What Shonda Rhimes’ Year of Yes taught me about storytelling
Like casting women in ‘men’s’ roles and the Great British Bake Off’s channel switch, using storytelling in your business is A Big Deal.
People keep banging on about the benefits of good storytelling because everyone’s a sucker for well-told yarn.
Marketing expert Ann Handley has called has called customer-centric storytelling ‘…the cornerstone of successful content’.
And Neil Patel (a hugely successful entrepreneur, angel investor and analytics expert) has said that storytelling helps fight the objections that can stop your readers from becoming loyal customers.
Why storytelling's important and what it can do for you
- make you memorable
- create empathy and connections
- stir up emotions
Which is why shows like Strictly, the X-Factor and The Voice weave in those snippets of contestants’ back stories.
It’s a quick and super effective way to make participants seem more three-dimensional, and cajole you into caring about them.
You can use stories in your business to:
- give people an insight into how you’ve got to the stage you’re at
- show how you do what you do
- get your message across clearly and in a way that really resonates with the clients you want to attract most
- help convince your customers and clients that you (and only you) are the one for them
So they’re incredibly useful if you want to add a bit of oomph to your blog posts, web content, e-books and webinars.
And who better to teach us how to sharpen this skill than award-winning American TV writer and producer Shonda Rhimes?
Who is Shonda Rhimes?
Photo by James White
Ms Shonda Rhimes is a Storytelling Supremo. A Master Storyteller, if you will. (I’m not sure if that’s actually a thing, but if it was, I’m sure she’d be it.)
If you’re unacquainted with her work get thee to Netflix. Immediately. Shonda penned Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice and Scandal. And she’s Executive Producer of How to Get Away With Murder.
They’re all great shows with gripping storylines and diverse, but often maddening, characters.
Shonda’s Year of Yes
As it sounds, Shonda’s book Year of Yes: How to Dance it Out, Stand in the Sun and Be Your Own Person, is about how she spent 12 months doing all the things that terrified her.
It’s chatty and chummy tone’s probably not everyone’s cup of Tetley’s. But I thought it was an entertaining read. And I learnt a lot from it about how to tell a story well.
Here are a few of the things I picked up.
Have a curiosity-arousing opening
‘I’m a liar’ is the first sentence of Year of Yes’ introduction. And, ‘You never say yes to anything’ (an argument-inducing statement if ever I heard one) opens its first chapter.
Both these beginnings immediately draw you in and make you think, ‘they’re bold statements Shonda, tell me more.’ And she does.
After whetting your appetite, Shonda rewards your patience and, in a warm and funny way, she shares her fibbing history.
She goes on to describe her family and background and explains how her sister gave her a reality check on her habits and behaviour.
Keep it chatty
When you’re telling a story, using everyday words and writing the way that people talk in real life, is better than wheeling out stuffy, robotic language that’s supposedly ‘professional’.
It makes for a much more enjoyable and easy-to-understand read.
A good example of this is when Shonda describes a tricky decision she had to make as a student:
Because when I was a struggling graduate student in film school, I often had no money. And so I often had to choose between wine and things like toilet paper. Steak did not even enter into the equation. It was wine or toilet paper. Wine. Or. Toilet paper. The toilet paper did not always win. Did I just see you give me a look? Was that...did you judge me? No. you are not about to come up into this book and judge me. That is not how we are going to start off this journey. We are going to ease on down the road. We are in this together. So let she who is without wine cast the first stone.
See? Chatty. And she ramps up the Getting You To Lean In Closer factor by addressing you directly, and anticipating what your reaction to what she’s just told you will be.
Follow a tried and tested structure
Have you heard of The Seven Basic Plots?
It’s a weighty book by Christopher Booker, an English journalist and author. In it he puts forward the theory that there are only a handful of basic stories in the world.
And they’re the basis of all stories, from weighty works of literary fiction to sitcoms.
These stories are:
- overcoming the monster – the hero comes up against an evil threat. So our hero’s life, or life as we know it, is at stake. The good guy, because it’s almost always a guy, wins and is drenched in glory (any Bourne or James Bond movie)
- rags to riches – the main character: starts off poor, gets power, wealth, or a partner. Loses it all and then gets it back. In the process they become A Better Person (Cinderella, Dracula)
- the quest – the main character and their compadres venture off to get their hands on important object, or reach an important destination. Just to keep things interesting, they face a heap of trials and tribulations along the way (Game of Thrones, Star Wars and Lord of the Rings)
- voyage and return – the main character goes to a distant land that’s completely different to their own, overcomes obstacles and comes back triumphant (Alice in Wonderland, Gulliver's Travels, The Wizard of Oz)
- comedy – the main character’s humourous and the story has a cheerful/happy ending. But it’s not just about the jokes. There’s confusion and conflict throughout, but everything becomes clear in the end (any rom-com you’ve ever watched)
- tragedy – the hero has a major character flaw which leads to their downfall (Breaking Bad, Macbeth)
- rebirth – during the story, an event out with the main character’s control makes them change their ways. They often become a better person (The Ugly Duckling, Beauty and the Beast)
These basic plots help give stories a clear and recognisable shape.
Shonda goes with rebirth. When her sister says ‘You never say yes to anything’ forces her to realise that she’s got a problem. And it makes her get off her behind and do something about it, which leads to massive changes in how she lives her life.
Be clear about the stakes
In all the seven basic stories, the stakes are high and obvious. Whether it’s romantic love, the hero’s life, or the future of mankind, you know exactly what’s on the line.
The stakes make sense of why characters behave like they do, and what motivates them.
For Shonda, it’s being healthy, feeling good about herself and having a long life so she can care for her kids and see them grow up. All things you can understand, or empathise with.
It’s all about the pace
Storytelling’s a bit like going to an all you can eat buffet – you need to pace yourself.
Year of Yes doesn’t go at breakneck speed, or move at the rate of continental drift.
Shonda spends the most time on the parts that matter and move the story forward and ditches the rest.
So there are no detailed descriptions of her favourite sandwich filling, or passages devoted to her thoughts on climate change.
Everything’s focused on letting you know how her year of yes panned out.
Stephen King (another Master of the Storytelling Craft) would agree. I think it was him who said ‘cut out the boring bits.’
Shonda’s not shy when it comes to sharing. Especially the sort of stuff that shows she’s not some high achieving robot with a productivity app where her soul should be.
She’s honest about times she’s embarrassed herself. She confesses, ‘I’m the woman who forgets to cut the price tag off my dress and walks around with it stuck to my back so everyone can see not only how much I spent but also WHAT SIZE I AM. For an entire dinner party.’
OK, it’s a first world problem. But you feel her pain and it makes you warm to her.
All her anecdotes are easy to relate to. And they make the point that even high-flying Hollywood writers have those skirt-tucked-in-knickers kind of moments.
Create memorable word images
When she describes her personality traits, Shonda could just say ‘I’m an introvert’ and leave it at that.
But being a lover of a graphic description (maybe a bit too vivid in this case) she doesn’t. Instead, she turns it up to 11 and says, ‘See I am an introvert. Deep. To the snot.’
She also talks about how she’s the opposite of a social butterfly. So she ‘hugs the walls’ at social events, and calls wine ‘nature’s beta blocker’ because it helps her manage her anxiety when she attends them.
By using these comparisons, descriptions and images, Shonda makes sure that, without resorting to clichés, she lets you know just how much of an introvert she is
Tie it all up
Have you ever read a story that has flat, or totally unbelievable, ending? Or a story that just kind of petered out? It’s a total let-down, isn’t it?
Because Shonda’s professional storyteller, it’s no surprise that Year of Yes has a solid finale.
By the end of the book, you know exactly where she’s at after a year of confronting her fears. And you feel satisfied because she brings things to a close in a way that makes sense.
So there you have it – a quick guide to storytelling, Shonda-style.