The Story Staircase:
How to Build a Story with Impact
By Arvee Robinson
As a public speaker, use stories in your speech to create impact; stories that sell and create emotion in your audience. How do you build a story so that it will reach your audience and keep them engaged? By following a step-by-step process on how to build a story with impact. Just for fun, on a piece of paper, draw a staircase with eight steps.
First Step: Place and Time or Time and Place
All stories start out with a time and place. This is true in folk tales, fairy tales and tall tales—and in your story. The reason is that it anchors your audience into a place and time. When your story doesn’t have a place and time, your audience won’t know when it is. It’s a lot different if something happened in 2000 or in 1936. If your audience doesn’t know when or where your story takes place, their mind wants to answer those questions. When was it? Where was it? How old were you?
You always want to start your story with a strong anchor, meaning the time and place is very clear. You can start with “It was 2008″ or “Twenty years ago” or “It was in corporate America.”
When I talk about corporate America in my speech, I don’t have to say it was downtown L.A., because everybody has their own vision of corporate America. The main point is that you want to begin with a time and a place or a place and a time (it doesn’t really matter which comes first), but they need to be together.
When you tell a story you don’t have to necessarily start with (and I recommend that you don’t) “I’m going to tell you a story.” It actually weakens the impact. When you’re telling your personal story, always ask your audience permission because you’re in rapport with them. After that, just tell your story.
Second Step: Attention Grabber
Just as in your speech, the second step on the story staircase is to create an attention grabber. Grab your audience’s attention right away. You’ve got them anchored and now you want to grab their attention. This is different from the enrolling questions, statements of declaration or statistical statements that you use in your speech sandwich, although they can be similar. It’s more like a sentence.
Here is an example: “Twenty years ago in corporate America for me it began with a lie.” That’s pretty powerful way to start off your story. Here is another example of an attention grabber, using place and time together:
“Imagine growing up in a tiny village in Central Mexico far from the nearest big city.”
It’s an attention grabber with time and place. Here is another example: “Have you ever tried to draw a car and later threw the results away in disgust.” It’s a question but it’s not an enrolling question where you include your audience.
Third Step: Create a Strong or Powerful Character.
When you tell your personal story, the character is going to be you. You’ve got to make yourself powerful. Start with being in a powerful place, until things change (which I will show later).
If your story is about someone else, like a client, a family member or a friend, you want to paint a picture of that person. The more details you give, the stronger the character will appear. You don’t want to just say “my friend”. Here’s an example:
“Imagine growing up in a tiny village in Central Mexico far from the nearest big city. At the age of six, I was an only child living on a farm. I was alone most of the time.”
Now you know a lot about this character. She was six. She was alone. She lived on a farm. With these details, there are probably things that come to your mind, possibly chickens, dogs, cows; whatever is your visual image.
Another example: “As a teenage guy, I was invincible for years. My future was assured, nothing could deter my happiness.” This is a strong character. You want to create a story with a strong character, either yourself or someone else. Here is an example about someone else: “I flew back to see her with her 80 pound body, drawn face and strange wig. When I got in my car, I drove to my hotel. Halfway there I stopped and cried for 20 or 30 minutes.” This reveals a strong character.
Fourth Step: What Does that Character Want?
What does that character want? What actions do they take to get it? Think about what it is you want. Build that desire in your story. You need to be clear, descriptive and current. There is no place for mediocrity in storytelling. It needs to an extraordinary day, not an ordinary day or there’s no story there.
Going back to the previous example, what does her character want?
“My Mexican maid was the only person I could talk to, but she only spoke Spanish, and I decided to teach her English.”
What does her character want? She wanted to be able to talk to someone in English.
Fifth Step: Create a Credible Opposition or Problem
In my personal story, I tell about my first speaking experience. My desire was to have people come up to talk to me after my speech. Unfortunately, no one did. One day, a woman came up to talk to me, but not how I expected. She told me I was a lousy speaker. She was right. That was the problem. I didn’t know what I was doing.
Your character needs opposition. This obstacle can be mental, or it can be an animate or inanimate object. What about the gal in Mexico? Her opposition was that she wanted to teach her maid English, but the maid refused to learn.
In this step on the story staircase, you reveal a problem. You have a desire and “boom” something happens to oppose your desire. I wanted to be a great speaker, and “boom” somebody told me I was lousy speaker. Now what’s the next step?
Sixth Step: Overcome the Opposition
How do you overcome the opposition? This is where the plot builds in your story. If you’re going up the staircase, you’ve revealed that you’ve got this problem, and now you have to reveal how you overcame that problem.
Our story continues: “So one day I finally decided to learn Spanish and this decision changed my life.” One day she made a decision to learn Spanish. Today she speaks fluent Spanish and goes into large corporations to teach the Spanish speaking staff how to get along better or communicate with management. She’s made a career out of it because of that one decision. Think about your character meeting that obstacle. How are you going to overcome that opposition?
Seventh Step: Resolve Your Problem
In our story example, she decided to learn how to speak Spanish and it changed her life. Now she is a successful businesswoman with her own company.
What is the resolution in your story? In my case, I made a decision that I needed to get trained as a speaker. That was my defining moment or breakthrough. That was how I overcame my opposition. My resolution is that over the past 10 years, I’ve trained 5000 professionals in public speaking.
Eighth Step: Wrap It Up
This is the final step in creating a story with impact. You want to bring your story forward to where you are now. This is also where you share your lesson/call to action, if appropriate. I like to wrap up with my elevator speech: “Today, I’ve trained over 5000 professionals and entrepreneurs how to become great speakers and use public speaking as a marketing strategy to get clients, generate leads and grow their business.”
I have brought my story and my audience full circle to today. Any one in the audience who wants what I have, will know what I do and come to me for that. Wrap it up to what you do now as it relates to your story.
If you’re talking about someone else and it’s a success story, it’s going to be about that person’s success. For example, perhaps they were struggling to get clients and they met opposition for whatever reason, whether because of their mindset or they didn’t know what they wanted, and they overcame it. You still have all the story staircase steps. You’re not writing paragraphs on each step, some of them are just one sentence.
Let’s go over each step on how to build your story staircase:
- Place and time or time and a place. In the beginning, you need to anchor your story with the time and place.
- Attention grabber. This is very similar to what you use in your speech. It is something very dramatic and something very powerful to grab their attention
- Create a powerful character. This could be you if it’s your personal story or someone else. You want to show their personality.
- Create a strong desire or want. What does your character want?
- The opposition or problem. What is in the way of you getting what you want?
- Overcome the opposition. Your plot builds as you provide more information and detail about how you faced the obstacle, problem or opposition.
- Resolution to your story. This is where you reveal how you overcame your problem, obstacle or opposition. This is where you share your defining moment or breakthrough.
- Wrap Up. Pull your audience back to what happened, bringing them back to today with whatever it is you do. If it’s your personal story, it can either be a lesson or a call to action (your elevator speech).
Now you’re done. That’s it. Those are the eight steps on how to build a story with impact.
One more thing: Use colorful word pictures in your story. Instead of just saying, “I went outside,” use emotional words like, “I went outside and the sun was shining so brightly it almost blinded me.” Use all your senses. Here’s another example: “Last week I was speaking. There was a woman in the front row and her old lady perfume made me gag!” The more you use emotional words in your story, the more it will capture the attention of your audience.
Oftentimes it’s the story that people will remember long after your speech is done.Arvee Robinson, is The Master Speaker Trainer, International Speaker, and Author. She teaches business owners, service professionals, and entrepreneurs how to use public speaking as a marketing strategy so they can attract more clients, generate unlimited leads and grow their businesses, effortlessly. She teaches a proven speaker system for delivering persuasive presentations, and easy formulas for creating killer elevator speeches and magnetic self-introductions. Arvee has helped hundreds of individuals to win clients and close more sales every time they speak. She offers private coaching, workshops, and weekly teleclasses. Her programs will make you money for the rest of your life.
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