The 5 Elements of Great Storytelling | Case Study of Leslie Morgan’s TED Talk

The essence of public speaking is to tell a story and make a point. 

But what exactly makes a great story? What are the elements that go into creating stories that captivate your audience members? What kind of stories should you include in your speeches and presentations?

In this post, we will look at the five step structure of great stories.

Storytelling Element #1: Characters You Can See

Who are the main characters in your story? 

Give a hint about what your main characters look like so audience members can visualize the characters. Provide a little bit of information about the characters’ appearances so that audience members can “see” the characters.

The two characters in Leslie’s speech are Leslie and her ex-husband. 

Since Leslie is standing on stage, we don’t need any description of her. 

What about her ex-husband? What information do we have about him? 

Leslie tells us that her ex-husband, Conor, “had just graduated from an Ivy League school, and that he worked at a very impressive Wall Street bank … he was smart and funny and he looked like a farm boy. He had these big cheeks, these big apple cheeks and this wheat-blond hair, and he seemed so sweet.” Leslie gives us enough information about Conor to create a mental image of him in our heads.

When telling stories in your speeches and presentations, make sure that you provide some specific details about how your main characters look.

Storytelling Element #2: Escalating Conflict

The conflict is the hook of the story. 

The conflict is what keeps audience members curious to find out what happens next in the story. 

Your audience members become interested in finding out how the conflict will be resolved. 

For example, what was the main conflict in the movie “Titanic”? The ship was sinking and people were struggling to stay alive. More specifically, the two main characters – Jack and Rose – were struggling to stay alive. 

Would they stay alive? Would they die? There was also a secondary conflict in the movie regarding Jack and Rose’s relationship. Would they find a way to be together? Or would they break up because they were from such different backgrounds?

Every great movie you watch or great book you read has a main conflict that keeps you hooked to find out how (or whether) the conflict will be resolved.

What’s the conflict in Leslie’s story? 

“Conor used my anger as an excuse to put both of his hands around my neck as and to squeeze so tightly that I could not breathe or scream, and he used the chokehold to hit my head repeatedly against the wall. Five days later, the ten bruises on my neck had just faded, and I put on my mother’s wedding dress, and I married him. Despite what happened, I was sure we were going to live happily ever after, because I loved him, and he loved me so very much….It was an isolated incident, and he was never going to hurt me again. It happened twice more on the honeymoon. The first time…” 

The conflict in Leslie’s story is that she is being physically abused by her then-husband but can’t leave him because she’s in love with him and keeps believing he will change.

Storytelling Element 3: The Spark that Resolves the Conflict

The conflict in the story needs to be resolved in some way. 

What’s the “spark” that resolves the conflict? 

The spark should help audience members overcome the conflicts they may be facing in their own lives. The spark is what adds value to your audience’s life. 

What’s the spark in Leslie’s story? 

“I was able to leave, because of one final, sadistic beating that broke through my denial. I realized that the man who I loved so much was going to kill me if I let him. So I broke the silence. I told everyone: the police, my neighbors, my friends and family, total strangers…” 

The spark is that Leslie finds the courage to leave Conor because of one final beating which broke through her denial.

Storytelling Element 4: Characters Who Transform as a Result of the Conflict

What personality/attitude shifts do your characters undergo as a result of having overcome the conflict? How are they different compared to the beginning and end of the story? How do they change physically, emotionally or spiritually because of the conflict? 

For example, after going through hardship, a character may become tougher. After struggling through poverty, a character may start up a business and become wealthy (rags to riches story). 

In Leslie’s story, the change is that she goes from being in an abusive relationship to finally getting out of it. She goes from being in denial about her situation to finally accepting that the man she loved so much was going to kill her. Furthermore, she goes from keeping her abusive relationship a secret to sharing her story with the world so that she can help others in similar situations.

Storytelling Element 5: The Takeaway Message

The essence of public speaking is to “tell a story and make a point.” 

So, what’s the point of your story? 

What’s the one thing you want your audience members to remember from your story, speech or presentation? 

So, as an example, what’s the takeaway message of Leslie’s story? 

Leslie uses her story to take us through the different steps of a domestic violence relationship, but the final takeaway message for her audience is that instead of blaming victims of violent relationships for staying in those relationships, we should “recast survivors as wonderful, loveable people with full futures. Recognize the early signs of violence and conscientiously intervene, de-escalate it, show victims a safe way out.” 

In a Nutshell

Captivate your audience with stories. Make sure your stories contain the five essential essential elements of great storytelling

• Characters that the audience can see 
• Conflict that keeps the audience glued 
• A spark that helps resolve the conflict in the story 
• A change in character
• A key takeaway message for your audience

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