1: Telling a great story is as simple as 1, 2, 3.
Or, better yet, Act I, II, and III, Esther Choy writes in Let the Story Do the Work: The Art of Storytelling for Business Success.
Interested in a master class in storytelling? Let’s listen in on Stephen J. Dubner, the bestselling author of many books, including Freakonomics, and the award-winning podcast Freakonomics Radio host, as he introduces himself to a live audience in St. Paul, Minnesota.
“I grew up in kind of a strange family in upstate New York . . . Our primary scarcity . . . in a big family, especially me because I was at the bottom of the family [the youngest of eight children], is time alone with a parent. For me, particularly time alone with my father was extremely rare,” Stephen shares.
This is Act I. In two sentences, we now know something about our story’s time, place, and setting. We’ve met our two main characters, Stephen and his dad. And, most importantly, we’ve been “hooked”: Stephen is the youngest of eight kids, and time with his dad is scarce. We’re on a journey, and something consequential is about to happen.
2: “I remember one time . . . [my dad] took me into town to a place called Gibby’s Diner. . . . So, we’re at this counter, and we’re looking at this mirror. You know the one’s diners have. So you can see the whole diner in back of us.
“He says, ‘I want to teach you something called the power of observation. It’s this game I have. What I want you to do is to spend the next five minutes or so just looking around and tak[ing] it all in. I want you to look and listen and smell and just take it all in.’
“I have no idea where my dad is going with this, but it’s this wonderful, precious thing, and I’m going to do anything he tells me to do. So I do it.
“Then after a few minutes, he says, ‘Okay. I want you to close your eyes now.’ So I close my eyes, and he says, ‘Okay, the waitress, Ann: what color apron is Ann wearing?’
“And I say, ‘White?’ And he says, ‘Aw, come on, you’re just guessing.’ So I say, ‘White!’ And he says, ‘You’re right.’
“‘Since we started this,’ he continues, ‘how many cars have pulled into the parking lot? The guy over there, what color shirt is he wearing?’ On and on and on. And I’m terrible. I have no powers of observation whatsoever.
“So he says, ‘Open your eyes and we’ll start it again.’ And we do it again and I’m still terrible. We do it over and over and over again,” Stephen remembers.
During Act II, young Stephen faces a series of challenges as part of the journey we are on. No challenges, no story.
3: “After about twenty minutes, it turned out that I had developed some powers of observation. I learned on that day that memory, or at least observation, is a muscle. You can build it and you can turn it into something. . .,” Stephen remembers. “After doing it for so long, [I have] the ability to look at the world and try to see what’s happening and try to explain it and write it down. That’s all I have, and that’s what I do. And the good thing is I love to do it.”
Act III answers all the open questions and brings the main character—and the audience—to a fulfilling resolution. Something inside our main character has changed. “If conflict is the nerve center of story, change is the soul of it,” writes Esther. “Without change, a story feels lifeless and aimless.”
Esther’s one suggestion for Stephen? “In a different context though, one in which [Stephen]’s work was unfamiliar, he might need to make the ‘So, that’s why I’m here, and this is why we are having this conversation’ connection [even] clearer.”
Reflection: Consider a situation where I want to persuade someone to take action. What story could I tell to achieve my desired outcome? How could I organize it into three acts?
Action: Tell it.