The Shapes of Stories

It’s January, so many people are thinking about shapes. Mostly the shape their body has taken on over the course of that indulgent, food-centered run from Thanksgiving to New Year’s. But with the new year, most of us vow to turn over new leaves and change some of our unhealthy habits for the better. Could your presentations need a tune up too? Could the next speech you give be better because you changed its shape?

American writer Kurt Vonnegut has been talking about the shape of stories for quite some time. You can find his ideas in his autobiography and in videos of his lectures, like this brief one in which he explains his theory in under 5 minutes. I’m not sure how you use stories in your presentations, but I sure hope you use them. And the following information will give you a few more shapes, or options, for the kind of stories you can use.

The 6 Shapes

Andrew Reagan and his colleagues decided to measure Vonnegut’s theory by mapping over 1,300 fictional stories. Their work was published in EPJ Data Science in 2016. Here’s what they found. Most stories fall into one of 6 shapes.

  • Rags to riches: rise.
  • Riches to rags/tragedy: fall.
  • Man in hole: fall-rise.
  • Icarus: rise-fall.
  • Cinderella: rise-fall-rise.
  • Oedipus: fall-rise-fall.

Seeing any pattern here? All of these popular story shapes are based on rising or falling action. In fact, in his lecture, Vonnegut says, talking of the Cinderella story shape, “We love to hear this story. Every time it’s retold somebody makes another million dollars. You’re welcome to do it.” In other words, we can cash in on story shapes that have proven to be successful, meaningful, and entertaining year after year after year. But how?

How to Use These Shapes

Stories capture our attention because they explain the human experience. And if we can use these popular and familiar patterns of rising and falling in our presentations, then we can better connect with our audiences. Here are a few tips to get started.

  • Look for specific instances in your content where there is rising or falling action. Draw those instances out. This is what interests the audience.
  • Don’t be afraid to tell more than one story in your presentation. Sometimes all you need is one main storyline. But sometimes, your presentation can benefit from multiple stories which all become part of the bigger picture, or the bigger shape.
  • Identify whether you want your presentation to end on a rise or on a fall. They leave the audience with very different emotions. While most presenters want to leave on a positive upswing (a rise), there are times when a fall might help. For example, say your company is in financial trouble and your presentation is meant to motivate the employees to help save funds wherever possible. A presentation which ends on a fall might inspire them to greater action.
  • If you tend toward one specific story shape, try to change it up using one of the other 5 patterns. See how this affects the feel of your content and your audience engagement.

The best news about changing the shape of your stories is that it doesn’t require hours in the gym—just the knowledge that narratives often fall into discernable and familiar patterns. Ones that you can take advantage of when it comes time to write your next great presentation.

We believe the ability to tell a great story is one of the most valuable skills a person can possess. Find out how we can help you tell your story.

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