When you hear a great story, have you ever sat back and asked yourself what made it great? What made it memorable? Though there are many variables, let’s make it simple. Let’s narrow it down to emotions, characters, and the situation in which the characters find themselves.
We can narrow this down even more. The characters are the ones who have the emotions, so that would narrow it down to characters and the situation. For the sake of this article, I’m going to narrow it down even more and focus solely on the characters.
Think of a powerful and memorable story you have heard. What do you remember about the characters? Can you picture them? What do you remember about their emotions or their shift in emotions?
OK, let’s make sure we can get on the same page to help you see the power of this. Take three minutes to watch this story that I tell about my coach, Mark Brown. Even if you have heard it before, watch it before you continue to read. (You will get more out of this article.)
What stood out for you about the character of Mark Brown? Do you remember how I described him? From memory, how would you say I described him? Let’s see if it matches my actual description.
I said, “If you don’t know Mark Brown, he was a World Champion and won in 1995. He stands about 6’2”, has a heart of gold, is a native of Jamaica, and laughs like the guy from the 7-Up commercial. Ha, ha, ha, ha.”
OK, stop. Why do you think I described him that way? There is so much I could tell you about Mark. I could tell you these things about him:
I could go on and on. The question is, “What matters?” A better question is, “What matters most for this story and this particular message?” All of the characters have a long background that we could use to describe them. There are, however, very few details needed for the telling of this message.
Why do you think I included in my description that Mark has a heart of gold? He delivers very direct feedback, which might make it seem as if Mark is harsh. I wanted the audience to know, though, that I knew where his heart was when he was direct with me
It came from a place of caring. Part of the reason behind that is because when he says it to me, he is also saying it to the audience. I want them to know that he is not being mean or trying to show that he knows more than I. If a story is well-told, there are not too many details about the characters, just the details that are relevant to that story for that message.
When you heard the story, did you picture Mark? Even if you had no idea what Mark looked like, how did you picture him? What were the details that I gave that helped you picture Mark? I gave you three clues.
Here is the important part. The audience pictures Mark. It matters that they picture him more so than how they picture him. We cover this in great detail in Secrets of Storytelling. (In my humble opinion, every serious presenter and serious speech competitor needs the 52 secrets and insights in that program.)
Warning! Do not share too many details about your characters. If you tell us that your main character had curly hair, always wore a red scarf, a green belt, and bell bottom jeans, always had an orange lollipop in her hand, and was a ball of energy, well, that’s just too much detail for a live presentation story.
Here is my simple, powerful rule of thumb. For your main characters in your substantial stories, give us one visual and one emotional aspect of your characters. Let us picture them and feel them.
When working on your stories, plan to use a powerful feedback strategy: ask your audience if they pictured and could feel your characters. If they didn’t, just go back and evaluate what you did or said. If your characters are not memorable, chances are your story is not memorable either. Click To Tweet It’s okay. Don’t beat yourself up. Just regroup, and test, test, test. Can you feel me? More importantly, can your audience see and feel your characters?