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  • Writer's pictureFrancisco Mahfuz

E110. 5 Ways to Fix Your Stories (and Javier Bardem!)

Below is an AI-generated transcript and therefore it may contain errors.

Francisco Mahfuz 0:00

Welcome to the Storypowers podcast, the show about the power of stories, the people who tell them and why you should be doing it too. I'm your host, keynote speaker and storytelling coach Francisco Mahfuz. This is normally an interview show. But this will be the third episode in a row where I'm doing this solo. Now, why is that? Well, I could try and feed you some BS about how sometimes what my audience needs is a very pointed episode to pick apart some tactical elements of storytelling, which it is kind of true. But the reality is that I am a much better storyteller, than I am a logistics manager for a podcast. So I've had a struggle to get my guests to do his schedule, that time where I could, I could just keep them going regularly, as I have done in the past. But so I'm doing this one last one for a while. So episode, and then the I have I have some very good guests lined up for the rest of the season. But this is going to be, I think, a really exciting episode, because I'm gonna address the main thing. How do I describe this? Is it the most important thing in storytelling? It probably is, I mean, if you get this thing, right, there's essentially no way that you can tell a bad story. If you don't get it right, there is a pretty good chance that your story is going to be either not good, are much worse than it should be. And what I'm talking about is the moment, I'm not going to bore you more with introduction. So here we go. First of all, what exactly is the moment? So the moment is a term used by a lot of storytellers. And sometimes it confuses people, because because some storyteller is referred to the moment of change, but is not or it's a part of the moment or but not always. So this can get somewhat confusing for some people. So let me try and clarify this the best way I can. If we think what a story is, in essence, a story is something that happened, you know, I describe it often as a real life example that you use to make a point. But think of the stories you tell your friends every day, they're always about something that happened often to you. So I don't know you were at a bar, and you walked into the bathroom. And there was a woman in there. But there shouldn't be any woman in there. Because it's the it's the gents toilets. And I'm giving away that I spent a lot of time in the UK, in a woman looks at you and says, I know you're not going to believe what's happened. But I have a good reason to be here. And then she tells you, whatever she tells you, you would go back to your friends and say, You don't believe what just happened to me, I walked into, you know, so I'll walk into the bathroom. And this, this woman is there and she shouldn't be there. So all you're describing is the moment is the thing that actually happened. Because when you tell a story, often you have what came before which we can call the context, I tend to call that default. And then you have what came after which some people might call the consequences or the resolution. But the thing itself, is the moment. Another way of thinking about this is in using the language of movies. And this one I learned from Marcia and Dora, which was an amazing guest for the show a few episodes back, not a few, maybe 30 or 40. But you know, they pile up quickly. So what Marsha likes to tell her students or clients is to think of stories as movies. So for example, most movies, they happen, they have action scenes, they're happening in real time, people are talking to each other, they're doing things, they're they're moving around. So those are those actions, thing, things, those action scenes are the moment in comparison, you also have a montage in you have VoiceOver so in the beginning of a movie, like Star Wars, it's a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. So that's a voiceover it's kind of the most boring part of any movie. But that's the way a lot of people tell stories. They're just telling us they're not showing us anything. That's kind of a voiceover. So you have the action scene, which is the moment you have the voiceover which is just you telling people a lot of stuff. Some people call this exposition, and you also have montages in movies you know, like Rocky Balboa preparing to fight Apollo Creed in his you know, his training. There's no and he's pulling us lad then he's dragging a carcass or whatever. So that's a montage. It's a whole bunch of As you're not practising telling it badly, I kind of improvised that just now. But what did they what was missing from that story. And if you write down what was missing, or you know, just try and keep a tab in your mind, if that's how your mind works, then when I tell you what the elements are for to bring the moment to life, you hopefully there'll be a lot of overlap between the two in the lists, even though you probably will have said it in a different way than I would. So the very first element that people should use to bring their stories to life is sensory descriptions. Okay, so tell us how something looks like I think that's the mainland. Because if we can make a little movie in our minds by imagining a classroom or a pub, or you know, an office, that makes it way more engaging for our brains, okay, so I would almost always give a location as the one of the main sensory descriptions I would use, you can tell how things sound, you can tell us how they smell like if that's, that makes sense. If you're talking about foods, that maybe you can talk about how things taste, there might be an option to talk about temperature, it's hot, it's cold, about something more tactile, you know, it was the floor was rough, or it was very smooth shirt or whatever. Okay? When you do any of those things, you are engaging these sensory areas of your brain, there's five of them. And that's one of the reasons why stories can be a lot more engaging than other forms of communications, because they're literally engaging more areas of our brain. Now, one thing that a lot of people get wrong here is that they do want none of it, we just kind of what I did in the story, pretty much, or too much of it, like nobody cares what people are dressed, like, unless it's absolutely irrelevant to the story, right? You can say, a classroom, people know what a school classroom looks like. And if you describe it in too much detail, not only it's irrelevant to the story, but they will also think it's important, so there'll be waiting for something to come to happen from that there is a literature isn't a trope is a theory. And I don't know, it's an idea from Chekhov, which is called Chekhov's Gun, where he says, if there was a gun in the first act of a play by the third act that needs to fire, and you see this in movies, it's terrible if they put a gun in the scene, and nobody gets shot with a gun at any point, okay, needs to be important. Otherwise, you're wondering who's going to get shot? So what is the rule I use, I always give some sort of description of the I could say what the location is, so people can imagine it in then I might give a one or two other sensory descriptions, just so I can paint a slightly better picture. And that's it. Okay. Now, the next one is dialogue. Have people talk to each other directly? Don't say I said this, he said that, because that's boring. And it takes longer. So just talk to each other directly. Or talk to yourself, have your own internal dialogue come up. So he says, so I'm thinking what is going on here like I don't, you know, it feels more natural. When you do that. It's faster, moves. The story along feels more dynamic. It's all good things. Some people like to do accents. If you perfect that accents. In you know, you're not going to offend anybody by doing the accent, by all means. I hardly ever bother, perhaps because I'm awful at accents, okay, but have dialogue in their dialogue alone might be the biggest hack for most people. Because if I say to them, you need to have actual dialogue in your story. It's impossible to have dialogue without having a little bit of a moment, because two characters need to be there talking in real time. So it might not work perfectly. But it's one of the easiest ways for people to have a moment in the stories. If I say to them, you need to put actual dialogue in there. Okay. The third element is feelings. So tell us how the characters are feeling. So I was really frustrated. And that made me really angry. That's it. That doesn't mean you need to have all sorts of drama in your story. But tell us how the characters are feeling. Again, going back to Marsha, she has this other sort of shorthand for telling good stories that I really like, which says, tell us what it looked like, and tell us how you felt. So what did it look like? How did it feel? What did it look like? How did it how did you feel? Okay, that works really, really well. The fourth technique is stakes. So what's at stake, if that problem doesn't get resolved, because the story needs a problem the characters care about, if they don't care at all about what's happening, then, you know, we don't care either. Okay. And again, if we go back to the story I just told I didn't have the sensory descriptions. I didn't have any dialogue in there. I didn't tell you much about feelings. I kind of said my wife was pissed off at the end. That was it. That was the the sum of all the feelings I talked about. And when it came to the stakes, what it didn't matter if she got a picture of Javier Bardem or not, I didn't tell you that. Okay. So that doesn't work very well. And the final thing, which is something that some people think is really, really odd, and my wife absolutely hates when I do this, but she's wrong, is telling stories in the present tense. So instead of saying, I was, I got home, and I saw my daughter collapsed on the floor, I say, so I get home. And the first thing I see is my daughter collapsed on the floor, because it makes us feel like it's happening right now. And that's what you really want. You want people to be in the story. And it sounds stranger than it is. And I absolutely can say that, because I'm not the weirdo that has been doing this all along. I do it in Portuguese, which is my mother tongue. But I don't I didn't do it in English. And I actually have an episode with Ryan Avery, where he tells me this, I kind of pushed back a little, then I have an absolute Matthew Dix, which is of all this time, I think still stands as my favourite episode of the show that's called this is going to change your life. I think it's number 47, or 49. Like we talked about that. And he said, It feels weird. Until we do it a few times, once you do it a few times, you'll never go back. It is true. I almost never go back. If I'm thinking about it, if I rehearsed it, so I would suggest you do it. And the trick is the word it's, so it's last week, or it's five years ago, and I'm or and my mother is okay, so but if you start it, you can give the time marker, and then it becomes a little easier. So either eats or I am, okay, because you probably shouldn't stand aside if he's or she is or whatever. Right? So I'm 10 years old, and I'm in the club in the classroom. And so it's or I am. Alright, so those are the five the five different techniques. So sensory descriptions, dialogue, feelings, steaks, and present tense. Now I'm going to tell that story again. And I'm going to add as many of those things as I can. All right, here we go. It's a few years ago, and while I've put this in, I have just come to the oven for the first time. So after we do all the obvious students and stuff, and our feet are getting a little sore, and we had enough of street musicians playing with or without you, we find this this traditional looking pub, and we walk in there, we ask the waitress if we can still get lunch, and she says we can try our luck upstairs. And we don't really get what why she's saying that. So we walk up this spiral staircase. And as we get up there, we understand because this is a really small mezzanine restaurant, they only had about eight tables. But luckily one of them was still available. So as we make our way to the table, we realise that sitting right next to us is none other than Javier Bardem drinking wine, and eating a huge bowl of mussels with with a friend. I'm kind of excited. I mean, this was the time that I've ever done was at its most famous, he had won an Oscar for No Country for Old man, he had been a James Bond villain, but my wife was just beside herself. She was a huge fan, and I think had a crush on him too. You know, we started talking to the side, I'm gonna ask him for a picture. And I said, no, why don't you just take a selfie? He's right behind us. Right? He'll be right in the picture. And she's like, No, that's okay. I'll wait until the end of the wait until he stops eating. And then I'll ask. I don't think that's a great idea. Like literally people alone. But I also have had heard that I've heard them had a reputation for being terrible to his fans. And I knew that if he didn't treat my wife, well, she would get really upset and it would ruin the rest of our, our holiday. So you know, we tried focusing on the rest of her meal, but there was just no chance that was going to happen because she kept looking over my shoulder to see him. And we could hear him like slurping the muscles. And at some point he stopped eating. And then as my wife got up to walk to his table, I couldn't tell you, who of us was more nervous. So she got there. She looked down at him and said, in Spanish, I'm really sorry to bother you. But I'm a huge fan. It would mean a lot to me. If we could take a picture together. Would that be okay? And have you ever them, put down his glass of wine, looked up that my wife and said no, came to see him in the middle of a conversation. And he turned his back to her. And that was it. And my wife came back to the table fuming shaking with anger. And as I expect that kind of the rest of our holiday was ruined. And ever since that day. We cannot watch any Javier Bardem movies in my house. And both of us also learn that just because you admire some very small action scenes, but you're not going into any of them. And the way people do this with their stories is just by a whole bunch of actions that they describe, but not in any detail and not in real time. So you say, we went travelling we were in, we were in Asia. And so we went to Vietnam, in we went riding on an elephant, and then we went to Thailand, and then we ate some scorpions, and things I have actually done in my life. So you know, you're listing two or three things interesting. I've gone there, and I did this. So that's kind of a montage, which is a little better, and allows you to convey a lot of information in one go. But it's still not the most exciting part, the most exciting part is always going to be the action scene. The moment what I usually tell the people in my workshops, or the people that I'm coaching is this, if you're trying to tell me about this great boss you had, don't tell me how it was for six months, describe one performance review, that would be a moment, if you're trying to show me how crazy your family is, don't describe your whole childhood, describe one Thanksgiving dinner, because that example, that moment, not only is going to make for much more exciting storytelling, because it's alive, it's happening there. And then, but also, it's going to serve as a much better example of what you're trying to say. Because you are actually showing us, you know, if you could say, Listen, let me show you how, how amazing my boss was, here's a little video of my boss, talking about me, that's as close to showing as you ever gonna be if you're not in the room, in the story is the oral version of that is you showing us that moment in time, not something that happened over days or weeks or months, just that one particular moment in time. So the way I think most people should start writing or developing crafting any story is, okay, what happened? If it's, you know, yesterday, I got home, man, you're straight into the moment, if you want to tell him about our we know, I want to tell you about how I got into this work. Okay, find me a moment of, of transition, you know, maybe when things change, turning point, something of consequence. That is the example you use to make the rest of the story stick together. So that's the moment you will look for. And then all you need to do is start as close to that moment as possible. And tell us a little bit of what happened after. Okay. I think the moment has the moment in time has been explained well enough. So how do you how do you improve a moment in time? Or how do you make sure that it's as lively as you can? Well, I'm going to tell you the techniques. But before I tell you the techniques, I'm going to give you a story, and I'm going to ask you to do a little bit of an exercise, you're going to write it down great. But if not, just try and do it in your head and is this, I'm going to tell you a story is not going to be a great version of a story. But I want you to think of why it's not great. What's missing from that story. Okay, if you don't write it down, and listen to it fine. It's not going to take long, and then we'll break down the elements. And then I'll put them into the story and see how much it improves it. So a few years ago, my wife Patricia and I went to Dublin and we did all the touristy stuff. And then we walked around this sort of Guinness factory, we went to Temple Bar, we saw a lot of street musicians playing a lot of stuff. And then when we got tired, we got a little hungry, we started looking for a place to eat. And then we found this sort of traditional looking pub, and we asked the waitress if there was a place for us, and she said we could try the mezzanine restaurant. So we went up there, and we found a table. And as we sat down we realised that sitting close to the city right next to us, was none other than the actor Javier Bardem. And this was the time where he was most famous. And my wife was a big fan. So she got pretty excited. I said to her that I didn't think was a great idea to ask him for a picture book because he seemed like he was eating with someone that was a friend or someone from his family. And she still wanted to and then at the end of the dinner, she asked for a picture with him. He was very rude to her and she still pissed off about it now. Okay, I obviously do that kind of badly on purpose. And perhaps the reason is that I know how to tell that story well, so it's difficult to tell it badly and not fall into the habit of telling it the way I'm used to. But it should become obvious that I've done a lot of things wrong there. Okay, now put aside how not very fluid that story is big ones work, that doesn't mean at all that you're going to like them as a person. Okay? It's been a while since I told that one that is a bit a bit riskier than I expected. But there you go. So hopefully you saw all those elements in there. So I put a few more sensor descriptions. So I told you what song the street musicians were playing, I describe the restaurant a little bit more I talk about the spiral staircase, I talked about the the eight tables, I told you exactly what he was drinking and eating. Because again, I thought I liked the visual there. But I didn't tell you what else the restaurant looked like or what he was wearing, or what we were wearing or anything like that. There was some more dialogue in there. So there's the dialogue between me and my wife. And there's a dialogue between my wife and whoever them, I told you about the feelings about my concerns, I told you how angry she was, at the end, I told you how excited she was at the beginning, I told you about the steaks on the steak side of that she likes him a lot. And he might be rude. So if he's rude is going to ruin her holiday. And I don't want my wife to be upset. Okay, so that's why the characters care about what was going on. And again, it doesn't need to be mad that then steaks don't need to be massive, but they need to mean a little bit. In this case, that's it. I know, if I tried to make blowing them up, I would be lying. I don't want to do that. But I gave you a bit of a reason why it matters, that he's not rude to her. And I told her in the present tense as well. Okay. And one thing I did as well is I put a point to the story about how you know, just because you appreciate someone's work assuming you like them as a human being, which is not even the point I usually use the story for I normally use a story with a storytelling point in mind, which is I tend to stop the story just before have you ever done tells my wife anything. And then people are like hooked and want to know what happens. And that's my way to prove of proving to them of how storytelling is engaging. And it does all these things to our brain. Okay, so all of the elements are there. Hopefully, you could see how much better that story sounds when you do that. And you don't need to do all of them. Okay, I would always always suggest that you allow people to have a little movie in their minds by giving them a description of the location or telling them what the location is. You don't need to describe it if they know what what a restaurant typically looks like or classroom looks like. And have a bit of dialogue in there. Those two alone improve a story but you know, try to have a one line about why it matters, the stakes and what the characters are feeling, no drama, just Are they angry? Are they upset? Are they happy? Very small changes. But did they make a massive, massive difference? Okay, I hope you enjoyed that. In the next episodes, we'll be back to our usual interview stuff. And if you really like the solo ones, by all means get in touch with me on LinkedIn, or through my website. Tell me that and tell me if there's anything else in particular that that you'd like me to cover in an episode like this. As always, thanks for tuning in. Take care of yourselves and until next time.

I hope you enjoyed the show. And if you did, I'd love for you to subscribe and leave us a review or rating on the Apple podcasts app. It's very easy. You open the app and find the show. Then scroll down a little and when you see the stars tap, I'd really appreciate it and it does help other people find us. And if you'd like to get in touch or find out more about what I do, reach out to me on LinkedIn or visit my website

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