The Narrative Arc of a Few Remarks

The other night, I was at a dinner to celebrate the recipients of a local college’s award of honorary doctorates. The formal festivities—robes donned, longer speeches—were the next day. This gathering was an intimate prelude among friends and colleagues. After dinner, a few of the honorees were scheduled to give brief remarks and I was keen to hear one honoree in particular.

It wasn’t just what he would say that I was sure would interest me, but how he would organize it. I wanted to see through his remarks to the scaffolding that would support the whole thing, and so I was ready for him, paper and pencil in hand. As I recorded his remarks, I noted as well the pitch of his voice and posture, his hands placed on the back of his chair. He’s a master at setting tone and providing content, but it was structure I was after.

The next morning, I looked at what I’d written, collected on the back of the invitation, and there it was: the entire narrative arc put to good use, the same as any storyteller might employ.

To graph it, it looked like this:

To write it, to deliver it aloud, it looked like this:

The beginning: a joke, a spur of the moment thing, biting and funny.

The real beginning: gratitude expressed, humility to have been selected for the honor.

And now tension building: a survey of the year’s difficulties and increasing personal challenges, which resonated well with his audience.

Then relief, resolution:  the summit reached, darkness into light, the receipt of the award figuring prominently in this moment.

And finally, the wrap up: a message, short, inspirational, and unassailable by reasonable people.

Whatever your intention with your words— to attract investors, convince colleagues, accept awards, persuade, inspire, lead, explain, apologize, educate, reflect—the well-organized story is what people are likely to remember. Follow this structure adjusted to fit your circumstances and you’ve got the basics of a compelling narrative, your audience glued to your words.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo credits: Arc de Triomphe by IceNineJon

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