I spent an hour with The Oprah Whisperer. (Oh yeah!) Here’s what I learned about telling a soundbite-sized story …

 
 
I am profoundly skeptical (and a little perturbed!) when some “leading guru” claims to have discovered the “ultimate formula” to “fill-in-the-blank.”

But after spending an hour (or two-ish) with The Oprah Whisperer herself, I’m newly convinced:

If you want to tell a persuasive story — a story with a clear point + a precise call-to-action — there is a formula.

 
(But not a creepy, rigid formula. More like an elegant bone structure. And once you see it laid out, it feels utterly obvious + organic.)

So. A few days ago, I had a private session (ooh la la!) with a woman who has mastered the art of soundbite-sized storytelling.

Her name? Susan Harrow. Never heard of her? Allow me to hit the highlights: she’s been in the media coaching + publicity business for decades upon decades. Back in the day, she (literally) wrote the book on how to get invited onto The Oprah Winfrey Show. She once fell madly in love with the leader of the Anarchist party in Italy (il mio cuore!). And she has a superhuman capacity for distilling big, complex ideas into TV- and radio-friendly nibbles.

As a professional wordsmith myself, I’m a little bit smitten.

I initially asked Susan to help train me for a slew of upcoming media shenanigans (podcast interviews, book launch events, magazine pitches, and — fingers crossed! — a morning TV talk show, or two.)

I got a looooot of practical tips during our training session.

But more than anything, I was humbled by an important reminder:
 

Consolidating your thoughts into short + sweet soundbites isn’t “cheesy” or “superficial.” It’s actually an exquisite art form.

 

And like any art form, it takes disciplined practice to master.

Susan granted me full permission to share what I learned during my session, with you.

(And if charming Oprah’s power-pants off isn’t part of your life + career plan, know this: the 5-part bone-structure that I’m about to share works beautifully whether you’re writing a blog post, outlining a TEDx Talk, revving up for a TV appearance, or just enchanting a couple of dinner party guests.)

Without further ado …
 

How to tell a soundbite-sized story — for TV, radio, online video, or short-burst (and seriously-efficient) writing.

 

1. STATE THE PROBLEM.

For better or worse, human beings tend to lean in + pay attention when confronted with negative news, first.

“Most working Americans receive upwards of 100 emails a day — even though our brains can only process + accommodate about 50. Even worse? Most of us describe our overflowing inboxes as a huge source of chronic stress.”

… is a lot more compelling than:

“Some Americans get just the right amount of emails, and it’s quite lovely for them!”
 

2. MAKE A PROPOSITION.

… and make it sound FUN.

“With a couple smart tools — and a few simple word-games! — you can not only reduce the amount of incoming emails you receive, but turn your inbox-clearing time from drudgery to delight.”
 

3. ANCHOR THE LESSONS.

Quickly zip through + announce each of the lessons (or points) you’re going to hit, in the hot minutes ahead.

“Today, I’m going to share 3 totally addictive word-games that will make your everyday email correspondence feel like a pleasure: 1. The write-a-haiku game. 2. The channel-a-hero game. 3. The feel-know-do game.”

This anchors each lesson in your listener (or reader’s) mind, and primes them for what’s about to come tumbling their way.
 

4. DELIVER THE LESSONS.

Deliver each lesson in the shortest possible burst. Think: zen master speaking to a group of toddlers.

As you roll through each lesson (or point, or technique, or tip, or teachable moment) be sure to smoothly + casually reference your current work — or your upcoming projects. This is your chance to illuminate how you help people + where they can get more of you.

“This next game has been a total hit at my writing workshops, which I teach all across the country …”

“One of my clients used this technique to create a completely new structure for her business, in a single afternoon …”

“I can’t get enough of this idea. In fact, it was the inspiration for my latest book …”
 

5. SUM IT ALL UP: “TA DA!”

Your audience is (unconsciously) waiting for a sense of completion — that “full circle” moment. If you skip this closing statement, they’ll be left dangling — sensing that something is missing, or feeling like you just fizzled out.

“To sum it all up: email isn’t going anywhere — that’s for darn sure. But with the right attitude — and a few playful games up your sleeve — emails can be uplifting to write, and inspiring to read.”
 

AND … SCENE!

5 easy pieces. That’s all it takes.

For more soundbite-making magic, tune into Susan’s free audio-class: Speak In Sound Bites. (You can sign up to get a text message reminder when the class is about to start — so you don’t forget to show up! Perfect for brilliant-but-goldfish-like brains. Like, uh, mine.)

Happy media-soundbiting, idea-synthesizing + story-shrinkifying. (I’ll be practicing right along with you!)

XO.

P.S. Who is your favorite teacher, storyteller or media personality — and what do you love about them?

 

Photo of me (way up top) by Leslie from Shuttersmack.

 
 

Comments

Awesome bone structure, thank you. Perfect timing… my blog post could use a face lift.

My favorite teacher at the moment – You.

What do I love about you? Your genius, generosity, & your hero – Mr. Rogers.

Thank you for sharing your brilliance, clarity and honesty Alex.

Your journey is equally, if not more, inspiring as your perfectly crafted posts gorgeous lady!

I totally understand all the internet-Alex-crushery happening at the moment :)

Gratitude + love,
Mari x

Learning.
Stumbling..
Adjusting…
I have arrived!

Betsy McDowell on Jun 6, 2013 Reply

Great! Great! Great! I so needed this. I tend to start a story then stop and start over because I want to include more details. Yikes! My favorite story teller is my mentor. She could tell me a 30 minute story that is so enthralling that I just sit there and drool.

Love this Alexandra! Thanks for sharing… I am looking into starting a video podcast and want short and sweet lessons, so to speak. This gives me a clear structure on how to tackle a short video… plus any writings I might do. Just love your writing and story telling… In Gratitude! XO-A

I just adore you! Your energy and your personality seems to speak through your words and I find that so enthralling and it actually keeps my ADD at bay. :) I hope to learn so much from you. Congrats on your book! I can’t wait to get it.
Peace, love and bliss,
Jennifer

Brevity: I love it. My favourite storyteller is Shelagh Rogers. She guides a story through thoughtful interview questions on her radio show, but entrances an audience as a speaker on her own–all by making everyone feel comfortable and at ease.

Alexandra, you’re seriously a muse to me. All of your content is amazing and I just love your tone and style. Today is a day I just want to say:

You’re fucking great. Thank you. <3

Brilliant! Thanks for sharing. Would be curious to hear how you put this into practice.

Ah, yes. I love being long-winded. Or rather, I love writing sentences that amble along like a long molasses river. But just cuz I love writing ‘em, doesn’t mean anyone enjoys reading them. (By the way, I just finished the book Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon, and he wrote one whole chapter of that book as one long sentence. And it worked. But then, he’s Michael Chabon.

So, thank you. I can always use more precise ways to soundbite myself.

Fabulous as always Alex. I also just listened to you on Teach Now – pure brilliance!

You’ve got it all summed up. Exactly what I would expect from you.
I could listen to Martha Beck tell stories all day.

This came at the most perfect of moments…I am just in the middle or relaunching my updated site, and am in need of some editing on my “Why Work with Me” page.

Perfectamundo I say…thanks so much Alexandra! Catherine Just put me on to your site, and it has been worth it’s weight in gold already (Just did your I Am worksheet the other day……farking fantastic!!!).

Thank you, thank you, thank you!!

I spent an hour with The Oprah Whisperer. (Oh yeah!) Here’s what I learned about telling a s… http://t.co/A9VhsPvcG1 via @Alex_Franzen

I love how the old rhetorical structures keep getting tweaked for new situations. And fives and threes are magic: five steps to the process, you suggested three lessons as a “body” (though there can be more – I get it) – is this the old five paragraph essay coming up again? Or a much more refined version of my old debate coach’s fave: 1. Tell ‘em what you’re gonna tell ‘em. 2. Tell ‘em. 3. Tell ‘em what you told ‘em.

What I am realiziing, though, is that the tweak toward “fun”, “simple”, “short” and “toddlers” reveals a great deal about how TV and media heavy societies are moving away from being able to or wantíng to deal with complex topics – whether that signals inability, unwillingness or disinterest is another issue – and this trend unnerves me.

In a practical sense, this structure works very well, but if it indicates a long-term rhetorical shift I think we’re on the verge of losing a lot more than rainforests and glaciers.

Whew. Just had to get that off my chest. Now I’m off to tweak my about.me page.

Paula

PAULA: You raise a verrrry intriguing point!

Here’s my (personal) take:

I love classical oil paintings from the 17th century — and I love modern graffiti-inspired street art.

I love rolling, epic 900-page novels — and I love short, deliciously sweet mantras.

I love grandiose symphonies, and I love a good pop song. ;)

I believe that there’s room for all kinds of self-expression and storytelling, and that no style / length / format / medium is inherently “better” or “worse” than the others.

I also believe in beginning by asking three questions — “how do I want my audience to feel? what do I want them to know? and what do I want them to do?” — and then choosing whatever style / length / format / medium that you think will carry your message across, most effectively.

(And sometimes, a 14-word poem can represent the complexity you want to convey, far more powerfully than a 14-page essay. Y’know?)

In any event: I hope you find a writing format that feels goooooood, for you. (Will you please share your new “about” page, when you’re done? :)

Alexandra Franzen on Jun 7, 2013 Reply

Hi Alex,

Thanks for your response. After that thought train arrived at the station, I realized that like real estate is location, location, location, rhetoric is situation, situation, situation. But when I’m swimming in a sea of fluffy content (some of my current translation projects), I forget that there are other modes out there.

And as a former teacher, I do wax prescriptive from time to time.

Will share the new about.me when I get that far. Have to finish the “me” before I revise the “about”.

I’m busy fighting with myself… Trying to figure out what to blog about around my topic – I think that this bone structure will definitely help me…ANd I love the feel, know and do concept – to make sure that I start off on the right footing ;)

And my mentors:
You (because of your brilliant wordsmithery and Marie Forleo for her authenticity and real-ness. And Noami Dunford (ittybiz) has great tips for a business like mine ;)

You are my favourite writing person about now…:)

Love it!

Katie on Jun 7, 2013 Reply

I spent an hour with The Oprah Whisperer. (Oh yeah!) Here’s what I learned about telling a s… http://t.co/lYrrfOqk78 via @Alex_Franzen

OH Lord! I am going to use it for my next radio show on Monday! tons of TXS & mil gracias

First, I’m admitting to express myself through an interpretive dance. But gosh, ise my body ever the storyteller, scars and all. :)

I love hearing Danielle Laporte speak sounding passionate, calm, direct, and friendly. Shes a beautiful person.

Sandy on Jun 7, 2013 Reply

I really hope this doesn’t sound rude, but those 5 steps are so amazingly simple to my mind=blown!

I was slightly bracing myself for something really complicated, but everything you (and Susan Harrow) said makes ridiculously good sense and is madly intuitive!

It’s also what I taught my students about how to do a presentation, which makes me feel uber clever in a “well done past Jade, you were teaching Oprah-pitching shizz and didn’t even know it!” kinda way!

Thanks for sharing, I really enjoyed this blog post!

Good God damn I loved this post. I’m a rambler and desperately needed these tips!

Thank you so much for sharing this…and for every other tidbit of awesome you’ve ever shared.

You are hands down one of my favourite teachers and I feel so freakin’ grateful to have found this site!

Much love!

Thank you for this and everything else here. The sun is blazing in the UK today, but I haven’t been able to leave my flat since discovering your site at 3 am this morning.

Vicky on Jul 6, 2013 Reply

Well, I hope there’s room on this blog for a guy’s take. (While I didn’t see any gender-restrictive parameters spelled out, the blog trail participants gave me momentary pause.)

When it comes to “soundbite-sized storytelling,” if you’re like me, you’ll have to contend (and I mean full frontal) with your bubbling passion for the subject. To tell a story that is both engaging and meaningful, I’ve got to feel that I have a personal, emotional stake in its play.

A little confession: Long ago, I became convinced that a vital part of our daily job is to self-entertain. I saw evidence of that in the most creative people around me and also in the biographies of the truly accomplished. It dawned on me that the most convincing way to take things seriously is to not take yourself too seriously. Einstein was always goofing on the Universe at the very same time his ultimate awe and respect was being evidenced in his Relativity Theory.

So, today, if you make it a decisive goal to entertain yourself even as you relate to others, I proffer that the stories you tell will take on a bit of extra color, increased scope, and more accessible depth. You’re now putting your own heart into your words.

And that leads to why I say we need to “contend” with our passion. When I’m excited about a subject — and that can range from hiking the Appalachian Trail, to finding the most amazing Pecorino-Romano, to why I wrote a song about a woman I saw on the beach — I don’t worry about making my stories “soundbite sized.” In fact, I just want to relive the moment and sweep up my listeners into the action and emotion.

So, if we’re only given a minute to accomplish this (and we’ve made a deal to include ourself in the entertainment quotient), I think it is both important and exhilarating to start at the moral of the story and work backward to the beginning.

If I only get 10 seconds to tell you something important, I want to use it on getting across to you what I learned from the experience. Then, if time allows, I will buy you another cup of coffee (and let’s try the almond biscotti wth this round), and we can watch the rain from a warm, window-side table while I use up my extra 5 kilobytes of storyline.

My advice for short stories (and long blogs about how to tell them):
Begin with the moral, what you learned, and why it is important to you
Tell the story backward toward the beginning.
End with a retell of the moral; i.e., “And that’s why I say it’s …….”

Ciao!

Carl Rachel on Dec 9, 2013 Reply

Love this structure – will play with it as I prepare my first speaking gig as a mental coach for golfers at the Portland, Maine Golf Expo this March! My favorite storytellers to date are Garrison Keilor of Prairie Home Companion and Ira Glass, also on NPR. Love their quirkiness and authentic voice. Love yours, now that I’ve been introduced!!! Thank you so much, Alexandra.

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