elements of a great story

Kenny Nguyen started off in the culinary industry, “cooking my way off the street,” and after knocking around restaurants in Baton Rouge, he traveled to Vietnam to find himself. He instead found a mission: Focusing on others to help them communicate more effectively. After coming back and seeing a poor presentation from a Fortune 500 executive at Louisiana State University, he founded a company, Big Fish Presentations, to teach people and organizations how to give better presentations. That firm has since merged with Hatchit to form ThreeSixtyEight.

He’s worked with TED, Paramount Pictures and GE, helping them tell stronger stories that reach people more effectively. He co-authored a book, The Big Fish Experience: Create Memorable Presentations That Reel In Your Audience, that highlights the role of engaging content, memorable and simple design, and powerful delivery when making presentations. We caught up with him recently and talked about the importance of good storytelling.

What Every Story Needs

Nguyen says there are three elements of a great story, and if it’s missing even one of them, it won’t be compelling for the audience. Whether you’re working on marketing content or making a presentation to the C-suite, include these three elements to tell stories people remember.

  • A villain: “Every good story has a villain,” Nguyen says. The villain is what makes the story important and shows what’s at stake. A villain can be a problem, a person or character or a timeline, for example. Nguyen says that for most of his clients, the villain is simply “seeking a solution.”
  • A hero: You can’t have one without the other, Nguyen says, and so the hero can also be a solution, a character, a company or a team that has some sort of conflict with the villain. “The villain makes the hero, and the hero keeps the villain in line.”
  • Suspense: It’s impossible to tell a good story without suspense, Nguyen says. Simply unveiling a solution doesn’t tell the story. You need to talk about the conflict between hero and villain to create a dramatic arc and increase tension before the resolution. To increase suspense, talk about what’s at stake when the villain has its way before bringing the hero in to resolve the action.

Elements of a great story: Next Steps

Once you’ve got the three elements of a great story down, it’s time to put them together. These tips will help you craft a good story:

  • Keep it simple. “It’s hard to follow stories that aren’t clear on what the problem and solutions are,” Nguyen says. “Stories aren’t meant to be difficult. They’re meant to be emotional drivers.” Look for ways to boil down the issue and the language you use to talk about it.
  • Ask yourself “so what?” If you find yourself getting bogged down in details, ask yourself whether those details are adding a little bit of color or simply muddying the issue. “Is it something the audience would care about? What does it do to progress the story?”
  • Use all five senses. When telling stories, you can make listeners feel like they’re a part of the action by incorporating language that describes the five senses, Nguyen says. If you’re recounting something dramatic that happened to you, talk about how the air smelled that day or the sounds you heard before it occurred. If you’re talking to your team (hero) about the unexpectedly tight deadline (villain) you’re now facing, use sensual metaphors such as “digging in” and “taste of victory” to outline the problem.

All presentations should be stories, Nguyen says. “If you knew how a presentation was going to go, you’d probably rather read a PDF about it,” he says. “But when there are surprises and twists and turns, you’re more likely to listen and be engaged.” Whether it’s a formal TED-style talk or a team meeting, setting information up in a story-style format helps keep people interested.