The 3-minute storytelling lesson you won’t forget

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I was working recently with a team of executives on storytelling and delivery, and in one exercise I pressed them to present their pitches faster and in a more compressed style. The world is impatient, and you must hook your listeners quickly.

The executives struggled—mostly succeeded—to tell their stories in two or three minutes. They gave me a little pushback, saying that I was asking too much.

They wanted more time.

My response was, “Yes, this is difficult, but important to be able to do.” No one is as interested in your story as you are; you’ve got to be able to get it done.

Then I saw this video.

Too late for my executive seminar, but not too late for you, this three-minute ad from Thailand packs a powerful wallop in a very short space, and it holds several lessons for good storytelling.

1. Avoid the intro. There’s virtually no preamble here, just an immediate incident to get the story going. Skip the opening stuff, and get right to the point.

2. Go for the emotion. The emotions invoked in this video run deep and involve social norms, family, debt, and honor—nothing trivial. Don’t waste our time with trivial pursuits. Get to the good stuff.

3. Make it about life and death. Stories that hold our attention involve not only strong emotion, but big stakes. If you’re going to keep us watching or listening, target the gut level.

4. Give us texture. If you’re trying to tell a story quickly, you might be tempted to give us a vague fairy tale to save time and effort. Don’t. This video throws us right into a milieu and expects us to keep up. It feels real, not imaginary.  

5. Complete the arc. What ultimately satisfies in a story is closure. The rest of our lives may be chaotic, fragmentary, and unfinished, but give us a story that isn’t. Give us the full narrative—even in three minutes.

After earning his Ph.D. in literature and rhetoric, Nick spent a number of years teaching Shakespeare and Public Speaking at the University of Virginia and Princeton University. He first started writing speeches for Virginia Governor Charles S. Robb and went on to found his own communications consulting organization, Public Words, in 1997. A version of this article first appeared on Public Words.

 

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