Surely you were made to read one of John Steinbeck’s seminal works at some point in your high school career. Hopefully you enjoyed one of them, be that his novella Of Mice and Men, his classic The Grapes of Wrath, or what Steinbeck called his finest work East of Eden. Most of his literature can be classified as Dust Bowl fiction depicting tales of common people during the Great Depression. Steinbeck had an extraordinary career, receiving the Pulitzer Prize for The Grapes of Wrath, and eventually being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. Much can be gleaned from his masterful writing. Here are a few storytelling tips from Steinbeck himself.
“Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.”
This is apt advice for when you begin to brainstorm for a presentation. What kind of story can you tell the audience that will support and enhance the main point of your talk? As we discussed in last week’s post How to Brainstorm Effectively, get all ideas written down before you begin to eliminate, alter or select. And as Steinbeck advises, don’t interfere with this process as it can disrupt the flow that comes from the unconscious. Make sure all viable possibilities are on the table; make sure everything is considered. Remember there are no bad ideas, so don’t interrupt the flow of brainstorming with analyses, rewrites and judgments. Be open to all possibilities, and write them as rapidly as possible to get them down before they fizzle out of your mind.
“Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader.”
Again, this is important advice for presenters as well as writers. Know your audience like the back of your hand; know who they are in a specific, not generalized, way. Not only will a “nameless, fearless audience scare you to death,” but an effective presentation must be tailored to a specific set of needs. Know your audience’s needs well enough that you can speak to them as if they are one person. If you envision your presentation as being for one specific person with particular needs, you can relate to that person more effectively and make decisions that will strengthen your presentation. Also, thinking of your audience as a single person will take some of the stress out of crafting your presentation. Rather than dwelling on what a Big Deal this presentation is, what with the Very Important People attending, you can squelch that pressure by visualizing just one person in that room. What does that person need? What stories will appeal to him or her? Take the edge off by envisioning that group of Very Important People as just one Important Person. As Steinbeck says, “Forget the generalized audience.”
“It seemed to be necessary for the writer to know what he wanted to say, in short, what he was talking about. As an exercise we were to try reducing the meat of our story to one sentence, for only then could we know it well enough to enlarge it to three- or six- or ten-thousand words.”
One of the worst mistakes you can make as a presenter is to be unclear about your main idea, to be unclear about what it is you are most significantly trying to convey to your audience. Know what you want to say. Know what you are talking about. It’s absolutely critical to know that before you even begin crafting a presentation. Just as Steinbeck advises for writers, reduce the meat of your presentation to one sentence. It may be difficult, but such narrowing down of content is essential to getting your point across to the audience. After you’ve decided what the main point of your presentation is, you can enlarge it to an entire presentation with a structure and supporting evidence. In short, find the crux of what you want to tell the audience and go from there.