Book Notes: Matthew Dicks — Storyworthy

Before reading this book, I was afraid that I bore people to death. As an academic, I have to talk to students and other researchers about topics that are often a bit dry. I also have to get my point across in writing before readers sink into a boredom-induced coma. This book provided me with some guidance on how to create engaging stories.

Dicks, M (2018): “Storyworthy — Engage, teach, persuade, and change your life through the power of storytelling”. San Francisco, CA: New World Library.

I picked up this book because it was highly recommended and because I wanted to make my lectures and blog posts more entertaining. The author is a veteran of the storytelling circuit and clearly knows his stuff. The book draws the reader in from the first page, which is not something that I expected from a non-fiction book. In fact, I enjoyed his writing so much that I started to watch his stories on YouTube. I also got all the practical advice that I was hoping for, including exercises to find stories of my own, guidelines on how to structure a story, and neat tricks to make my stories more engaging. The examples and application are mostly geared towards storytelling. Because that is not my interest, I would have wished for some more examples of how these methods can be applied for other formats, e.g. teaching, meeting presentations etc. However, I think I got enough of an idea from the book to try this out myself. Reading this book is not only immensely useful but also very enjoyable. So, I definitely recommend that you read it for yourself.

Please note: This is my summary of the content of the book. While I tried to capture the main points, this is necessarily a subjective and incomplete overview. I highly recommend that you pick up the book yourself to get the full details.

In searching for stories, I discovered that my life is filled with them. Filled with precious moments that once seemed decidedly less than precious. Filled with moments that are more story-worthy than I’d ever imagined. I’d just been failing to notice them. Or discounting them. Or ignoring them. In some instances, I tried to forget them completely.

A teacher can be funny. Surprising. Animated. Confused. Even purposefully depressed. A teacher can offer students uncommon levels of choice or challenge them with a meaningful, winner-take-all competition. A lesson can include something students have never seen before or (even better) something they have seen a thousand times before, but now in an entirely new context.

A story should reflect change over time. Most importantly, every story should contain a five-second moment that epitomises this change. The main character starts out one way and ends up with the complete opposite.

There are several exercises that help to unearth story-worthy moments from one’s life:

  1. Homework for Life: Each day write about a moment that might make an interesting story. It can be something that happened that day or something that you remembered.
  2. Crash and Burn: Set a timer for 10 minutes. For this duration, keep writing any thoughts that come to your mind. Do not judge or edit the thoughts. When a new thought arises, write it down. Do not stop writing.

Even the best stories contain some necessary but boring sections. There are a few tricks that can help to bridge those passages:

  1. Establish a clear need or motivation. It may change over the course of the story, but it must be clear to the audience why the protagonist is doing something at all times.
  2. Load up the audience with the protagonist’s hopes and fears before entering a situation
  3. Leave hints at what is coming without giving away too much
  4. Make predictions that are subsequently violated
  5. When reaching the peak of anticipation in the story, slow down to get the audience to the edge of their seat

In addition, you should:

  • … start your story as close to the end as possible. It’s also OK to take some artistic licence by compressing stories into a shorter time and re-arranging the time lime to improve the story flow.
  • … set each part of the story at a concrete location. The listener should always be able to picture where the events are taking place.
  • … keep it short. The longer the story, the more difficult it is to keep the audience engaged.
  • … build in surprise. This is the only surefire way to trigger an emotional response from the audience.
  • … increase the contrast by including elements with a different emotional tone, e.g. a bit of humour right before something tragic happens
  1. Do not include unnecessary information or elements, e.g. do not include people who do not contribute to the main thread of the story
  2. Do not ruin the surprise or set the audiences expectations, e.g. “You won’t believe what happened” or “This story is about finding love”
  3. Do not provide endless lists of event connected by “and”. Instead, make the story more compelling by including “but” and “therefore” and their synonyms.

Humour can be a useful tool to engage the audience, but it should be employed strategically so that it does not take over the story. While humour requires a combination of different factors that are difficult to teach, there are some general guidelines for creating humorous elements:

  1. Keep the funniest thing for last. The sense of humour is enhanced when building the expectation first and then delivering the punchline.
  2. Combine opposites or things that usually do not go together. This is often done in a list, e.g. vitamins, electrolytes, swaggah (advert for vitamin water)

Stories feel more authentic if they are told freely than recited word-for-word from memory. However, it does help to nail the beginning and the end with precise wording. The other parts can be memorised as scenes set in specific locations.

Engage with your audience by making eye contact when possible. It’s enough to pick a friendly face on the left, right, and middle of the audience when there are many people present.

I’m a lecturer in psychology specialised in cognitive neuroscience. My research investigated brain development in young people who struggle in school.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store