People love stories. Stories are used constantly in advertising, teaching, and of course entertainment. You can make almost any conversation more interesting by telling stories.
What? You don’t consider yourself a good story teller? No worries, you are in good company. Most people would rather let the “talkative” person regale the group with entertaining and engaging stories. If you despise the idea of being the center of attention for too long, the 20 second story is your solution.
It’s not easy to entertain groups of people with interesting stories. The good news is that stories don’t have to win be Pulitzer-Prize worthy for your listeners to enjoy them. In fact, some of the best stories are simple stories about every day events that may describe a unique twist or occurrence. Stories do not need to be elaborate and long. Did your pet dog accidently nibble on your new shoes? Did your toddler throw up at the grocery store? These events can make great stories, and most stories can be squeezed into 20 seconds. Even better, if your story completely bombed, you will be forgiven because you barely took up anyone’s time. And if your story received a great reaction, then by all means elaborate and go beyond 20 seconds!
20 Second Story Structure
Good stories have a common structure. When you only have 20 seconds, you have to choose your phrases wisely. Try to include most of the following types of phrases and you will be on the right track:
- Set-up phrase
- The Norm phrase
- One or two Detail phrases
- Reaction phrase
- Turning point phrase
- Post-commentary phrase
Set-up phrases help you introduce the story into the conversation. They can also establish the mood of the story and allow your audience to quickly figure out the scene, the background, and the type of story you’re about to tell. For example, “That reminds me, I was just at that store two days ago and I saw the strangest thing…” Keep the Set-ups general but also enticing.
The Norm Phrases
Good stories and humor are created by moving the audience down one path and then hitting their expectations against an opposing path. The Humor section goes into detail about this as well. Let your audience expect one thing, and then introduce the unexpected. The Norm phrase is excellent at establishing an expected path, which you can contrast against later on in the story. For example, “So normally I would just ask for my receipt, but…” or “…so I was watching this movie and I figured it was just going to be some boring chick flick, but…”
It never hurts to add a few details. Details add color and imagery to any story. The aforementioned phrase could be upgraded to, “…so I was watching this Lifetime movie about two heroin addicts who fall in love, and I figured it was just going to be some boring chick flick, but…”
Details also give the listener something else to comment on, in this case, they now could comment on the use of “Lifetime” or “heroin.” For example, “See there’s your problem, you were watching Lifetime movies by yourself again!” or they could respond to your other detail, “Yeah, heroin movies never usually end well…” You get the idea.
Tell your listener how you reacted to the event. A standard reaction phrase could go something like, “He bought me lunch, and I was stunned, I couldn’t believe it.” However, adding actual dialogue can take the phrase to another level. A dialogue phrase is almost always more interesting than describing what you said. Additionally, adding dialogue gives you so much more freedom to exaggerate. Instead of saying, “I was so mad at him, I told him to get out…” you could re-enact what happened, “I was so mad…I was like, ‘Get the HELL out of my house you piece of crap!…and I wanted to say, ‘and never come back!’ but I thought that may be too dramatic.”
Turning Point Phrases
Good stories always have a turning point. There are many ways to phrase the turning point. You can always mention something “the moment in time” it happened. For instance, “It was that moment where I felt…” or “…and this is where everything breaks down…” or “that’s the moment where I was like ______!” The turning point is often the height of the action and the climax of the story you’re telling, it is where everything changes as a result of the thing that just occurred. Here are more examples: “He was standing in line, when all of a sudden he leaned over and said…” and “So I finally pulled up to her house and out of nowhere came the…”
Post Commentary Phrases
The post commentary allows you to reflect back on what happened and make witty comments about it. It also helps you wrap up the story and possibly point out the interesting part so your audience catches on to the full meaning of the story. Talk about what you think about the event currently, and/or what has happened since the story events took place, and any other way you want to wrap up the story. The commentary about the story is sometimes the best part – don’t leave it out!
Here are some examples:
“If it wasn’t for Joe, I don’t know where we’d be right now! Probably stuck in a ditch somewhere…”
“I don’t know how they ever got a job…but he made it somehow…I guess that goes to show you that nice guys do sometimes finish last.”
“I almost died from embarrassment…I wanted to jump out the window after that!”
You certainly do not have to use every type of phrase, but even four or five of these phrases could tell an entire story in under 20 seconds. Try it. Write out a few stories using these phrase types and see how you do. Writing out stories using this structure will help re-shape your brain to naturally use the 20 second format.