Would you like to be able to tell a killer story — one that grabs your listeners and makes your point with emotion and impact? Sometimes the best way to learn how is to study a master storyteller in action.
Here’s a TED talk from Ric Elias, CEO of Red Ventures and a passenger on Flight 1549, the plane that crash-landed in New York’s Hudson River in January 2009. His story is brimming with emotion and impact, and it’s less than five minutes long.
I’m going to break down what he’s doing, beat by beat, so if you open the video in one browser window and keep this post in another (pretty fancy, I know), you’ll be able to follow along.
• Opening: “Imagine a big explosion as you climb to 3,000 feet. Imagine a plane full of smoke.” What a grabber of a beginning! Elias wastes no time, but immediately puts us in that plane. Notice that he doesn’t say “My plane was climbing to 3,000 feet, when suddenly I heard an explosion.” Instead of an “I” story, he makes it a “you” story from the get-go.
• Sensory details: As part of his opening (and later, as well), Elias brings in two of the senses — smoke filling the plane and the strange sound the engines make. Using telling sensory details (but not too many of them) helps bring a story to life.
• Humor: Although this is a serious story, he adds a dash of humor at several points (1:01, 1:20, and 3:46, for example) with offhand, throwaway comments. An audience can tire of relentless seriousness, even in a serious story, and Elias accounts for this in his presentation.
• Transition into first point: At about 1:30, just as he’s reached a gripping part of the story, he moves into talking about his message — the “three things I learned.” Does he have our attention? Oh, yeah. It’s a smooth transition, and he carries us with him easily.
• Weaving the story, Part I: At about 2:14, after having made his first point, he starts his second. But first, he remembers to put us briefly back into the story, maintaining our connection with his tale. “The second thing I learned, as we cleared the George Washington Bridge — just barely…”
• Weaving the story, Part II: At about 3:00, as Elias begins his third point, he once more reconnects with his story world: “As I see the water coming up.” He talks about his odd realization that dying is not scary, just sad. We’re still with Elias in that plane, having those realizations along with him.
• Emotion: As if all this weren’t enough, around 3:40, he brings powerful emotion into the story with the honest comment, “I only wish that I could see my kids grow up.” By allowing himself to be this vulnerable (you can hear him almost choke up), Elias makes an emotional connection with the audience.
• The wrap-up: By 4:18, he’s wrapping up the story of the plane crash and letting us know he was given the gift of a miracle by surviving it. Of course, we know he survived because we’re listening to him (duh), but the audience needs to hear the story ending to feel complete.
• Call to action: At 4:30, Elias mirrors his opening in the words of his call to action, “Imagine that this same thing happens on your plane. How would you change? What would you get done that you’re waiting to get done?” He challenges the audience to examine their own lives and leaves them with a question to ponder.
Now, let’s be honest. Not every story is as flat-out dramatic as Ric Elias’s tale of the plane crash and what it taught him. But if you structure your presentation as he did, using humor and emotion, weaving the tale in with your key points, and closing with a strong call to action, your own story is sure to have a happy ending.