How to Tell a Compelling Story

In case you haven’t guessed so already, I’m obsessed with storytelling. Its benefits are staggering. On a primitive level, storytelling changes your audience’s brains. When you tell a good story, not only does the audience remember you better and connect with you on a deeper level, but it also floods their brains with two chemicals that help control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers: (1) dopamine (which aids in information processing) and (2) oxytocin (which builds trust).

Storytelling draws the listener inside the reconstructed reality of past events in a way that makes them feel that they are inside the story. Very simply, their brains become in sync with yours, making the experience come alive to them in ways they never dreamed possible. This advances the purpose for why audiences go to the theater in the first place: to escape their everyday routines and problems. No longer are the audience spectators sitting up in the rafters of an 80,000-seat stadium looking down at miniature figures. Instead, they are active participants.

There are a number of myths about storytelling that I want to debunk before it further dilutes this time-honored craft.

Some storytellers fear putting too many details into their stories, and go to great lengths to reduce their stories to its bare bones. But not including enough of the “right” details is like soup without salt. What I mean by the “right” details is describing how the experience was lived and felt by you and others involved. If you remember but one thing from this blog let it be this: audiences are moved by stories that touch them in those soft, unprotected places where their decisions are made. As John Burroughs once said, “When you bait the hook with your heart, the fish always bite.” In other words, it is easier for audiences to relate to your story when you inject it with emotion.

There are certain feelings that all human beings experience regardless of race, gender, age, ethnicity or economic condition. These feelings evolve from six primary emotions: love, hate, joy, sadness, power, and fear. These primary emotions are the very essence of what it means to be human.

This is where the magic lives. While the audience may not have personally experienced the same events that are the subject of your story, they have experienced the same emotions that were triggered by the experience. Indeed, everyone has experienced happiness, sadness, joy, rejection, abandonment, ridicule, loneliness etc. This is why the audience can relate to your story.

Of course, the degree to which any two people experience the same emotion varies due to the fact that no two of us are alike. Emotions are like shades of a color in the sense that they have varying intensities. Just as the color red can be “crimson,” “cherry,” “rose,” “ruby,” “apple,” “scarlet,” or “merlot” sadness doesn’t necessarily result in tears. Sadness can be manifested in a multitude of ways from feelings of emptiness and hopelessness to feelings of worthlessness and guilt.

For example, compare the inner sadness of Casey Affleck’s character, Lee Chandler in the scene when he arrives home in a drunken stupor to see his home burning down with his kids inside in “Manchester by the Sea” to the tearful sadness of Matt Damon’s character, Will in the scene when he breaks down during a therapy session with Robin Williams in “Good Will Hunting.”

Emotions are as much a product of our personalities and our idiosyncrasies as they are of our environment. For example, hearing the sound of your car alarm going off while you’re inside is going to invoke a stronger emotion, perhaps a startled response in a person who is nervous and anxious than in a person who is calm and relaxed.

Another myth that must be shattered is that in order for a story to be gripping and draw the audience to the edge of their seats, what’s at stake must be as significant as the difference between life and death. Stories don’t have to be bombastic to get traction. I’ve been mesmerized by just as many stories that dealt with the banality of everyday life such as waiting in line at the deli counter of a supermarket in order to order a BLT as I have been with stories about toddlers falling into alligator pits at the zoo and surviving. This teaches an important lesson. Audience engagement is not so much a function of plot as it is how the story is told. If it doesn’t mean anything to you it won’t mean anything to the audience. So long as you tell the audience how you feel, you’ll be off to the races.

When your story is alive with emotion, then two other important things happen. First, tension rises and tension is the magic ingredient that sprinkles pixie dust on the audience, causing their brains to fill with dopamine and oxytocin. And second, tension draws people to the edge of their seats anxiously waiting to hear what happens next. Tension creates suspense.

Here is a quick and dirty example: “I sat in my car outside of my friend’s house.” This statement is very plain and drab and does nothing more than recite innocuous facts. As a result, it doesn’t arouse any emotion in the listener.

By comparison, you could say, “I sat in my car outside of my friend’s house chewing my nails down to the cuticle.” This sentence builds tension and suspense. Almost immediately, you’re prompted to ask yourself: (1) Why is he sitting in his car outside of his friend’s house? and (2) What is it about this situation that has caused him to become so nervous that he is frantically biting his nails down to the core?

This is a good time to take a slight digression to discuss the importance of crafting the beginning of your story. A well-crafted beginning to your story is vital because it means the difference between whether your audience deems your story worth of listening to or whether they decide to tune it out and pretend that they are listening.

Here are two examples from childhood stories that draw the the audience in hook, line, and sinker:

“Once upon a time, in a city called New Orleans, there was a boy who lived and breathed and dreamt music. He loved the sound of the trumpet, but he could not afford a trumpet. This is the story of Luis Armstrong, a poor boy who could not afford a trumpet, who became the greatest trumpeter of all time.”

“Her name was Sleeping Beauty. A wicked witch cast a spell over her. She would sleep forever unless someone special kissed her on her sleeping lips. Prince Charming was this special person.”

The same applies in the courtroom with opening statements. Below is a real-life example from the creative genius of Song Richards. It is from Song’s opening statement in a criminal case where she represented the defendant, Tom Johnson. John Ivan Smith was the government’s chief witness:

“No one will walk into this courtroom and tell you Tom Johnson is a bank robber – no one except the man with the symbols on his leg, John Ivan Smith.”

Having a well-crafted beginning to your story does not mean overloading it with so much detail that the audience knows everything that ever happened in the character’s life leading up to that point. This would put the audience to sleep.

I like beginning my stories at a pivotal moment. Who can forget the opening of the movie “Casino” when Robert DeNiro playing Sam “Ace” Rothstein climbs inside the driver’s seat of his car, turns the car on and it explodes into flames. This instantly grabbed my attention and drew me into the movie faster than the Millennium Falcon jumping to light speed.

How is this accomplished? Fortunately, scenes like this one rely upon a tried and tested principle of storytelling that can be copied. Beginning a story with an action sequence creates an information gap that helps build tension and gets the audience’s heart racing. Circling back to the earlier example, if you said, “I sat outside my friend’s house chewing my nails down to the cuticle,” you’d have created an information gap because the audience doesn’t know why you’re nervous and they’re eager to know.

As humans, we hate information gaps. It’s why scintillating headlines in tabloid magazines jump out at us like neon signs. It’s the reason why when David Letterman was counting down his “Top Ten List” and we knew that we desperately needed sleep in order to be alert and stay awake in court the next morning, that we nevertheless continued watching it in order to find out “who” or “what” ranked first.

It’s a good practice to create an information gap at the beginning of your story by telling the audience where you were, how you felt (but not “why” you felt). Then you can provide some background and jump back into the story.

Whenever I begin to drift off or get caught up in a web of innocuous facts, I find my way back by asking myself the question, “How did this experience affect me personally?” In this way, it’s like a lighthouse that helps to guide you home safely.

This is easier said than done. As lawyers, we’ve been taught to bury our feelings. Actors, on the other hand are taught to feel everything. Imagine what it would be like to watch a production of “Les Miserables,” a tear jerker of a play with a cast of actors that are afraid to show their sentimental and softer sides? In order to avoid any misunderstanding, it is important to describe the context in which I am using “emotion.” To borrow a quote from Mark Twain, the difference between emotion in the theater and emotion in the courtroom is as stark as the difference between the lightning bug and lightning. Here is what I’ve come to understand about emotions since beginning my journey as an actor.

All too often, the word “emotion” conjures up a disturbing image of an actor straight out of an episode of “Law & Order” lying in the fetal position on the bathroom floor weeping uncontrollably.

When I speak of emotional vulnerability, I’m not suggesting that you look to Vivien Leigh’s portrayal of Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire” for inspiration. In fact, this could not be farther from the truth. Working yourself up to the depths of despair is better left for actors who bring the human experience to life on stage and on screen.

At the same time, there are important aspects of an actor’s emotional preparation that can be helpful for lawyers. Actors are not machines. They cannot turn their emotions on and off like a water faucet. Actors are taught to ask themselves probing questions to find their emotional triggers. For example, “What am I hiding and why? What am I afraid to show?” Time, effort, patience, stamina, and technique are all necessary ingredients.

As ubiquitous as this might sound, actors can’t just show those parts of themselves that they like or that they are comfortable with. The domain of the theater is universal. This is why actors embrace the notion that nothing – not the highest pinnacles of nobility nor the deepest depths of depravity – nothing is beyond their sphere as players in the great passion of life. As such, actors never judge. They plunge in head-first and participate fully. Who can forget Robert Blake’s masterful portrayal of “Perry Smith” who aided and abetted by ‘Dick Hickock’ (Scott Wilson) killed four innocent people “In Cold Blood?”

Contrary to popular belief, there are different ways to talk about your emotions. The three basic ways are as follows:

  1. Internal monologue. This form removes the “showing” of the emotion by telling the audience how you feel. It is used to move the story along. For example, “Why did I wear this tired old suit? I can’t believe that I had the gall to wear it.” The audience instantly knows that I’m worried about my appearance.
  1. Name the emotion. Are you happy, sad, glad, or mad? Inject it into the story naturally and organically without pushing or forcing the emotion. This is always tricky as I am adamantly opposed to results-oriented directors who demand a specific emotion from an actor. This can lead to “faking” or “emoting,” two of the quickest ways for an actor to find himself back in a diner serving burgers. If you fake an emotion, the audience will instantly observe the contradiction and any credibility that you had with the audience will be lost. As Sanford Meisner once said, “You can’t fake emotion … You either have it or you don’t.” If you have it, “it infects you and the audience.” If you don’t, “just say your lines as truthfully as you are capable of doing.” Since some emotions come easier to us than others, I suggest practicing your story in front of friends and family and asking for feedback. Knowing which emotions well up inside of you organically and without exaggeration is a form of self-awareness that is vitally important. This way, if one emotion is real and organic, you can inject it into the story without second-guessing whether it is authentic and truthful. Emotions that do not come up so readily normally are dormant and hidden. The good news is that they can be provoked to come out through a technique pioneered by Sanford Meisner called, the word repetition exercise. Meisner’s teachings are rooted in a fundamental principle called, “the pinch for the ouch.” Now for the bad news. This does not happen overnight. It takes years of training. But here’s a simple place where you can begin. Pick something that you do several times a day no matter how mundane, such as brushing your teeth, taking a shower, or driving to work. Then every time you do this task ask yourself the question, “How do I feel?” Don’t worry if it’s not big. It won’t. For example, “I’m feeling a little anxious” or “I’m slightly happy.” And then you’ll start to recognize when the emotion is present and what triggered it.
  1. This is the most powerful one and not surprisingly, the hardest one to do. It is the ability to describe where you feel the emotion in your body. We always have a physical response to our emotions. The reason why this is so powerful is because if you describe physically what’s happening to you, then the motor neurons inside the minds of the audience will make them feel the same emotion too. For example, if you say, “I walked into the meeting and my stomach was tied up in knots” the audience’s stomachs will shrivel up into a tight knot and that will put them right inside the story. By making the audience feel what your body was feeling in that moment, it puts the audience right there front and center.

A big mistake to avoid is throwing in spoilers. It’s like the wretched Grinch who stole Christmas. To avoid this, it’s best to tell your story in chronological order. In other words, don’t tell the audience anything that you didn’t know at that particular point. The rationale behind this is that it’s like pouring water on a fire as opposed to stoking the flames. It breaks the tension.

Here’s an example. When you’re watching “Game of Thrones” and your friend walks in during the middle of it and blurts out how it ends, you not only want to sucker punch your friend but whatever interest you once had in the outcome is lost. You no longer care about watching the rest of it because you know that the protagonist is going to die or the enemy is going to win the battle.

The same is true with storytelling. If you say, “Of course, at this point, I did not realize that they had given the job to my friend Jack,” then the audience stops caring about the job interview you’re in because they know that you’re not going to get the job anyway.

As tempting as it might be, hold off. Resist the temptation to throw in any spoiler alerts until you reach the point in the story where you personally discovered that fact.

Again, the theory behind this is that we want to build tension, not squelch it. If you tell the audience the big thing that is going to happen before the end of the story, you’ve let the cat out of the bag. They no longer care because they already know what’s going to happen. It would be like Mark Hamill coming out before the first showing of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” on opening day and describing what’s going to happen in narrative form, like a play-by-play announcer at a sports event. You’d say to yourself, “There is no point in me watching the rest of this move because I already know how it’s going to end.”

By comparison, when there is an information gap, the audience is desperate to know what happens next. As a result, they keep listening.

Conclusion

When you tell a story, you’re making a movie inside the audience’s head. You might think of it as the trailer to an action movie, such as “007.” In that sense, you begin to see the value of telling the story as if you are inside of it. To avoid wandering off the beaten path, keep asking yourself the questions, “What did it look like?” and “How did I feel?”

Resist the temptation to comment on the individual moments by telling the audience your opinion or your point of view about what’s happening.

Telling short stories to others where you include how you felt will help you hone this skill and develop this craft.

In today’s busy world of traffic, noisy airports, emails and conference calls, people are often in search of a chance to get away. A good story provides that sense of escape. A sanctuary where the audience can forget their cares or their daily lives and let themselves be transported into a gripping story. It is that special experience, that escape, that will ensure that storytelling remains a mainstay in our society for centuries to come.

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