Four elements of effective storytelling

In December 2012 I attended the 28th International Papillomavirus Conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico. I was there as part of a panel presenting on the personal and public benefits of prioritising Indigenous Health – but more on that later.

I attended the pre-conference public health workshop and the second day of the workshop was devoted to “The power of story: Learning storytelling techniques from Hollywood’s master storytellers.” The panel presenting this workshop was:

  • Sandra de Castro Buffington, Director, Hollywood, Health & Society

  • Christopher Keyser, President, Writers Guild of America, West

  • Jennifer Cecil, Executive Producer, Private Practice (ABC)

  • Sarah Watson, Co-Executive Producer, Parenthood (NBC)

  • Zoanne Clack , Co-Executive Producer, Grey’s Anatomy (ABC)

Christopher Keyser presented on the elements of effective storytelling, and I want to share these with you from my workshop notes. While he was talking about scripting TV drama shows I think the points he made are also useful guides for any writing endeavour where we’re trying to get across a particular story, or share about a particular kaupapa (agenda).

Christopher talked about four key elements.

  1. Clarity Be clear about the point you want to make. Don’t be too board or too specific. Every scene is some kind of argument for the same thing or theme.

  2. Focus Stick to the idea in the underlying message and plot. Having a structure or outline is a good idea as it will help you know where detours are being made.

  3. Conciseness You have to be able to do things in short order. Attention spans are getting shorter so you have to tell stories quickly and efficiently while making it feel like real life. How many times have you heard that about a research report? Try to write what you need to say in under 30 pages.

  4. Vividness The story needs to be interesting as it’s got to draw people in. Take people on a journey with you.

In television dramas stories are about showing, not telling viewers, the story. They are also sometimes about subverting expectations and taking people off guard. The pitfalls he’s identified in people’s storytelling is that they get bogged down in tiny details, or they go wandering off on a tangent so it’s not clear what the story is about. A question to ask yourself is “Does this advance the plot?” If you’re getting into minute detail or leading people away from your kaupapa (agenda) it’s unlikely they’ll be any better than you at focusing on what you’re really wanting to tell them.