What would our lives look like if all forms of storytelling were taken away? There would be no trips to the movies with friends. No bedtime stories read aloud to giggling children. Art and music would change drastically if not disappear altogether. Conversations shared over a meal or a cup of coffee would fall silent. Family histories passed down at sweltering summertime reunions would be lost.
It is hard to imagine our human experience apart from stories.
They help us organize thought and identify with each other. They help us create and share meaning. That’s the reason why so many public speakers choose to use storytelling formats to organize their presentations. Stories resonate with us because they are us. We can’t really make sense of our lives without them.
While there is no end to the adaptations and formats these types of narrative presentations can take, today I want to focus on one particular storytelling format: prologue, plot, epilogue. It’s a classic, partly because it aligns closely with the 3-part introduction, body, conclusion format most speakers are accustomed to, but also because it works. Plain and simple.
Let’s break down the 3 parts of this classic storytelling format, uncovering the purpose of each. Along the way, we’ll also explore some TED speakers who demonstrated each part exceptionally well, giving us examples to emulate in our speaking. This structure is easy to use and incredibly effective once you understand it.
In the classic textbook Public Speaking: Finding Your Voice, the authors say the prologue “sets the scene, introduces the main characters, and foreshadows the story to come.” It kicks everything off. One of the best ways to begin developing your prologue is ask yourself, “what does the audience need to know in order to understand the rest of the story that’s to come?” With that question in mind, you’ll discover that the prologue really has two main functions. First, to catch the audience up to speed. And second, to prepare them for what is to come.
Ron Finley gives an example of a great prologue in his TED Talk, “A Guerrilla Gardner in South Central LA.” Watch the first two minutes of his talk now. In just a couple of minutes, he explains the background, the setting, the characters, and establishes the problem. He sets the scene for the upcoming plot, which he turns toward when he says, “So what I did, I planted a food forest in front of my house.” This transitions into the plot of the presentation.
One of the things that I love about Finley’s prologue is that it’s not boring. He uses pictures and gets the audience laughing from the beginning. Speakers sometimes think that if they use this type of storytelling format, the presentation should start slow. They think they need to lay out all of the background information and dive into detailed history before the action starts. But that’s not at all the case. Prologues in novels and films often make use of something I call a “jump start,” meaning the audience feels suddenly and somewhat hastily invited into a story that has already been going on. You can set the scene, introduce the people and issues, and foreshadow even as the story starts. And you can do it in a way that is entertaining, like Finley did.
Once you’ve set the scene, it’s time to move into the plot. Finding Your Voice says the plot “develops the story from scene to scene and typically builds to some sort of climax.” The plot is where the majority of the story is told. It’s where the action builds, reaches a peak, and ultimately resolves. You’ll spend most of the time of your presentation on the plot. And the way you structure your plot makes all the difference.
You already know the ending. You know what’s coming. But the audience doesn’t. It’s your job to get them there. But how do you do it? Rather than thinking in one straight narrative line, it might help you to think of your plot in terms of movement. Like a river. It has bends you can’t see around, boulders you must avoid, waterfalls, and peaceful pools. It’s all part of the same river, but each section is a little different, and you must attend to each section with care for it all to make sense. You might even think of each movement as a mini-story that must be told well.
If you want to listen to a great example of plot structure in a presentation, check out Jad Abumrad’s TED talk called “How Dolly Parton Led Me to An Epiphany.” His plot sequence starts around 3 minutes in when he says, “Around 2012, I ran into a bunch of different stories that made me think, ‘No.’” From there, he winds the plot from an interview that happens in the mountains of Laos to Dolly Parton’s mountain home in Tennessee. And the movement towards the revelation in his story is winding and entertaining and ultimately breathtaking. After all, a presentation is really just a compelling story, a great journey, well told.
The last part of this classic storytelling structure is the epilogue. Finding Your Voice says that the epilogue “reflects on the meaning of the story.” While this part of the presentation doesn’t have to be long, it does have to be effective. The epilogue is the difference in an audience that leaves changed and an audience that leaves unchanged.
In other words, if you don’t explain how the story has greater impact or meaning for your listeners, they leave thinking, “so what?” They go with their lives and nothing changes—making the presentation inconsequential. Ouch. But if you take time to show them why and how this story, this idea, this information matters, they leave with a new sense of what to do, think, or believe. They leave different. Changed. And I don’t know about you, but to me, that is the definition of a presentation that is effective.
But wrapping everything up isn’t as simple as it sounds. There is a lot riding on the ending. A proper epilogue has to do the tough work of taking a very specific story and infusing it with universal meaning. It’s the “zoom out,” big picture moment of the presentation. It’s the shift from past and present to future.
In her TED talk, “We Don’t ‘Move On’ From Grief,” Nora McInerny demonstrates beautifully the role of the epilogue. Around the 13-minute mark, she begins explaining how her story of grief is, in a sense, everyone’s story of grief. She even asks the question, “what can we do?” followed by a response of what it looks like to move forward with grief. She lays out tangible action steps for dealing with a complicated emotion. And because of that, her audience is able to leave with both a specific picture of grief—her story of loss—but also a greater understanding of how grief functions in all of our lives. And in this way, she encourages all of us who hear her presentation to reflect on how our lives will be different because of what we’ve learned.
So there you have it. A 3-part, classic format that allows you to develop presentation content into a popular storytelling pattern. Prologue. Plot. Epilogue. Set the stage. Tell the story. Reflect on the meaning. You don’t have to complicate your presentation. Use this classic design to do what artists and writers and speakers and musicians and grandparents and CEOs have been doing forever: telling their stories.
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