195 words. In Taylor Swift’s interview with Sam Lanksy for Time Magazine’s Person of the Year, it took only 195 words to recount Swift’s first big break, first career disappointment, and first taste of success.
Taking Swift’s masterful storytelling lead, Lansky was able to share her first break on a Kenny Chesney tour quickly, the gut-wrenching disappointment of not being able to do the tour because she was only 17 and the sponsor was a beer company, and her elation when Chesney gave her a check to make up for it, which she used to pay her band and fuel her dreams.
Just as Swift takes listeners on a three-minute storytelling journey through her music, she’s found an equally compelling way to thread her life story succinctly in her numerous interviews.
That ability to tell an engaging story in three acts – setup, confrontation, and resolution – tightly told for time and attention’s sake is not only a Taylor Swift calling card but the mystique of many great musicians, poets, artists, and videographers who have come before her.
Growing up, I was obsessed with Kahil Gibran’s “The Prophet,” a collection of poetic essays. The cadence with which he could move you from topic to topic was rapid, yet you never felt rushed as a reader. His words on the page were so descriptive and fluid that they invited you to linger on them, internalize them, and be moved by them. What you might take away from his two pages on the topic of “work,” for example, might require a whole book by many present-day success coaches.
I find videographers and documentarians share similar skills. A former colleague recently shared a video Apple posted on social media called “The Lost Voice.” Tristram Ingham, a disability advocate, narrates this Alice in Wonderland-like video using Apple’s Personal Voice feature, yet the beauty of the video is they don’t discuss the feature. Instead through masterful storytelling the video highlights the transformative impact this technology can have. Directed by the Academy Award-winning filmmaker and actor Taika Waititi, this two-minute video brings to life those magical moments of a parent reading their child a bedtime story.
Waititi, Gibran, and Swift all know that great storytelling isn’t about the length of a story or the complexity of it. Instead, it’s about knowing how you want the audience to feel and what they should easily take away from it.
Storytelling is an art, but not one that can’t be learned with practice and patience. The next time you are deep in PowerPoint, working on a new product presentation, or writing web page copy, ask yourself these three things:
- What is the main thing the audience should know?
- How should the audience feel after they’ve consumed it?
- How can I make the story shorter, more concise, and something they will remember?
Who are your favorite storytellers?