• David de Souza

The 80/20 Guide to StoryTelling

Updated: Oct 7

Storytelling is like a language that the whole world can speak and understand. It is a skill, that once acquired, gives you the ability to connect with anyone. It builds trust and engagment between you and your audience.

We've all been in a meeting room and endured a boring avalanche of boring bullet points and sleep-inducing slides. While most people focus on data and spreadsheets a story will help you to simplify complicated ideas that will be remembered by your audience.

I have taken the top 7 books on storytelling and created a latticework of mental models on the topic. This framework allows for better understanding and recollection.

The Books:

  1. Story 10x

  2. The StoryTelling Book

  3. Into The Woods

  4. Storyworthy

  5. The Science of StoryTelling

  6. Made to Stick

  7. The Element of Eloquence

41 Mental models for Story TElling:

  1. Activation Energy

  2. Agenda Setting Theory

  3. Alloying

  4. Anchoring

  5. Attentional Bias

  6. Catalysts

  7. Cooperation

  8. Curiosity Instinct

  9. Ego

  10. Evolution: Adaptation

  11. Emergence

  12. Emotions: Desire, Fear, Humor, Jeoulusy, Mystery, Safety, Schadenfreude, Surprise, Suspense

  13. Evolution: Adaptation

  14. Equilibrium

  15. First Conclusion Bias

  16. Fractals

  17. Friction

  18. Ikea Effect

  19. Incentives

  20. Inversion

  21. Irrationality

  22. Momentum

  23. Narrative Instinct

  24. Newton's 3rd Law: Action & Reaction

  25. Niches

  26. Pareto Principle

  27. Randomness

  28. Relativity

  29. Replication

  30. Resistance

  31. Scale

  32. Social Proof

  33. Status

  34. Status Quo Bias

  35. System 1 vs System 2

  36. Tendency to Minimize Energy Output

  37. The Map is Not the Territory

  38. The Law of Diminishing Returns

  39. Trust

  40. Velocity

  41. Vividness Bias

1. Activation Energy

There are two ways to start a story:

  1. The Sledgehammer: Smash the audience's assumptions and shift their paradigm.

  2. The Ice Cream Cone: Make the audience feel good and create a stream of "Yes's". Capture their imagination, get them excited and intrigued.

When you begin a story with data you signal that the story is finished before it has even begun. Instead:

  1. Start your story with timeless truth.

  2. Ask questions that are related to the timeless truth within a changing world and a changing context.

2. Agenda Setting Theory

Every generation views the world through the lens of available facts. The Earth was supported by atlas. Cigarettes were good for you. The Earth is the center of the universe.

3. Alloying

Create a word sandwich to add finality, emphasis or judgment. Use the formula: (Word or phrase) + (brief interruption) + (word or phrase). For example: burn, baby, burn.


When we recall a memory our recollection (whether good or bad) will be determined by 2 points:

1. How you felt at the peak (low or high)

2. How you felt at the end.

The ending of your story should include a resolution that results in an emotional crescendo.

5. Attentional Bias

If you can't get the attention or imagination of your audience in the first few minutes you'll lose them for your entire presentation.

Attention is focused on things that have personal meaning, not things that simply stand out.

Humans, don’t talk in lists but that’s what makes them so effective. They startle and bewilder. They grab your attention. We aren't used to them.

6. Catalysts

End a sentence with a word and begin the next with that same word. This gives both sentences power, strength, and the illusion of logic. It is satisfying, both beautiful and structured. It is progression. It is like a story that leads to a climax.

7. Cooperation

Movies like Ocean 11 explain the plan before the robbery. They do this so that you feel as if you are on team Oceans 11, and the resulting fear and suspense when things don't go to plan. Your audience wants you to succeed but they want struggle and problems within the story first. They want you to overcome something.

8. Curiosity Instinct

Mental gaps cause pain that we try and fix or close. Create a gap in your story to create curiosity. There are 4 ways of creating gaps/curiosity:

  1. The presentation of a question or puzzle.

  2. A sequence of events with anticipated but unknown resolution.

  3. The violation of expectations, triggering a search for an answer.

  4. Surprise with red hearings and seduce with someone else knowing the secret.

Maximum curiosity is when the reader has an idea but they are not quite sure and must resolve that itch of curiosity.

Dogs live in a world of smells, humans live in a social world. As the social world is so important to us, we have a heightened curiosity about it.

Breadcrumbs are used to hint towards a future event. Enough is revealed to keep the listener wondering and guessing. Breadcrumbs are effective when something unexpected happens in the story. For example: 'As I climb into the car, I see my crumpled McDonald's uniform on the backseat, and I suddenly have an idea.

9. Ego

People pay attention when a story has parallels to themselves. Mavericks are popular as we've all felt at times like we are the only sane person surrounded by idiots.

For communication to be effective it needs to massage the ego of the listener vs the informational content.

We can make people care about our stories and ideas by:

  • Appealing to self-interest.

  • Appealing to their identities.

  • Appealing to the person they want to be.

  • Not being analytical.

  • Creating empathy for 1 specific person (not a group).

  • Highlighting the similarities of the idea and something they already feel strongly about.

10. Evolution: Adaptation

Tell a story that shows a future that your readers wants and identifies with. "The best kind of 'new stories' don't reject the 'old stories' but rather demonstrate a natural evolution."

11. Emergence

Sentences, paragraphs, and science work against each other like a serrated blade of a knife. They progress through the use of opposites (it was this but now it's this). They create a new idea from the previous sentence (this plus this equals this). If you listen to someone talking about their vacation it is usually boring: "We went here and it was so good and then we went here and it was so good also". The negative is often better for storytelling, we become much more interested when we are told about something that went wrong on a vacation. Saying what someone is not, is better than saying what they are: I am ugly and poor vs I'm not at all good looking and I'm not rich. The reason is because of the hidden 'but' that it contains. It says I could have been rich, it implies what I could have been. Most people wrongly connect sentences, paragraphs and scenes together with the word 'and'. 'And' stories are like running on a treadmill, there is no real movement. Instead, use:

  • But

  • Therefore

  • However

  • Except

  • As a result

  • Instead

These words signal change. The story goes in one direction and then another. The best storytellers don't move the story in a straight line.

12. Emotions

All humans look similar but we are all different. We have the same psychological needs but we've all had different life experiences. Stories that tap into our universal similarities will be timeless. Stories about : • Mothers • Fathers • Sexuality • Death

Archetypes connect to our deepest and most emotional desires and are therefore powerful and hook our attention. Think about identifying the quest of your story by asking:

  • What is the inner quest?

  • What transformation will happen?

  • Who will be the hero?

  • What is the tone or personality?

Who is the character in your story? This is a very hard question because we don't know who we are. We are lead astray by our inner voice that tells us we are good and justifies everything we do. We think our inner voice is "us". It feels like the voice has direct access to who we are but it doesn't. It is simply generated by speech circuitry in the left hemisphere of our brain, "we" are our neural models. We model everything we know in the world. We also have different models of ourselves, which are continually fighting over who we are. Our behavior is the result of this fight. "Because the narrator exists separately from the circuits that are the true cause of our emotions and behaviors, it's forced to rapidly hash together anything that makes sense, a (usually heroic) story about what we are up to and why ." Our narrator organizes everything we see into a story that says who we are, why we did or felt something. It's designed to help us feel in control. It looks for an explanation for cause and effect, any explanation will do, facts are a bonus. In a study, split-brain patients had their right eye covered and were shown a sign that read "walk". Their brain sent this message to the right side of their brain, hidden from their narrator. The subjects got up and walked but when asked what they were doing they would make an excuse to justify their actions.

Fill a metaphorical backpack with your hopes and fears before moving forward in your story. This increases wonder in your listeners about what will happen next and helps them to experience similar emotions to how you were feeling at the time. For example: 'I make a plan. I'm going to beg for gas, because it's 1991, gas is eighty-five cents a gallon, so eight dollars is all I need to get me home. I'll offer my license, my wallet, everything as collateral in exchange for $8 worth of gas and the promise that I will return and repay the money and money. Whatever it takes. So I rehearse my pitch, take a deep breath, and walk in.'

Don't tell the reader that the person is annoyed, show them subtly by writing 'He's tapping his finger'.

Statistics don't produce emotion. Bring them to life by making them more relatable or human.

A long sentence drawn out, with many commas stops you from being too emotional. You can't be too rude or enthusiastic with a long sentence.

12.1 - Emotions: Desire

All successful stories are about human desire: • Success • Money • Love • Survival • Protection of family or home • Acceptance • Friendship • Survival • Self Esteem

The desire for safety, if we want to live within a group, means we must accept that we can not have unrestricted access to our other wants. A thirst for sex and revenge are not good ingredients for living in a community in harmony. Desires need to be repressed which results in an internal conflict between the way we want to be seen and our inner desires.

Change is linked to desire. If the hero wants something they are going to have to change in order to get it. 'The character seeks what they want and in so doing realizes instead their need. Their lack lacks no more; they have overcome their flaws and become whole.'

We believe our desires will make us complete and give us peace. We wear masks to protect our ego, and to hide our more vulnerable inner selves. By confronting this vulnerability and its cause the hero can move on and become whole again.

12.2 - Emotions: Fear

The inciting incident is often a decision the hero must face that will result in them confronting their worst fear.

Find your audience's key concern and prioritize it. Start by acknowledging it and answering it initially to set them at ease.

12.3 - Emotions: Humor

Make your story funny by combing two words that don't normally go together. For example: 'My sadist grandmother.'

Oddly specific words are funnier.

12.4 - Emotions: Jeoulusy

Reading about wealth, popularity, and the good looks of others causes pain regions to be activated.

12.5 - Emotions: Mystery

Using a pronoun before a noun creates mystery and grabs your attention. For example: 'Nobody heard him, the dead man' instead of 'The dead man was not heard'.

The 14th Rule: The use of specific numbers (instead of “many”) feels mysterious and significant.

'Mystery is created not from an unexpected moment but from an unexpected journey. We know where we're headed - we want to solve the mystery- but we're not sure how we'll get there. Mysteries are powerful because they create a desire for closure.

12.6 - Emotions: Safety

Both in story and in real life safety is different for all people. For some it will be: • Being the highest status person in the room, for others the lowest. • Being with their husband, for others they will only feel safe without them. • Being without a job, for others being with a job makes them feel trapped and vulnerable.

12.7 - Emotions: schadenfreude

Reading about misfortune causes the reward system to be activated.