We all know that real stories make your presentation shine. But, can you tell an effective story in less than 30 seconds?
Imagine you’re giving a presentation, speech or recording a podcast.
You have a lot of content to cover. You want to use a story to illustrate a point. You feel like you just don’t have the time to do it.
Stories are great, but we don’t all have enough time to drop three minutes from our presentation to add one in.
That’s where micro-stories come in. Micro-stories are complete stories that take only 30 seconds to one minute. They are hugely effective and they don’t steal too much time from the rest of your presentation.
The master of micro-stories is Seth Godin.
Seth Godin: The Master of Micro-Stories
Seth Godin is a world class presenter and storyteller. He uses a huge number of specific, real-life stories to illustrate his lessons about marketing in the post-advertising age.
A while back, I took “Seth Godin’s Freelancer Course“. In it, he fit hundreds of real-life stories into just 2.5 hours of teaching. Each story is fully formed and demonstrates his point with astounding clarity and colour. Not only that, the stories are fun, surprising, emotional and, most importantly, they stick with you long after the presentation is over. This is exactly what you want for your own presentation stories.
Seth shows us that you don’t have to spend lots of time to tell a good story.
I’m going to show you how he fit a full story into just 22 seconds, and you can do it too.
What Are Micro-Stories?
First things first, what is a micro-story?
“Micro-story” is a term that I have come up with — at least, with regards to presentations — so it’s worth taking a moment to define them.
I borrowed the concept from “microfiction”, which is a story of only a few hundred words. When we are talking about presentations, however, we don’t think in terms of words but in terms of time.
I define a micro-story as any complete story which lasts under a minute.
When a story gets longer than a minute, the audience start to notice that it is a story. The best presenters can “sneak” stories into their presentations so that you don’t even notice they are there.
Micro-stories are effective because they illustrate a point clearly and succinctly.
The Model: Three Key Turning Points (The Pincer Movement)
You can only really understand a story if you can fix down its key turning points. This is the approach which screenwriters have been using for decades, and it works very well.
When you are the audience, you only want to “feel” the story on an emotional level. When you are a writer, however, you need to understand the nuts and bolts of how the story works. For this, you need to analyse it so you can write effective micro-stories yourself.
I often use an model called the Five Key Turning Points to analyse stories, which is a model proposed by Hollywood story expert Michael Hauge. It works very well for longer stories, but for micro-stories I use a simplified version.
I call my simplified approach “The Pincer Movement” and I’ve developed my own system for reliably constructing stories using this method. In summary, The Pincer Movement tackles only three key turning points:
- The Inciting Incident — The incident which drags the protagonist from their old life into the story. This occurs at 10% into the story.
- The Point of No Return — The moment in the story which makes it impossible for the protagonist to go back to their old life and inevitable that they will reach the end. This occurs at 50% into the story.
- The Climax — Everything that the whole story has been leading up to. The protagonist is victorious, or not. This happens at about 90% to 99% into the story.
Each of these moments describes a specific moment in the story. Between each moment, there is usually some “development”. With micro-stories, this all happens very quickly.
I call it The Pincer Movement because, when I’m writing the story, I attack the two ends of the story first (The Inciting Incident and The Climax) before I nail down the middle (The Point of No Return). So, my writing process is a bit like a scorpion grabbing its prey with both pincers and stinging in the middle.
Micro-Stories vs Unfinished Anecdotes
Before we get onto Seth’s 22 second story, it’s worth making a distinction.
Sometimes a presenter will seem to be using a micro-story, but in fact they are just telling an “unfinished anecdote”. This is a story which does not have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Usually, they are missing the end of the story.
Sometimes unfinished anecdotes are useful, but you need to know how to use them properly. If all of your stories are unfinished anecdotes it suggests lazy writing.
Seth Godin’s TED Talk —The Power of Being Remarkable
At the time of writing, Seth Godin’s TED talk on “How to get your ideas to spread” has now been watched by over 5 million people. If you haven’t watched it before — and you have 17 minutes to spare — I highly recommend watching the whole presentation.
Seth’s talk is about being remarkable. Using real-world examples, he demonstrates how the old business model of advertising no longer works. The only way to succeed in business is to be remarkable.
He uses several micro-stories throughout the talk. The one I want to focus on is the story of Lionel Poilâne, a French Baker. It comes up on the video at 8 mins 53 seconds. This story is a perfect example of the power of the micro-story.
Here is the video, starting at the story:
The Story: Lionel Poilâne and His Remarkable Bread
The story is made up of two parts: the introduction and the micro-story itself. Here’s how long they take:
- Introduction + Micro-story = 43 seconds
- Micro-story alone = 22 seconds
Now, we can argue over whether the introduction is part of the story or not.
Personally, I think that the introduction is separate. This is because the 43 second version does not pass my “movie synopsis test” (i.e. Can I imagine this micro-story as a movie?). The 22 second version, however, does pass the test.
Here is is what Seth says in the introduction:
“This guy, Lionel Poilâne, the most famous baker in the world — he died two and a half months ago, and he was a hero of mine and a dear friend. He lived in Paris. Last year, he sold 10 million dollars’ worth of French bread. Every loaf baked in a bakery he owned, by one baker at a time, in a wood-fired oven. And when Lionel started his bakery…”
All that is just background information.
Here is the micro-story:
“When Lionel started his bakery, the French pooh-pooh-ed it. They didn’t want to buy his bread. It didn’t look like “French bread.” It wasn’t what they expected. It was neat; it was remarkable; and slowly, it spread from one person to another person until finally, it became the official bread of three-star restaurants in Paris. Now he’s in London, and he ships by FedEx all around the world.”
These 71 words contain all of the elements of a complete story. Let’s strip it down so we can fully understand how it works.
Breaking Apart the Micro-Story to See How it Works
Here are the three turning points of that story, with development in between. Obviously the timings are approximate, as it takes time to say the words.
|Story Moment||Percentage of Story||Approx. Time in video||Words|
|Beginning||0% — 10%||9:14||When Lionel started his bakery,|
|The Inciting Incident||10%||9:15||the French pooh-pooh-ed it. They didn’t want to buy his bread.|
|Development||10% — 50%||9:19||It didn’t look like “French bread.” It wasn’t what they expected. It was neat;|
|The Point of No Return||50%||9:25||it was remarkable; and slowly,|
|Development||50% — 90%||9:30||it spread from one person to another person until finally,|
|The Climax||90%||9:34||it became the official bread of three-star restaurants in Paris.|
|End||90% — 100%||9:36||Now he’s in London, and he ships by FedEx all around the world.|
This is a great example of a micro-story with no added crap. Let’s walk through these plot points one by one:
- Beginning: Lionel starts his bakery. This is the opening of the story, there’s no need for any extra crap about who Lionel is, where he came from or why he decided to open the bakery. We just jump straight in at the beginning, when the bakery opens.
- The Inciting Action: The purpose of the story is to demonstrate the remarkableness of Lionel’s bread. So, the inciting incident is just that, right at the beginning: the French didn’t like his bread. Not a great start to a business.
- Development: Here we’re getting some development about why the French didn’t expect bread like Lionel’s. The implication here is that Lionel is persevering despite what seem like insurmountable challenges. We haven’t reached the Point of No Return yet, so there’s still a chance that the whole venture will go wrong.
- The Point of No Return: The point of no return is signposted by the single word “remarkable”, which is the whole point of this story. So far, the odds have been stacked against Lionel and his bread. Now, suddenly, there is a shining light.
- Development: Things are going well for Lionel. We see how the idea of his bread spreads from person to person around Paris.
- The Climax: The climax of the story is when Lionel’s bread becomes the official bread of three star restaurants in Paris. Its remarkableness won through and it is a success.
- The End/The Aftermath: What happened after Lionel’s success? Well, his bread has just gone from strength to strength. Now the bread goes all over the world… because it’s remarkable.
What’s Remarkable About Seth’s Story
What amazes me about Seth’s story is that it such a perfect example of the story structure in less than 30 seconds. The most remarkable thing is how closely he hits the plot points in terms of time.
This isn’t just due to the word count. He uses pauses very skilfully to hit the plot points. My favourite is the way he slows down when he say “It was neat, it was remarkable, and slowly”, which makes the word “remarkable” hit exactly at the 50% mark in the story.
I have no doubt that Seth Godin does this unconsciously. He is a skilled storyteller and I doubt that he sits down with a stopwatch to plot out all of his micro-stories. By now, it’s natural to him.
However, if you want to replicate his skill, you have to start by consciously planning your micro-stories, to the second. As you get better, you can dispense with your stopwatch and just go with your gut.
Exercise: Write Your Own Micro-Story
Now, try to write your own micro-story! If you are feeling adventurous, try to keep it under 30 seconds.
Here are a few tips on writing micro-stories:
- Start by just writing out the story. Don’t worry about time.
- Then, choose your target time (I find 45 seconds is a good one).
- Use our online calculator to calculate when each of the key moments should fall.
- Match moments in your story to each moment.
- Ruthlessly cut out parts of your story. It will definitely start off too long, so cut it down to its bare essentials (I show how to do this in the post 8 Steps to Make Any Story Funnier).
- Rehearse it out loud with a stopwatch and cut out more parts of the story so it stays under time.
When you have finished, copy your micro-story into the comments below.