We get asked to “tell our story” all the time in the arts. Who are you? Why do you value this work? What is it that you hope to accomplish? How will you get there?
Funders demand it from grant applicants. Legislators require it of state agencies, lobbyists, and constituents. Individual artists have to do it to justify their work.
Even as a working professional, being able to concisely “tell the story” of what I do all day is an important skill, especially at family reunions, when Crazy Uncle Dave asks: “Now, what is it you do again?”
But rarely do any of us do it well. We get so wrapped up in the desired outcome of telling our story that we forget: the best way to achieve that outcome is to tell a compelling story. It’s as simple as that.
At a professional development training earlier this month, hosted by SpeakeasyDC, I was reminded of what it actually takes to TELL A STORY.
The facilitators asked us to think of a time when the arts impacted our lives.
We started by telling the story out loud to someone else (writing or typing your story will activate the “mean writing teacher” that sits on your shoulder, bogging you down in grammar and punctuation and sentence structure. Keep it verbal and keep going). This helps you and your listener determine which points are memorable and which are expendable.
Then our partner told the story back to us. See how it is no longer MY story, but THE story? That’s what we’re going for: finding a universal truth that the listener can connect to their own life. That’s the whole point to a good story. And when pitching a project to a funder, isn’t that your goal?
Then, we went in the time machine: back to seventh grade Language Arts class. Yes, this:
It may seem overly simple, but all we did was apply a plot diagram to our story.
And here’s the thing: it wasn’t the tedious exercise I remembered from seventh grade. It was actually a tool that helped me find the details needed to carry the listener on the story’s journey, to flesh out the protagonist, to make the most of the climax and to drive home the resolution.
Aided by skillful facilitators, the story took on a complete arc and became a powerful advocacy tool.
Thinking about your organization, school or project in terms of a plot diagram can be a tool for helping you tell your story more effectively. And if you need a little extra coaching, try connecting with a writing group in your area. The basic elements of a compelling story doesn’t change, regardless of your desired outcome.
What story would you like to tell more effectively? Who is your protagonist? What expositional details does the listener need to know?
What is the conflict? (You HAVE to have a central conflict!) What are the rising actions that build suspense? What is the climax? Tell me a story!