. And then finally, there’s resolution, so where you find out how the main characters end up and what happened to them.

While this structure’s really, really good, for some reason, for me, I just never could really remember this format, and it also felt very, very story-based. Like, how do you apply this to talks? So for me, the most useful way of framing stories I first heard in this book from Paul Smith called Lead With a Story which is all about how we can use storytelling from a leadership point of view. In there, he explains how to look at stories through the lens of context, action, and result. The way Smith describes it in the book, it’s pretty much the same as setup, rising action, and resolution, so context is, again, about introducing the main character, setting the scene, giving the background, action is about what happens to the main character, and result is about how the story ends. So even though it’s just different words, this framing stuck with me much, much more, mostly ’cause it was already familiar to me. This structure is used a lot in interview prep. It’s a structure that is recommended when you’re answering interview questions. So set the context, explain what actions you’ve then taken, and then talk about the result, and you can apply that same story structure to talks.

Context remains the same. It’s all about giving the right background, setting the scene, giving enough information to start. Action is all about the exciting middle bit, where you don’t want the audience to get bored and you give lots of information. And result is about what you’re trying to achieve with the audience. It’s the takeaway. In the end, all these different ways of looking at it all pretty much mean the same thing. It’s a way to think about what we’re trying to tell someone in a structured, coherent way. What I really like about this framing is is that they are very specific and tangible parts and you know what impact every element is going to have. What I also like about this framing is that even though I had these elements sequential to each other, in reality, that doesn’t always happen that way. A good storyteller can really play around with the order of all of these.

Think about a movie where things are being told with flashbacks. You’re building up the context as you go along. It’s a bit trickier with talks, but you can play around with it as well. Even though there are different ways that we can look at it, I’m going to be looking in the rest of this talk at context, action, and result. So as I said before, the more you’re aware of each of these elements, the more you can play around with the order of these. Breaking it down even more, I’ll be looking at seven lessons that we can learn to apply and some examples in each of these on how to do it, and I’ll explain in a bit more detail what I mean with each of these.

So first, context. Context is all about setting the scene of your story. You want to give your audience the right background, the right context for the story, and convince them that you’re worth listening to, but you also wanna grab the audience’s attention. I like to split up the beginning of talks into two parts, the hook, where you grab the audience’s attention, and the goal, where you convince them why they should be listening to you.

The hook. So, if you don’t grab someone’s attention in the first 30 seconds, you’ve lost them. They’ll just zone out, look at a phone, do something else, so the first thing we need to do is something that will make them listen and pay attention. Do something that makes it memorable, impactful, visceral, emotional, so make it big, so something that immediately has the audience wanting to know more. The opening of my talk is often the last thing that I’ll end up writing ’cause it depends on the rest of the talk what type of impacts I actually wanna make.

So the five types of intros that I end up falling back on are these, statement, anecdote or story, metaphor, quote, or a question. So going very quickly through these to give some examples. Statement is something like, “By 2030, about 80% of all cats are house cats.” That’s not an actual stat. I don’t know if that is actually true, but make a statement about something that might be a little bit controversial or surprising to some people. Another one is an anecdote or a story, so something like, “I was five years old “when my family got our first cat. “His name was Fluffy, and he was my first friend.” So again, something a little bit emotional just to grab the audience in. A metaphor, this is kind of the weakest example ’cause I’m not really sure where I was going with this. So imagine the following, “A room filled with 50 cats and a single dog.” Fill in what the rest of that intro might be ’cause I don’t know. You can do a quote. This is a quote from Leonardo da Vinci, “The smallest feline is a masterpiece.” Or something like a question, “What would the world look like without cats?” These are all a little bit silly and contrived and super short, but it’s just to show what I kind of mean with each of these.

Most talks can map their openings to these in some way or another, and most of the time, you can come up with an intro fitting for all of these for any talk that you do. I typically will try to come up with something for a few of these and then just see and test which one works best. So for this talk, going a bit meta, it was a story, but I could have just as well have used a quote or something else for it. So sometimes you might have a clear opening in mind. Other times you just need to play around, test it out, see what works. No matter what type of intro you do, and maybe this kind of goes without saying, but it does need to be relevant to the rest of the talk.

A story might be really, really funny, but if it’s not relevant to whatever else that you’re saying next, it can really feel disconnected and out of place. And likewise, a really good opening can not just grab the audience’s attention, but also start convincing people as to why they should be listening to you, so use the opening to make the next part easier, which brings us to the goal. So even though I’m talking about these as two separate things, in reality, they do kind of blur a little. Your entire intro is gonna do these two things together. At this point, it’s best to go back to this idea. So in your intro, you want to convince people that after listening to your talk that they’ll be in that what-could-be phase, that they’ll move from that what-if phase into the next phase.

There are three parts to this. First, what is the current state, so what’s the background? What’s the starting point of the audience? Then, why is it important to them? What’s in it for them if they listen to you? And finally, why should they be specifically listening to you? What’s the thing that you will be covering that they haven’t heard before? Or, why do you have the background to be the one talking about this? So going a bit meta again, in this talk, I set the background by explaining that stories are everywhere, that everyone already is telling stories on a daily basis. The current state is, yeah, this is something that you do already but maybe in a way that you’ve not actively thought of before, and given that is something that you’re constantly doing, I try to convince you that by the end of the talk, you have a better understanding of how to tell more impactful stories. And then why you should listen to me is explaining a bit about my last talks and then explaining the thing about context, action, result and that might not be something that you had heard of before.

So use your intro to also signal post or foreshadow what you’ll be talking about. This doesn’t necessarily mean showing everything that you’ll be covering, ’cause I do think a little bit of mystery is needed to keep people hooked as well, but you do need to give people a sense of whether your talk is going to be for them and will cover things that they don’t know yet. Going a bit meta again, I did that with this talk by showing what I’d be talking about in each section.

The second area that we’re looking at is action. So what do we mean with action? Action, for me, is where the bulk of your talk happens. It’s where the majority of your content lives. If we look at Wikipedia, rising action, specifically, is defined as “a series of events that build toward the point of greatest interest” and events that “set up the climax “and ultimately the satisfactory resolution “of the story itself.” Action is all about making sure we cover the right events to get to the right ending. So a talk is about making sure that we cover the right content, the right material, and making a convincing enough case that the audience gets to that goal that you set in the opening. So how do we determine what the right content is? I’m breaking that down here into what I think are the most important parts, the protagonist, the journey, and the conflict. And these all sound a little bit wooly, I know, but I’ll explain what I mean with each of these.

First, we’ve got the protagonist. Some could argue that defining who your hero is should be part of the intro, but for me, understanding your protagonist is all about making sure that you’re telling the story with the right hero in mind, and since the action, the middle part, has the bulk of the story, that is where it’s really important that you define your hero. So the main thing here is to allow the audience to be the hero in their own story. I think Nancy Duarte said this really well in Resonate, the book that I mentioned before already, so, “You are not the hero who will save the audience; “the audience is your hero.” Too often, I think talks are written with the narrator in mind, so I did this cool thing, and I’m gonna tell you all about how I did this cool thing. In reality, though, the audience don’t really care about you and you being cool. They care about how they can be cool themselves. So it’s all about flipping it around and tuning the story to the audience, so how can you get the audience to do that cool thing that you did? How you can get them to be cool? How do you get them to be that hero?

So going a bit meta again, you’ll have noticed that throughout this talk, I’ve been referring to you. How do you tell stories? How do you structure a talk? At this point, you might be going, “But your intro, that was all about you, well, me, right?” And you’re right. I’m not saying that everything you say needs to be twisted around. I’m saying that everything you say needs to support that goal of getting your audience to do something. Everything I’ve been talking about has been about getting you to do this thing.

So to give a more practical example, I gave a talk about running internal hack days a few years ago. And at the time, I had run four of them internally, and I thought it would be cool to share my experiences about them. First time I did that talk, though, it fell completely flat, mainly because I was way too focused on me. I was just explaining what I had done and how awesome I had been, and nobody actually got anything out of it. So I had to completely flip it around and turn it into tips and tricks and problems that you could run into when organizing a hack day yourself. So it was all about what the audience could do to get better at this.

Now, this does depend on what the goal of your talk is. If your goal is to get your audience to do something, to learn something, then cast them as the hero. There are some cases, though, where the whole point of the talk is to showcase how awesome you are, and in those cases, yeah, you wanna show how awesome you are. So it does depend on what goal you’re trying to achieve.

So again, the main thing is about awareness, to actively choose and make these decisions rather than just telling the easiest story. It also depends on who your audience is, so I’m mainly talking here about talks at conferences, so a place that’s external from your company, but I do think it changes when you’re doing internal talks. So in those cases, most of the time you’re presenting, you’re not talking about you and me. You’re talking about we. So in those cases, it’s very much, if we did this as a company, we could get better at this thing. It’s, again, about awareness of who the hero is, who exactly are you talking to, and what are you trying to get them to do? So once you know who your hero is, what journey are you gonna take them on? So when we talk about story structure from a movie or book point of view, you often find graphs like this, highlighting what we mean with rising action and rising tension.

Throughout the middle of a story, there are multiple moments, multiple events, where the main character runs into an obstacle to progress to the end goal. During these moments, the tension slowly builds up and up and up until it has a main climax and the tension eases to set up the scene for the next obstacle. So throughout the middle section, there will be these ebbs and flows of rising tension. So just think about random action movie. You most likely can think of a specific car chase or fight scene which then have moments of quiet dialogue and exposition happening between those. The first thing to ask when you’re looking at your story structure is, how many of these action sequences will you have? How many sections does your story have? What this also means is that you need to figure out what info belongs together and put those into the same section, so don’t jump around. Don’t make the audience context switch.

Another thing to bear in mind here is depth versus breadth. Will you cover a few points in deep detail, or will you cover lots of points but each only in shallow detail? It’s also really interesting when you start looking at your talks as modular blocks. So say you have a 50-minute talk and you need to cut it down to 30 minutes, do you drop some sections, or do you keep all the sections that you have and just cover less of each of them? So once you understand how many sections you have, you need to figure out how to tell your story. You can almost always tell the same story in different ways. So there’s no right or wrong way of doing this, but be aware of how structure changes the impact of a story.

One way of looking at it is by applying context, action, and result to sections as well. So you can look at each section as its own mini-story where you need to consider how to set the context, how to explain the action, and how to highlight the result. And here, you can really start experimenting with the order. Using this talk again as an example, I actually start with the result, the key thing that I want you to take away, for each section, that is, even though I haven’t quite explained it yet. And then I give the background information and then finally the concrete examples and bulk of that section. Another talk I gave this year was about how video games are designed and what we can learn from them to create internal experiences for developers. And in that talk, each section started with a video game example, so the context and background, then the lesson, so the result, and then finally, I looked at the concrete examples. Well, yeah, another talk just followed the traditional format of context, action, result. I think in each of these talks, you could have shifted around order and told the story slightly differently, but it would create a slightly different impact. So it’s up to you to play around and test a structure to figure out what works best for you.

Next, we’re looking at the conflict. So imagine previously that throughout the middle of a story, there are multiple moments where the main character runs into an obstacle, something they need to deal with and overcome to progress to the end goal. So the tension builds because there is some obstacle, some conflict, that is stopping the hero getting what they want. For talks, given that you know the audience is your hero, you need to understand what is stopping people getting from A to B. So going back to the idea of going from the what-is phase to the what-could-be phase, it’s about understanding why aren’t they there yet. It’s your job to acknowledge that conflict and make it part of the narrative. You need to figure out how to make it relevant to the audience and make it easier for them to relate to and understand, and if you make it relevant, it also makes it more impactful and more memorable. The way I’m doing that in this presentation is with concrete examples so that audience can easier grasp what it is that I’m trying to get across.

Finally, a final section is result. No matter how bad or good the rest of the talk is, the audience will remember the final minutes the most, and the end can make or break a talk. So there are two things that your end need to cover, the recap and the kick. So the recap is fairly straightforward. Just remind people what they’ve learnt. For shorter presentations, this might be a single line, but for long presentations, you want to remind people all the things that you’ve covered. This is also a moment to celebrate what people know now. It’s a moment to go, “Yay, you learned this thing.” Going a bit meta again and foreshadowing something that I haven’t actually shown yet, in this talk, I recap by showing that list of seven lessons again and a one-liner of which of those, well, what I’m trying to convey in each of those sections.

Finally, the kick, so end with a bang. This is all about the end. As I said before, no matter how bad or good a talk is, the audience will remember the final minutes the most so in a way, it pretty much echoes the beginning. Make it memorable, impactful, visceral, emotional, so do something that will stick with the audience. And again, if you don’t know how, just grab the same methods as the opening. You don’t necessarily have to, but I often like bringing it full circle, so having my ending echo the beginning in some way or another. I’m not gonna give an explicit example here, ’cause that will spoil the ending, but I want you to all just stop and think, how would you end this talk? If it was up to you, what would you have done? So context, action, and result. It’s the basic structure for any story that you wanna tell. A slide that you just saw kind of already before. We can break that down into these seven lessons, the hook, the goal, the protagonist, the journey, the conflict, the recap, and the kick.

Stories are everywhere. I’ve tried to distill it down into lessons that are a bit more digestible and easier to comprehend, but to truly get better at storytelling, pay attention to the stories around you. You can find inspiration for stories everywhere. There’s no one way to tell a story, there’s no one way to begin a story, and there’s no one way to end a story. But today, this is how this story ends. Once upon a time, there was a storyteller, and the storyteller had been telling stories for several years now and had been doing this so often that she got asked to tell stories about how to tell stories. She knew she could tell that story, but not how, but she didn’t know how to end it. A story like that must have the best ending ever. How could she find the perfect ending to the story? The storyteller thought long and hard. She searched far and wide. And eventually she realized there was no perfect way to end the story, but there was a way to end her story in exactly the way she had said stories should end. So this is the way this story ends, not with a whimper but with a bang. Thanks for listening.

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