🚀 The Book in 3 Sentences
- Telling stories gives you the ability to connect with people around you and to remember special moments in your life
- Great stories are those that show a change in your character, and this change almost always happens in a 5-second moment
- Everyone has great stories to tell, no matter how mundane you may think your life may be.
I was drawn to this book because a lot of my work now revolves around telling stories. It’s a skill that I’ve been learning about for some time now and actually I’m a bit surprised I didn’t pick this book one up earlier.
The book doesn’t actually talk about narrative writing structures e.g. The Hero’s Journey or the Three Act Structure, which was a little unexpected. However, the book is about telling personal, true stories. Just about crafting them in a way that moves people and shows vulnerability.
This book is fantastically written and really teaches all of the concepts by example. The storytelling throughout really shines with the lessons being taught. There are so many stories from Matthew’s life in there that I feel like I’m a close friend of his after reading the book.
Who Should Read It?
- Anyone who works in a creative field
- Anyone who works in a job where they need to persuade or influence another colleague, manager, customer or stakeholder
- Anyone looking for a great way to remember your life and find an appreciation for little moments
☘ How the Book Changed Me
- This book gave me plenty of practical tips about how to properly structure a story, whether it be for film, speeches, etc
- The storytelling elements it taught now means that I will never watch movies the same way again. For example I now begin to think of a new story by starting with the end. The beginning of the story will then be as opposite of the ending as possible.The book doesn’t actually talk about traditional narrative fiction structures e.g. The Hero’s Journey or the Three Act Structure, which was a little unexpected. However, the book is about telling personal, true stories. It does teach you how to craft stories in a way that moves people and shows vulnerability though.
✍ My Top 3 Quotes
- “when you tell stories, you do yourself a kind favor by taking a moment to write your name in the wet cement of life before you head to whatever is next.”
- “Every great story ever told is essentially about a five-second moment in the life of a human being, and the purpose of the story is to bring that moment to the greatest clarity possible.”
- “Simply put, the beginning of the story should be the opposite of the end. Find the opposite of your transformation, revelation, or realization, and this is where your story should start.”
📒 Summary + Notes
Why tell stories?
- To put your life in perspective.
If I can recommend storytelling to you for any reason at all, it would be that storytelling helps you realize that the biggest, scariest, most painful or regretful things in your head get small and surmountable when you share them with two, or three, or twenty, or three thousand people.
- To remember your life. You, me and everyone around us are disappearing – and stories are a way to not only remember your own life, but be a guide to others who might walk the path after you.
How to find your stories
Ok so maybe you’ve decided that you’d like some stories to tell about your life.
There are 2 methods Matt prescribes in order to uncover these stories:
1. Homework for Life
This involves starting an Excel sheet (I have one in Notion) and simply listing the date in one column, and a short daily story in the other. The thing you need to ask yourself, when you sit down to write it, is: If you had to tell a 5 minute story on stage today, what would it be?
You don’t have to write this down as an entire story, just a 1-2 sentence snippet. Enough for you to remember the moment when you look back on your day.
2. Crash and Burn
This one’s about sitting down with nothing but a pen and paper and writing down anything that comes into your mind. The rules are to never stop writing and to allow your mind to follow whatever stream of consciousness it feels like.
3. First Last Best Worst
A game that you can play where someone gives prompts and you fill in your First, Last, Best and worst experiences of those things
Example of First Best Last Worst from the book
What makes a great story then?
Firstly, what exactly makes a story? What stories should you be telling?
Here’s a few rules:
No one will ever care about your drinking stories as much as you.
No one wants to hear about your vacation.
Don’t tell other people’s stories. Tell your own. But feel free to tell your side of other people’s stories, as long as you are the protagonist in these tales.
The goal, according to Matt, is to tell something that you would to your friend at dinner. This is what he refers to as The Dinner Test. It ensures that your audience thinks of you have a regular human being.
The Ending: A 5 second moment
These five-second moments are the moments in your life when something fundamentally changes forever. You fall in love. You fall out of love. You discover something new about yourself or another person.
This transformation happens in a 5 second moment, and forms the basis for the end of your story.
The Beginning Is The Opposite of the End
With your ending in place, you can formulate your beginning.
Simply put, the beginning of the story should be the opposite of the end. Find the opposite of your transformation, revelation, or realization, and this is where your story should start. This is what creates an arc in your story. This is how a story shows change over time. I was once this, but now I am this. I once thought this, but now I think this. I once felt this, but now I feel this.
Simply ask yourself what the opposite of the first fifteen minutes of a movie is, and you will almost always have your ending.
This will be fun to try (and potentially ruin) every movie I see from now on.
5 Ways to Keep Your Stories Compelling
- An Elephant: This tells the audience what to expect. It infuses the story with instantaneous stakes and should appear as early in the story as possible. Stakes are crucial: They keep your reader reading or your audience watching. What is at peril? What does the storyteller want or need? What will happen next? These questions are the reasons your audience will hang on until the end.
- A Backpack: Is a strategy that increases the stakes of the story by increasing the audience’s anticipation about a coming event. It attempts to do 2 things: 1. Make the audience wonder what will happen next. 2. Make your audience experience an emotion
- Breadcrumbs: Breadcrumbs hint at a future event but only reveal enough to keep the audience guessing
- Hourglass: Slowing your story down right before the climax. Describe things in excruciating detail to build up anticipation of what you’ll say next
- Crystal Ball: A Crystal Ball is a false prediction made by a storyteller to cause the audience to wonder if the prediction will prove to be true.
The 5 Permissible Lies of True Storytelling
Stories you tell about yourself should be as truthful as possible. But sometimes it’s necessary to change a few elements of the story that aren’t important in order to craft a better story. Whatever you do, you must not lie in order to make yourself look better. You also must not add something to a story that was not already there. Telling stories is all about vulnerability.
- Omission: Eliminate people and things from the story when they serve any purpose to them. Pretend they’re not there.
- Compression: pushes time and space together to make the story easier to understand.
- Assumption: Assume specific details about things that you deem important to the story, but make them reasonable. E.g. Assume the make and model of a car that drives past in order to give the audience a sense of where/when you are
- Progression: Changing the order of events to make it more emotionally satisfying for the audience
- Conflation: Push all the emotion of the story into a single time frame. Because stories are more entertaining this way. This also means compressing all of the emotional transformation into a short time
Cinema of the Mind
Let me say it again, because it’s that important: A great storyteller creates a movie in the mind of the audience.
Always provide a physical location for every moment of your story. That’s it. If the audience knows where you are at all times within your story, the movie is running in their minds.
Using “But” and “Therefore”
Using these words in your story is a lot more interesting than using “and”.
For example: I went to the supermarket and didn’t buy anything and I went home
I went to the supermarket, but they didn’t sell what I wanted, therefore I went home.
The second one sounds a lot better, because it includes the “but” and “therefore”.
Sometimes sentence can contain “hidden” “but”s and “therefore”s. What they do is give your story a more interesting flow. It keeps your audience on their toes as you constantly switch tracks.
Other Useful Nuggets For Crafting Your Story
The longer you speak, the more perfect and precise you need to be
So keep your story as short as necessary.
In storytelling, our job is to describe action, dialogue, and thought. It is never our job to summarize these things.
the strategies for preserving and enhancing surprise in a story: 1. Avoid thesis statements in storytelling. 2. Heighten the contrast between the surprise and the moment just before the surprise. 3. Use stakes to increase surprise. 4. Avoid giving away the surprise in your story by hiding important information that will pay off later (planting bombs)
If you want your story to linger with your audience (and that should be your goal), you should end in a place that is moving, vulnerable, or revealing, or establishes connection with the audience.
Stories can never be about two things.
How to Tell Your Story Once You Have One
- Use the present tense: it creates a sense of immediacy
- Whenever possible, avoid telling a success story. They’re not interesting, don’t show any vulnerability and are harder for people to connect to. If you must though, ensure you: 1. Malign yourself. 2. Marginalize your accomplishment.
- Don’t ask rhetorical questions. It sucks the audience out of the present tense and with it the cinema their minds.
- Don’t use props. They never help. Even worse, they always hurt.
- An anachronism is a thing that is set in a period other than that in which it exists. Avoid these at all costs.
- Wear plain clothing if you’re telling your story onstage. This helps the audience focus on your story and not you.
- Don’t do accents. It’s just offensive more often that not. Unless they’re your parents or grandparents.
- Don’t memorise your stories. It’s hard to be authentic and vulnerable when you’re reciting lines. Instead, try and memorise the scenes of the story and tell it from there.
- Try and be entertaining. When you are entertaining, people learn better. You convey information more effectively. This applies whether you’re telling a story onstage, giving a presentation at work or telling your family a story at the dinner table.