Book review. Storyworthy: Engage, Teach, Persuade, and Change Your Life through the Power of Storytelling

The most powerful person in the world is the storyteller. The storyteller sets the vision, values and agenda of an entire generation that is to come. -- Steve Jobs

This book is by Matthew Dicks, 48-time Moth StorySLAM winner and 6-time GrandSLAM champion. The book gives great tips about crafting stories.

Earlier I had covered "Made to stick" and "Talk like TED"  on presenting and story telling. This book is at a different level than those. I strongly recommend you to read this book. It is entertaining as much as it is informative. This is like a short-story format version of the Hollywood movie-script format storytelling, which I covered briefly with "Nobody wants to read your shit". Both books have the same message really: "You must streamline your message (staying on theme), and make its expression fun (organizing around an interesting concept)."

My highlights from the book

No one ever made a decision because of a number. They need a story. -- Daniel Kahneman

Your story must reflect change over time. A story cannot simply be a series of remarkable events. You must start out as one version of yourself and end as something new. The change can be infinitesimal.

In truth, these moments are everywhere. They exist in multitudes for all of us. They’re like dander in the wind. They exist all around us. More than you could ever imagine. The problem is that we don’t see these moments. We fail to notice them or recognize their importance, and when we happen to see one, we don’t reach out to catch it. We don’t record it. We don’t save it. We fail to keep these precious moments safe for the future.

I decided that at the end of every day, I’d reflect upon my day and ask myself one simple question: If I had to tell a story from today — a five-minute story onstage about something that took place over the course of this day — what would it be? As benign and boring and inconsequential as it might seem, what was the most storyworthy moment from my day?

Instead I would write a snippet. A sentence or two that captured the moment from the day. Just enough for me to remember the moment.

I started seeing stories in my everyday life, stories began welling up from my childhood that I’d long since forgotten. It was like digging into the earth and suddenly striking a geyser.

Essentially Crash & Burn is stream-of-consciousness writing. I like to think of it as dreaming on the end of your pen, because when it’s working well, it will mimic the free-associative thought patterns that so many of us experience while dreaming.

When Crash & Burn is at its best, ideas are constantly crashing the party, slashing and burning the previous ones.

In class, we use First Last Best Worst as an improv game. You are given a prompt and must tell a story using the first, last, best, or worst version of that prompt.

I’ve given you three tools to find stories. 

  • Homework for Life 
  • Crash & Burn 
  • First Last Best Worst 

Do all three with regularity and fidelity, and you will find yourself drowning in stories before long.      

Let me say it again: Every great story ever told is essentially about a five-second moment in the life of a human being, and the purpose of the story is to bring that moment to the greatest clarity possible.

Anything in the story that doesn’t help bring that moment to the greatest clarity possible is marginalized, shaded, or removed entirely. Anything that helps bring clarity to that moment is strengthened and highlighted.

You’ll see how much I have left on the cutting-room floor to bring my five-second moment to the greatest clarity possible. Understanding that stories are about tiny moments is the bedrock upon which all storytelling is built, and yet this is what people fail to understand most when thinking about a story. Instead they believe that if something interesting or incredible or unbelievable has happened to them, they have a great story to tell. Not true.

This is Indy’s five-second moment. The moment he finds faith. The moment he believes in the power of God.

So dig. Search. Hunt. Fight for the five-second moment. Allow yourself to recall the entire event. Don’t get hung up on the big moments, the unbelievable circumstances, or the hilarious details. Seek out the moments when you felt your heart move. When something changed forever, even if that moment seems minuscule compared to the rest of the story.

Your five-second moment is the most important thing that you will say. It is the purpose and pinnacle of your story. It’s the reason you opened your mouth in the first place. Therefore it must come as close to the end of your story as possible. Sometimes it will be the very last thing you say.


So how do you choose the right place to start a story? Simple. Ask yourself where your story ends. What is the meaning of your five-second moment? Say it aloud.          

Simply put, the beginning of the story should be the opposite of the end. Find the opposite of your transformation, revelation, or realization, and this is where your story should start. This is what creates an arc in your story. This is how a story shows change over time. I was once this, but now I am this. I once thought this, but now I think this. I once felt this, but now I feel this.

I also try to start my story as close to the end as possible (a rule Kurt Vonnegut followed when writing short stories).

Speak as if you were speaking to friends. Be yourself. If your language sounds more formal than your normal speech, you have failed.

The Nazis and snakes are the stakes. They are the things that keep our attention scene to scene. They are the reason we buy a ticket and popcorn and give up two hours of our life.

Every story must have an Elephant. The Elephant is the thing that everyone in the room can see.

The audience doesn’t know why they are listening to the story or what is to come, so it’s easy to stop listening. If you don’t present a reason to listen very early on, you risk losing their attention altogether. The Elephant tells the audience what to expect. It gives them a reason to listen, a reason to wonder. It infuses the story with instantaneous stakes.

Note that I’m not actually changing the path that the audience is on. It’s the same path we’ve been walking since the start of the story. The audience just didn’t realize that it’s a much deeper, more interesting path than first expected. Don’t switch Elephants. Simply change the color.

A Backpack is a strategy that increases the stakes of the story by increasing the audience’s anticipation about a coming event. It’s when a storyteller loads up the audience with all the storyteller’s hopes and fears in that moment before moving the story forward. It’s an attempt to do two things: 1. Make the audience wonder what will happen next. 2. Make your audience experience the same emotion, or something like the same emotion, that the storyteller experienced in the moment about to be described.

Backpacks are most effective when a plan does not work. If I had described my plan for begging for gas, and then the plan worked perfectly, there would have been no payoff for the Backpack.

It’s an odd thing: The audience wants characters (or storytellers) to succeed, but they don’t really want characters to succeed. It’s struggle and strife that make stories great. They want to see their characters ultimately triumph, but they want suffering first. They don’t want anything to be easy.

Breadcrumbs Storytellers use Breadcrumbs when we hint at a future event but only reveal enough to keep the audience guessing. Breadcrumbs are particularly effective when the truly unexpected is coming.

Hourglasses. There comes a time in many stories when you reached a moment (or the moment) that the audience has been waiting for. Perhaps you have paved the way to the moment with Breadcrumbs and Backpacks, or maybe you’ve used none of these strategies because you’ve got yourself a stake-laden story, and now you’re approaching the payoff. The sentence you’ve been waiting to say. The sentence your audience has been waiting to hear. This is the moment to use an Hourglass. It’s time to slow things down. Grind them to a halt when possible. When you know the audience is hanging on your every word, let them hang. Drag out the wait as long as possible.

In “Charity Thief,” that moment occurs as I am knocking on that blue door. The audience knows that I’m about to do something to attempt to solve my problem. They know that a McDonald’s uniform is involved (my Breadcrumb), but they probably can’t imagine what my solution might be. There is no need to describe this uniform in any detail, yet I choose to describe it anyway, in the greatest detail. It is the longest bit of description in the entire story, and I’m describing the last thing in the world that needs to be described. This is because I have my audience now. I own them. They cannot wait for that blue door to open so the unknown can become known.

Find the moment in your story that everyone has been waiting for, then flip that Hourglass and let the sand run.

A Crystal Ball is a false prediction made by a storyteller to cause the audience to wonder if the prediction will prove to be true. In “Charity Thief,” I say: [The man] points his finger at me and says, “You stay right there.” Then he walks back into his house, and I know what he’s doing. He’s calling the police, and they will come and arrest me for stealing money from McDonald’s. This does not happen, of course, but when I present this very real possibility, the audience wants to know if it will happen. By predicting my future arrest, I’ve established wonder in their minds about a future event.

In storytelling, deploy Crystal Balls strategically: Only when your prediction seems possible. Only when your guess is reasonable. And only when your prediction presents an intriguing or exciting possibility.

Remember, the best way to ensure that your story has stakes is to choose a story that has stakes. Elephants, Backpacks, Breadcrumbs, Hourglasses, and Crystal Balls will only get you so far. If your story is boring, it will always be boring.

Humor is optional. Stakes are nonnegotiable.

Here is what I think: A story is like a coat. When we tell a story, we put a coat on our audience. Our goal is to make that coat as difficult to remove as possible. I want that coat to be impossible to take off. Days after you’ve heard my story at the dinner table or the conference room or the golf course or the theater, I want you to be thinking about my story. I want that coat to cling to your body and mind.

Audiences don’t want redemption. Redemption cleanses the palate. It ties up all loose ends. It makes the world whole again. It allows your audience to sleep well at night.

The goal of every storyteller should be to create a cinematic experience in the minds of every listener.

Listeners should be able to see the story in their mind’s eye at all times. At no point should the story become visually obscured or impossible to see.

Always provide a physical location for every moment of your story. That’s it. If the audience knows where you are at all times within your story, the movie is running in their minds. The film is cycling from reel to reel. If your audience can picture the location of the action at all times, you have created a movie in the mind of your listeners.

Whatever you are doing, if the movie has stopped in the mind of your audience, it’s no longer a story.

I give this moment of backstory a place. I make it a scene.

But and therefore are words that signal change. The story was heading in one direction, but now it’s heading in another. This is effective storytelling. It’s a way of making a story feel as if it’s constantly going someplace new, even if the events are linear and predictable.

Oddly, the negative is almost always better than the positive when it comes to storytelling. Saying what something or someone is not is almost always better than saying what something or someone is. For example: I am dumb, ugly, and unpopular. I’m not smart, I’m not at all good-looking, and no one likes me. By saying what I am not, I am also saying what I could have been, and that is a hidden but. “I was lost” is just not as good as “I could not find my way home.”

Mirror practice only encourages attention on your physical appearance. Don’t do it. Why would you practice doing something in a way that will never happen in real life?

Nevertheless, there are times when you might want to tell a success story, and when you do, there are two strategies that I suggest you employ. 1. Malign yourself. 2. Marginalize your accomplishment.

Summiting Mount Everest is an adventure story. Changing your life by summiting Mount Everest is a great story.

Don’t memorize your story.

Instead of memorizing your story word-for-word, memorize three parts to a story: 1. The first few sentences. Always start strong. 2. The last few sentences. Always end strong.  3. The scenes of your story.

I don’t memorize my stories. I memorize the places where my story takes me, so even if I can’t remember how I want to tell it, I can still do so. I may lose some laugh lines, clever transitions, and “golden sentences,” but I’m still telling my story.

When you are entertaining, people learn better. When your students love you, they will learn, even if they despise the subject. This is how I approach teaching every day.


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