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Ex-SNL Writer Reveals How to Improve Storytelling

Ex-SNL Writer Reveals How to Improve Storytelling

Juxtaposition is a simple technique that comedy writers employ when they’re wrestling with the blank page.   I had a fun visit with Marcia Riefer Johnston at the Content Marketing Institute about how marketers can use this approach to quickly generate a bunch of ideas.

comedy hacks to improve storytelling

Improv Exercise

We did a fun improv exercise at Social Media Marketing World in San Diego during my creative writing session.  I asked the audience for two suggestions, and they offered “circus” and “bacon.”  Together we applied the juxtaposition technique to inspire new ideas.  We discovered a few new patterns that led to a video concept, and a completed script.   And only seven minutes earlier, we had nothing but a blank page.

It’s not only the folks in corporate communications and marketing that are tasked with sharpening their storytelling chops.  Being able to communicate and persuade through story has become more of a critical skill set for all career paths.   By spending five minutes a day with this exercise, anyone can become much more creative and sharpen their writing skills.  If you don’t have access to an audience of 200 people to offer suggestions, try a random word generator.

Read the article here.

How to Convince an Audience Through Storytelling

Steve Shepard teaches an executive education class at USC’s Marshall School of Business Institute for Communication Technology Management.  Beyond the course material, the best takeaway for the corporate communications executives is learning how to be a better storyteller.  This skill is not taught, but it is learned, largely by watching Steve and some of the other examples he shares.

A brilliant example is this TED Talk from Sir Ken Robinson, who says schools kill creativity.

If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you will never come up with anything original …. We are now running national educational systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make.

Creativity as the process of having original ideas that have value; more often than not it comes about through the interaction of different disciplinary ways of seeing things.

Sir Robinson warms us up with humor along the way, then convinces us with one of the most inspirational, encouraging stories I’ve heard: the epiphany of Gillian Lynne, Broadway choreographer of Cats and The Phantom of the Opera, told in the segment from 15:00 – 17:35 in the video below.

As Steve writes in his book The Deliberate Storyteller, the best way to learn to be a great storyteller is by watching great storytellers.  He shares a few more points with us in our video interview.

Superstorm Sandy: A Lesson in Gratitude

Update:  Watching my family and friends struggle through Hurricane Harvey in Houston reminded me of our storm experience a few years back. 

Last night, we got back on the grid after Frankenstorm Sandy.  It feels a little strange, but we’re grateful for six days without power, not just because we escaped pundit noise about the election. It’s wonderful to see how a community pulls together — all the invites we had for warm meals, hot showers and places to do laundry. No injuries to our family or home. An experience like this can give you great compassion for people only an hour away who had a much worse struggle, and for those in the world who don’t have shelter, electricity or clean water. It’s a good reminder to me to become more involved.

This tree fell about 100 yards from our home, and took down a power line and snapped the pole in half.

Two doors down. #sandy

We spent more time around the fireplace as a family.  My daughter wrote a pirate play, one act comedy, that we all performed together.  Fortunately she didn’t have much time to audition actors outside of our home, so I was able to book a key role.

We survived on a steady diet of grilled waffles and Starbucks Via.  The coffee helped fuel our cleanup efforts … another reason that I don’t drink decaf.

waffles

Halloween was canceled for the second consecutive year.  Last year Snowstorm Alfred last robbed us of Trick-or-treating and of power for a full week. This year, we did have the halloween walk in town. I tried to grab an extra Snickers from Linda McMahon, and she put me in a sleeper hold.

Linda McMahon on Halloween

Now, every time I flip on the light switch, I hear George Frederick Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus in my head.

How Many Stephen Colberts Are There?

The New York Times Magazine article suggests there are three Stephen Colberts.  I’d submit that there are four, considering the hip-hop Colbert who performed Empire State of Mind with Alicia Keys. (thanks Matt McMahon!)

A few years back Tom Purcell, executive producer of The Colbert Report (pictured next to Dr. Colbert ) taught a writing class at the P.I.T.  He spent six Saturday afternoons with us reviewing how the staff approaches writing The Word and the other classic bits, and generously offered to extend the class a few more weeks to help us develop our writer’s packet.  I managed to write a few pieces I was happy with, including one for the Threat Down segment, but struggled with insecurity to finish a strong packet.

I’ll accept David Meerman Scott’s challenge to make 2012 the year of courage.

3 Simple Steps: A New Comedy Video Series

A quote from storyteller Ira Glass, host of public radio’s This American Life, inspired me to finally launch a new web series.

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

Then, the circumstance. A few weeks ago, I watched in awe as a guy climbed 60 feet up in our tree to cut down a huge branch damaged by the snow storm. I grabbed my video camera and began to tape. It was fascinating. The idea for a web comedy series hit me — “Three Simple Steps.” It would be some interesting footage I could film myself with a few jokes along the way yielding roughly a solid minute of nonsense. Something I could do for little to no budget, and put myself on a deadline to finish a comedy story each week.

My buddy Garth Beams helped me out with the animation and rewriting the script for episode one, about cutting down a different tree.  Check out the pilot episode.

A Vote for Comedy in B2B Social Media

I had the pleasure of meeting Paul Gillin at the Inbound Marketing Summit this month in Foxboro, MA.   He was interested in a series of YouTube comedy videos  “Mainframe: The Art of the Sale,” and wrote a nice article about them.

A notes from behind the scenes:

The question I get most often about these is “how did you get these approved at a big corporation?’

BtoBcover

By starting small.  The first comedy I produced at IBM was at the end of 2004, and it was internal only — for a sales meeting — which kept the risk very low.  I kept the cost low by asking one of my best friends, Scott Teems, a director, to help me for $400.   The video was a hit, I was asked to create a sequel, and was able to pay Scott a nice tip.

Mad Science: Making Water Smarter

John Cohn, of Discovery Channel’s “The Colony” and I filmed our third Mad Science episode in the dead of winter, on Lake Champlain, in an unstable canoe.  Maybe not the brightest idea.  But it was a blast.

Check out our previous episodes, Micro-forecasting and Smart Grid.

History’s First Christmas Newsletter

Nazareth, December, 18 A.D.

It’s been another blessed year for us here in the Holy Land. For summer vacation, we spent a week at the Bethlehem Ramada. I told Joseph that this time he better call ahead for reservations — otherwise there’d be more than one jackass sleeping in the stable! ; ) The boys have loved the Ramada swimming pool since they were kids, but even to this day, Jesus only walks on the shallow end. When the boys were beachcombing, James cut his foot on a conch shell. Jesus carried him all the way across the beach, back to the hotel infirmary.  That night, He wrote a poem about the experience — “Footprints.”

Jesus continues to excel in college. He made the honor roll (again) and won first place the intramural fishing contest (again). In His spare time (ha ha!), He volunteers at the local hospital, where He heals the sick, and one time, a dead guy.

This year, we started celebrating Jesus’ birthday in July. It’s just unfair for kids who have birthdays so close to Christmas. The “wise men” showed up again, which means another year of re-gifting frankincense. Oy vey!

The other kids are fine. I’ve never been a big believer in the whole birth-order thing, but it’s been a struggle for James growing up in Jesus’ shadow, what with Him being the eldest — and the Messiah. Last month when James was reprimanded for toilet-papering the band locker room, the principal hauled him up in front of the entire class and asked him, “What would Jesus do?”

Please write and let us know what your kids have accomplished.

Merry Christmas,

Mary, Joe, Jesus, James and Fluffy

Illustrated by Garth Beams, written by Tim Washer, inspired by Luke 2:1-20.  SDG.

A Comedian’s Perspective on Improving PowerPoint

I put together a few tips on engaging with your audience in your powerpoint presentation… republished from the McCombs alumni newsletter:

My father always told me “redundancy is a sign of ignorance.” If he told me once, he told me a thousand times. It’s one of the most frequent mistakes I see in PowerPoint presentations, and it can turn your audience off quickly. A few ideas for a better speech:

  • Do your homework: Reach out to a handful of people before your presentation and ask what is the most important question on this topic that they would like answered. Not only will your material be more relevant, but you’ve let a few audience members know their opinion counts. It will have a positive influence on the energy in the room.
  • Less is more. One executive I’ve worked with, let’s call him “Charlie,” used to introduce cluttered slides with the useless disclaimer, “I know not everyone in the room can read this….” He failed to discern subtle nonverbal cues from audience members like squinting—or exiting.   The most influential slides I’ve seen deliver their message with only three to five words. It allows for an easy-to-read slide and keeps the focus on you. I never use a font smaller than 30-point, unless I’m presenting to a very small group or negotiating with my wife.
  • A picture is worth a thousand words. Although my English literature professor assured me this ratio doesn’t apply for a midterm essay, it holds true for PowerPoint. Since our minds absorb visual information faster, it’s a much more powerful way to convey your point. Impress your audience with a classic from Corbis.com, ShutterStock.com or even Flickr.com. My friend Charlie made the exchange and still had a few words left over.
  • Tell stories. Everyone loves a good story. Use client examples, or find a relevant reference through WSJ.com, NYTimes.com or an industry trade publication. Simplify the tale with the narrative formula: a) problem, b) solution, c) results. For a good story, those are the only elements you need. And possibly a dragon.
  • Schedule 20 minutes, and finish early. People love to get time back.

And finally, the most important rule bears repeating: always avoid redundancy.

Seamus McManus: Beekeeper; Father of Cloud Computing

Our new smarter planet animation on cloud computing: