Pete’s Blog

Five Components for a Solid Foundation to a Good Story

Watch Sir Ken Robinson’s TED Talks Do Schools Kill Creativity, and you will hear wonderful stories.  Sir Ken tells details of an interview he had with Gillian Lynne, the choreographer behind Cats and Phantom of the Opera. He shares how Lynne went from a child diagnosed with a learning disability to world renowned dancer and choreographer.1 It is a great piece of storytelling. In fact, this is the most watched TED Talks of all time with over 41 million views, so it does contain good stories.

There are five key elements to every good story: time, place, characters, conflict, and resolution.  Sir Ken’s telling of Gillian Lynne’s story uses all elements, so I will use it to demonstrate how each element works to further your engagement with the entire story, and as a result, the speaker.

  • Time and place:  This is your starting point, and in the Gillian Lynne story it was in the 1930s at her school.  That may seem vague, but it does establish a benchmark in our minds.
  • Characters:  In all good stories there needs to be a protagonist and an antagonist, or, as I like to refer to them, a hero and villain. The villain is the school administrator who believed that Gillian had a learning disorder. Our hero in this story is not Gillian, but the doctor her mother consulted to help Gillian do better in school.
  • Conflict: The school administrator believed that Gillian had a learning disorder because she couldn’t concentrate and was always fidgeting. Gillian’s mother wanted to help her daughter calm down so she could do better in school.
  • Resolution: Her mother explained to the doctor all of the issues that Gillian had in school: fidgeting, late homework, annoying people, lack of concentration. The doctor asked the mother to join him outside the room so they could observe Gillian’s behavior when she was left on her own.  As they walked out, the doctor turned on the radio so the child would feel a bit more comfortable.  The moment they left the room, she was up on her feet dancing, and she didn’t stop until they returned. The doctor told her mom that Gillian wasn’t sick and didn’t need his help. “Take her to a dance school,” he said. She is a dancer!

Good storytellers help the audience pay attention and retain information by embedding emotionally charged elements in the conflict and resolution elements of their stories. You know, to get the dopamine flowing and the Post-it® notes sticking to your brain.  In the resolution to Gillian’s story, when the doctor says she is not sick, she is a dancer – that is the emotion.  Most of us can relate to a similar situation that happened to us, our family or our friends.

As you were reading the conflict, were you thinking that Gillian had ADHD?  You probably did, I know I did.  When Sir Ken told this story, he said, “I think now they’d say she had ADHD. Wouldn’t you? But this was the 1930s, and ADHD was not invented at this point. It wasn’t an available condition.” He delivered those lines in a very dry tone, which united the audience in laughter. Using humor can create another emotionally-charged moment that connects you and your audience.

Dissecting a story into its five components becomes easier the more you practice.  I suggest watching a few Ted Talk videos to see if you can identify the five components AND those emotionally-charged elements in each story told.  In a majority of Ted Talks, there are three main stories the presenter shares to support their point of view.  If you have trouble identifying the components while watching, find the transcript online and dissect there.

You can become a better storyteller by experiencing the stories all around you every day. Try to stop, listen, and then, dissect what you hear. Learn to identify the components quickly and then apply these techniques to crafting your own stories.

Once you are comfortable in applying this method, you can begin to craft the foundation to any story to help in the delivery of your message.  The more you use this method, the easier it will become in being a better storyteller and, ultimately, a better financial storyteller.


  1. Gallo, Carmine, Talk Like TED, (St. Martins Griffin, New York) 56

Storytelling and Our Brains

Wrapping a good message inside a great story help people connect, engage and retain. For instance, most TED Talks work because the speakers are using their personal stories to help deliver their message.  Every TED Talk shares a common trait: they contain emotional components that grab our attention from the first sentence to the last. They make it nearly impossible to stop watching. You pay attention, and you stay connected because you want to see how the story ends.

Whether the presenter uses humor, fear, empathy or tragedy, TED Talks are the direct opposite of most business presentations you get at a conference, seminar, or boardroom.  I call those “sleeping pill presentations” – data packed, mind-numbing PowerPoint presentations that challenge every person in the audience to remain awake. Becoming engaged in the topic is nearly impossible.

According to John Medina, author of the book Brain Rules, “The brain doesn’t pay attention to boring things.”1 He is right. The better you are at capturing the attention of your audience, the more they will learn and isn’t the overall goal? Consider your own behavior. When sitting through a sleeping pill presentation, do you pay attention to the speaker or, maybe, your smartphone?

I’m not an expert on the brain, so I will rely on John Medina’s research to help explain how storytelling affects our brains.  According to John, “emotions get our attention.”2 When we pay attention, we capture and retain details.

Here’s an example from my past that probably resonates with you. I was attending a Stephen Covey presentation at the Hyatt Hotel in downtown Columbus sponsored by Franklin University on September 11, 2001.  I left the ballroom to use the restroom and walked by a group of people huddled around a small TV and overheard them saying, “a plane just crashed into one of the Twin Towers.”  That was over 16 years ago.  I can’t tell you what I was doing 16 hours ago.  That entire day and weeks later were packed with so much emotion, that many of us will never forget.

Medina states that “emotionally charged events are better remembered – for longer, and with more accuracy – than neutral events. When your brain detects an emotionally charged event, your amygdala (the part of your brain that helps create emotions) releases the chemical dopamine into your system. Dopamine greatly aids memory and information processing. Think of it like a Post-it® note that reads “Remember This.””3

During an emotionally charged event we feel fear, anger, sadness, joy disgust, surprise, and other automatic responses.  My focus is on one emotion: surprise. One way of looking at the emotion of surprise is including something unexpected, like humor.  I will discuss this in greater detail later in the book, but humor goes a long way in helping to keep the attention of an audience.

Jeffrey Gitomer said, “The end of laughter is followed by the height of listening.”4  Think back to your college days.  What class did you enjoy attending? Why? It was probably because the teacher used stories and humor to capture your attention and get you involved as an active listener.  When I was working on my Master’s Degree in Accountancy, I had to take a corporate income tax class.  I was dreading that semester because in my mind that was the pinnacle of boredom.  It turns out, that class was the one I always looked forward to and enjoyed the most.  The reason was Professor David Jaeger.  He made tax fun, which is a feat in and of itself!  He told stories, used humor and I can still see his “boxer shorts” tie (another story for another day).

Do I remember everything I learned in his class? Of course not, that was over 20 years ago.  However, I do remember his name, I do remember his tie, and I do remember that I enjoyed his class. Very different than my memories of my auditing course.  I don’t remember who taught the class, I don’t remember anything about them or the class. I do remember that when I passed the CPA exam, the section that I passed first was taxation and the part I struggled with, and finally passed, was auditing.

Apparently, I had a lot of Post-it® notes in my brain on the subject of taxation and very few about auditing.  Later in this chapter, I will discuss how to craft a story but for now, remember to include emotionally charged stories in your presentations. Help your audience and their brains pay attention to you and what you are saying. Your stories will become the Post-it® notes they can recall just when they need them.

1. Gallo, Carmine, The Storyteller’s Secret: From TED Speakers to Business Legends, Why Some Ideas Catch On and Others Don’t, (St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2016), 93
2. Medina, John, Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home and School, (2nd Edition, Pear Press: Seattle, WA 2014), 111
3. Medina, John, Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home and School, (2nd Edition, Pear Press: Seattle, WA 2014), 112
4. Nihill, David, Do You Talk Funny: 7 Comedy Habits to Become a Better (and Funnier) Public Speaker, (BenBella Books, Inc, Dallas, TX, 2016),19

Why Storytelling is Powerful

We all love a good story and appreciate a good storyteller. Powerful stories evoke emotion and have the ability to motivate and inspire us. A story that always resonates with me is one about Pat Tillman. Pat was a former professional football player for the Arizona Cardinals who enlisted in the United States Army after the 9-11 attacks. Tragically, he died in combat due to friendly fire. When you listen to his story, you feel many emotions, and those feelings are powerful motivators.

Billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson said, “The art of storytelling can be used to drive change.”1 I agree and will add that the way we succeed in driving change is by motivating and inspiring people.  Do we inspire and motivate change with a data dump of facts and figures on a PowerPoint slide? No. That type of presentation just creates a lullaby that too often puts the audience asleep. “If people aren’t entertained, they stop listening and go to sleep not unlike what happens in millions of business presentations given every day.”2

Princeton University neuroscientist, Uri Hanson states, “Those who have mastered the skill of storytelling can have an outsized influence over others.”  He goes on to say that “a person who tells compelling stories can actually plant ideas, thoughts, and emotions into a listener’s brain.  The art of storytelling is your most powerful weapon in the war of ideas.” 3

The only way to understand the power of this weapon is to understand how the brain functions when hearing a story.  Hearing a moving story releases the chemical dopamine in our system. That’s right, the same chemical that can get us addicted to drugs, alcohol, and gambling.  According to John Medina, author of Brain Rules, “When your brain detects emotion, your amygdala, located in your frontal lobe that helps create and maintain emotions, releases the dopamine. Dopamine greatly aids memory and information processing. You can think of it like a Post-it note® that reads “remember this.”4

In Simon Sinek’s Ted Talk, “How Great Leaders Inspire,” he describes the golden circle: Which, Why, How, What.  We all know what we do and how we do it, but do we know why we are doing it?  He ties this concept back to the brain, and explains the brain slightly differently than John Medina although the message remains the same.

Simon states, “If you look at a cross-section of the human brain, from the top down, the human brain is actually broken into three major components that correlate perfectly with the golden circle. In our newest brain, the Homo sapiens brain, our neocortex, corresponds with the “what” level. The neocortex is responsible for all of our rational and analytical thought, and language. The middle two sections make up our limbic brains, and our limbic brains are responsible for all of our feelings, like trust and loyalty. It is also responsible for all human behavior, all decision-making, although it has no capacity for language.”5

He goes on to say, “In other words, when we communicate from the outside in, yes, people can understand vast amounts of complicated information like features and benefits and facts and figures. It just doesn’t drive behavior. When we can communicate from the inside out, we’re talking directly to the part of the brain that controls behavior, and then we allow people to rationalize it with the tangible things we say and do.”6

In other words, “emotion trumps logic”7 every time. This is why stories are so powerful.  They evoke emotion, and emotion drives behavior.  Marketing executives understand this and if you don’t believe me, watch most commercials. The Budweiser beer commercials are a case in point. Each holiday season they feature darling, warm, cuddly puppies, and everyone loves puppies. That emotion, love, connects us to the story the company is telling in a deep and meaningful way.

Once we accept the fact that “emotion trumps logic” and begin to craft our business presentations in the same manner, the more likely we will be able to inspire and motive people to action.  That is exactly what great leaders and organizations do.



  1. Gallo, Carmine, The Storyteller’s Secret: From TED Speakers to Business Legends, Why Some Ideas Catch On and Others Don’t, (St. Martins Press, New York, 2016) 1
  2. Gallo, Carmine, The Storyteller’s Secret, (St. Martins Press, New York, 2016) 3
  3. Ibid, 4
  4. Medina, John, Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home and School, (Pear Press, Seattle, WA, 2014) 112
  5. Simon Sinek Ted Talk, “How Great Leaders Inspire”, 2009,, (accessed August 2, 2017)
  6. Simon Sinek Ted Talk, “How Great Leaders Inspire”, 2009
  7. Gallo, Carmine, The Storyteller’s Secret, (St. Martins Press, New York, 2016) 4

Three Tips to Increase Audience Retention

Have you noticed that many business presentations are boring, mind-numbing, and bullet-ridden with speakers reading from a script? When you see the PowerPoint presentation come up, you know you are in for a snooze-fest. It does not have to be that way. When used correctly, presentation tools can be useful in getting your message across to your audience. Rather than use your presentation tool as a crutch, I have three tip to improve your audience’s retention of the materials presented and keep them engaged with you as a speaker.

  1. Less Is More: You were asked to present because you are the subject matter expert, and you know your material. Do not need to put everything you know, every word you will say, on presentation slides. Too much data and information on slides puts the audience in decision-making mode: listen to the speaker, read the slide or maybe just read email. Instead, highlight key words or phrases that will guide you through your presentation. Connect with your audience by looking at them, not the slides or script, and create a two-way conversation.
  2. Eliminate Bullet Points by 90%: Presentation slides riddled with bullet points look like a mob hit rather than a learning experience. Your audience tunes-out and minds wander to other, more interesting, places. Does your employer add funds to your 401K for every slide and every bullet point you incorporate in your presentation? Didn’t think so. Use only one key message or bullet point per slide so your audience can focus on one thing – what you are saying. While there are some situations where multiple bullet points are useful, keep them to five or less. In this case use animation to bring those lines into play rather than a static presentation of all bullet point.
  3. Let Pictures Tell The Story: Pairing words with pictures can help your audience retain the information you are sharing. In his book Brain Rules, John Media says that we remember pictures at a higher rate than we recall words. According to him, after three days we will remember only 10% of information presented, but 65% of images or pictures seen will be recalled. Images help bring your story to life, and keep them alive.

Where you place images is important, too. We read from left to right so naturally our eyes gravitate to the left side of any page or slide. By placing an image on the left side of the slide and the supporting text on the right, you have a greater chance of your audience seeing and remembering that important picture.

By using fewer words, reducing or even eliminating bullet points, and properly placing pictures and images on each presentation slide you will increase your audience engagement and their retention of the material. It’s that simple!

Want to learn more. Visit my website at

Improv Is No Joke Podcast Episode 9: The YES AND Mindset with John Barlow

I’m very happy to introduce my friend John Barlow today. He is a brilliant thinker, an empathetic automotive engineer and a masterful practitioner of the “Yes, and,” mindset.

John is an accidental engineer. He started his career as a principle engineer at Honda 22 years ago, while pursuing a career as an acoustic engineer. He doesn’t exactly fit the stereotype of an engineer, and he brings an empathetic perspective to the engineering and design process. “I think you can train your brain to use both sides of the brain simultaneously, but if you try to do two tasks with one side at the same time, I don’t know it works so well.”

John shares the different aspects of his unique perspective on engineering:

  • Have a wider viewpoint – Learn the different ways people want to use a vehicle (or any product), even if they can’t tell you how they want to use it
  • Be empathetic to other people – Be empathetic to how people do things, use things and want to use things.

John has tactics for imparting empathic processes upon his fellow engineers: Build a logical storyboard and try to show a trend. Try to imagine the future by considering the past – some things that sound unrealistic might happen

John’s position involves imagining how people will use products and technology in the future. Part of this is attempting to establish the relationship between human and machines, because the more of a relationship you can build there, the more trust there is in the technology. “As technology is starting to provide services to people, you don’t want it to come across as a machine. You want it to be more personal than that.”

“Because people are so busy with their lives these days, I think part of that forces the, ‘Yes, but,’ culture.” John sees how the mindset can impact every part of your life and the people you are around. However, if you can take a step back and look at things from a different perspective, you will realize that it is more effective, and more empathetic, to use a “Yes, and,” approach.

I’m extremely grateful to John for taking the time to talk today. He is one of the most empathetic people I have ever talked to, and he really understands the benefit of a “Yes, and,” mindset. I can’t wait to have him back on the show again.

Click here to listen to the episode