• Scott Stiefvater

How do you craft a concise story? Don't skip this step.

Updated: Nov 25, 2020

In presentations, stories are supposed to be as good as gold. Yet, many presenters either tell long-winded stories or skip telling a story for fear of being long-winded. How do you tell a story that is concise and riveting?

Theme: the underlying message.

Often, your instincts will tell you that you have a certain story within you that fits a given talk. But the story isn't a story yet. It is a memory of events. To become a story, you have to put the memory through a type of editing process. One of the early steps of that process is the defining of a theme.

If I simply told you about my memory of a time two of my buddies and I got stranded out in the ocean on a small sailboat, I might drone on for an hour. With a well defined theme, I am able to use that memory to convey a compelling story in five minutes.

Here's the interesting thing: I can use that same stranded-at-sea memory to extract various stories, each dependent on the theme I choose to convey:

  • It's important to prepare for emergencies.

  • A small act of consideration can save lives.

  • We should all respect Mother Nature's power.

Using the first example theme, I'd include those details in my memory about how we carelessly rushed into our sailing trip that day. Using the second theme, I'd emphasize how dire our situation would have been had a bystander not intervened. Using the third, I'd exclude a bunch of details about how we were ultimately saved.

Using a theme as your keel, edit ruthlessly.

The keel of a sailboat, the board-like structure along the center line of its bottom, is essential. It allows the boat to have direction. Without this hidden structure, a boat would drift with the wind.

A story's theme is its keel. It gives the story's direction. Without this hidden structure, the story will drift.

As you can see in the example themes above, a theme is more than a topic. It is a message or lesson-learned, and it is best expressed as a single sentence. Consider what underlying message you want to convey to your listeners in a given talk and then craft your theme. You may want to write it out.

Once you have your theme, repeatedly talk through your story in parts: beginning, middle, end. Let your theme be your guide for what to edit out, what to edit in, and what to emphasize. Don't indulge yourself. You may think a certain detail in your memory is riveting in and of itself, but if that detail doesn't fit the theme, leave it out. Your listeners will thank you.


© 2021 by Scott Stiefvater,

(anti) Presentation Coach


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