How not to tell a story

The following post was originally sent to my subscribers on Sunday June 4th 2017

It was 2008. I was invited to give a talk at the annual TEDx Warsaw conference. It was a big event on a big stage. It was held in a huge cinema in the centre of the city and there was an audience of well over 1000 people – mostly young creative types.

I had spent ages deciding what to do. What was I going to speak about? What story or stories should I tell? How should I frame the performance?

In the end, I decided to go with a story that I had been working on titled The Story of Debbie and Cara which was based on a well-known viral video from 2011. I figured that this could be an opportunity to introduce Videotelling to a world beyond teaching.

I prepared really hard. I spent ages crafting the structure of the story; constructing a text; creating the right imagery; learning parts from memory; practicing my performance; making sure that I wouldn’t go over the allocated time of 18 minutes. I got my trusty illustrator – Danny Butcher – to create some artwork to complement the story.

On the big day, there were 20 speakers and I was the first to go on. I was nervous – much more than usual.

So what went wrong?

Well, I’ll going to let you be the judge. Here is a video of my performance. You don’t have to watch it all – just the first minute or two. You’ll get the idea.

My own analysis

Did you see me smack myself in the face at about 03:30 into the video? That was supposed to be a gesture relevant to the story. But it had the effect of putting my Madonna-style microphone out of place. And it required onstage technical support. But that’s not what this post is about.

So what is this post about? Well, all good talks have something in common. The speaker has to tell his or her own story, or at least attach himself/herself to the narrative in some way or another. I completely failed to do this. I walked onto the stage, tried to win over the audience with a few lines of Polish, told them that I was a teacher who likes to tell stories, and then bam! Straight into the script.

Although I was there on the stage, I wasn’t present. That audience had no idea who I was and as a result, they didn’t care about the story that I told. After all, I was completely detached from it. And about five minutes into the talk, I could see that many people had lost interest. I don’t blame them. I would have done the same.

Also, I tried to be too clever. The story hinged on a single question that came at the end: How did Cara do what she did? But by this stage, no one really cared.

Why is this important?

Even if we are telling someone else’s story, it is essential to find yourself in the narrative. Why are you telling the story? Why do you like it? Where did you get it? What is your experience of it? How did it change you? What did you learn from it? If you can’t find your own story within the story, then your audience isn’t going to find theirs.

I have a coffee table book titled 101 Things I Learned in Film School. I think that the very last page is relevant to this post. The 101st thing that the author, Neil Laundau, learned at film school is that “You are your protagonist.” To quote:

A film may be viewed by millions, but filmmaking is ultimately a personal endeavor that directly draws from and touches the life of a filmmaker. We create stories to mirror our own lives, to see how we will react when projected into the extraordinary circumstances of a film story.

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