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What makes a bad story?

Posted by vince
Published on 23 April 2018

What makes a bad story? Is there such a thing? Well, yes there is. We’ve all seen or read stories that seem to have all the ingredients for greatness, in more or less the right order, but the whole thing just doesn’t work – whether it’s a film, a play, a book, a TV programme, a speech or a presentation. Often, it’s a matter of letting the crucial elements of the story slip out of focus here and there. Maybe the script is bad or the main point is vague. Or perhaps the story is wrong for a particular audience. Or the characters don’t press the right emotional buttons.

Often a story starts well and sets out an objective or perhaps keeps the audience guessing. The set-up is exciting and interesting, but then what follows becomes dull, long-winded or confusing. If a story isn’t satisfactory it won’t work. It’s like eating something tasty. One could argue that there are few bad stories, more bad storytelling. You, as the storyteller, may assume that an audience will ‘get’ something but, if they don’t, then you’ve lost their interest. Also, if the listeners don’t know that they should care about something or someone and the story doesn’t make that clear, then the whole thing becomes flat and the point is lost.

So, bad stories aren’t necessarily bad ideas but they are stories not well constructed, written or told. A good story should make us ‘feel’ sad or happy, awkward or tense, excited or happy, hopeful or disappointed; or a combination of any of those emotions. A bad story won’t do any of these things – or worse of all, it will make an audience feel the ‘wrong’ emotion. If an audience laughs when it’s not meant to or bursts into tears when you don’t intend that, then something has gone wrong.

If a story doesn’t show belief, real belief, in its telling and its content, then it won’t be believed by an audience. Pretty obvious you may think, but it happens when we can see that the executive standing on stage doesn’t believe what s/he is saying. Mind you, those who tell stories for propaganda or evil purposes are often good at showing passion and belief even if it’s an act. Often, it isn’t an act of course and that’s frightening.

A bad story is one that’s under-prepared or not rehearsed. Stands to reason. If you saw a play and the actors didn’t know their lines or where to move, you’d leave, wouldn’t you? A bad story also doesn’t anchor the content to a particular place. Stories seem formless or vague unless they’re positioned somewhere - where the action takes place. Again, that's why the first ten seconds of some movies set up the starting location as well as the time. Classic example: "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away..."

Bad stories are those that gloat or are self-congratulatory. So, avoid: "Our brilliant XYZ plc was founded in Basingstoke in 1979 where we soon made amazing software history by..." Better: "The management team in this company was a lot like you here today: plenty of great experience and industry knowledge, but perhaps a little sceptical of new technology...." Unfortunately, many business people are in the habit of using jargon that sounds impressive but is meaningless. These distractions weaken a story by making it vague or unintelligible.

A story that finishes in mid-air with no proper conclusion is bad. That often happens if time runs out. (And remember that any speech can be delivered within thirty minutes.) Not every story can have a happy ending, but every story can have an ending that gives people hope and aspiration, even if the core news isn’t great. In every story, it's not the achievement itself that's important; it's how the hero (and the audience that's been along for the ride) feels when the goal is achieved or best met. So rather than: "In the end, they doubled their ROI in three months,” it would be better to say: "Doubling the ROI meant that, rather than declaring bankruptcy, we were able to turn our long-term objective, our dream, into reality." And that’s from a real story.

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