How to structure a story for maximum impact
Finding Nemo and Toy Story 3 are in the top 50 highest grossing films of all time.
The secret of their popularity? Fabulous storytelling.
Emma Coates, a storyboard artist for Pixar the animation firm behind these two barnstorming successes, has listed her 22 rules for storytelling.
In rule number 4, Coates outlines the fundamental structure of every great story. And it goes like this:
Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
Coates’s 22 rules are all well worth checking out.
But I particularly love this rule because this structure captures something absolutely fundamental that is vital for a powerful story.
Something happens to your hero.
This idea that every story has a hero and that something happens to them appplies just as much can make or break your message.
Your ability to persuade by telling a great story in which something happens to your hero can even win you elections.
Let’s look at some examples, starting with a truly terrible speech made by someone at the European Commission, shortly before the Brexit vote.
I welcome the New Urban Agenda, as a cornerstone in the implementation and localisation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and other milestone reform agendas of 2015, in particular the Paris Agreement...The New Urban Agenda reflects the EU's vision for sustainable urban development, by calling for an integrated and place-based approach that takes into account the diversity of cities and their wider territorial context, while building on urban-rural linkages.
Did you catch all that? How inspired are you feeling right now about the New Urban Agenda?
Has it painted a picture in your mind of what the New Urban Agenda will do for you?
Or has it left you reeling under the weight of all those dull, abstract implementations and localisations and integrated place-based approaches?
Let’s contrast that speech with an extract from a speech that Nigel Farage, the then-leader of the UK Independence Party made to the European Parliament shortly after the UK voted for Brexit.
Now, I’m not a fan of Farage and I’ve never voted for his party.
But I’m convinced the main reason the UK voted for Brexit was because the Brexiteers told a better story:
What happened last Thursday was a remarkable result, it was indeed a seismic result, not just for British politics, for European politics, but perhaps even for global politics too. Because what the little people did, all the ordinary people did, what the people who have been oppressed over the last few years and seen their living standards go down, they rejected the multinationals. They rejected the merchant banks, they rejected big politics, and they said, Actually, we want our country back. We want our fishing waters back, we want our borders back. We want to be an independent, self governing, normal nation.
That is what we have done, and that is what must happen.
Whatever your political leanings, we can all learn from Farage.
Now, I’m no Brexiteer and no fan of Farage. But whatever you think of Farage’s politics, you have to accept that the guy knows how to write a speech.
But more importantly, he knows how to tell a compelling story. It’s got people, conflict, drama, change.
Farage doesn’t just tell us the people have a voice - he gives them actual dialogue.
And if we look again at that extract, we can see it fits the Pixar template perfectly:
Once upon a time there was an island of little people who were oppressed.
Every day, they saw their living standards go down.
One day someone asked them if they wanted to overthrow their oppressors.
Because of that, they were given a voice.
Because of that, they used their voice to say no, we’ve had enough.
Until finally they were free.
Let’s look at another example - this time from a speech I wrote for a CEO.
My brief was to show his human side, which he felt had never really come across to employees before.
So he told me anecdotes about his family life and his childhood, but none of it resonated. None of it had any drama.
And then, almost as an aside, he told me that when he first joined the firm, he felt like the awkward stepdad.
Boom! That was the starting point of a great story. Here’s how I spun it out:
When I stood in front of you this time last year, ABC didn’t feel like home. I’d been in the job less than a year and I was still finding my feet. Sure, I had an idea about what we needed to do as a business. But I didn’t really get the place. I didn’t really get the culture. I didn’t really get you.
Looking back on my first year, I felt - and I suspect I looked to you - like a new stepfather. The awkward outsider desperately playing catch-up with his new family. Keen to bond with you, but not totally sure how. Assuming the role of ‘the parent’ without having properly won your trust.
But a year ago, I made the decision to listen to you more - and talk less. And after that, something amazing happened. ABC finally began to feel like home. Like family. In fact, I’ve never worked anywhere that’s felt more like home. More like a family.
In short: Favourite. Job. Ever.
Let’s see how that speech fits the Pixar structure:
Once upon a time there was a new CEO.
Every day, when he went to work, he felt like the awkward step dad.
One day he decided to listen more and talk less.
Because of that, work started to feel like home.
Because of that, his employees became his family.
Until finally he had the best job ever.
That speech went down a storm because it told a story.
And as with the Brexit story, it was a story in which something happened to the hero. Something happened that transformed him forever.
Why not try the Pixar structure for yourself?