Storyworthy (book) by Matthew Dicks

"Storyworthy" explores the essentials of compelling personal storytelling, focusing on honesty, vulnerability, and emotional impact. With practical advice like "Homework for Life," Dicks offers a guide to turning everyday moments into engaging narratives.

Storyworthy (book) by Matthew Dicks
5/5 book. Learn more about it on Matthew Dicks' website.

Honesty is attractive.

"Storytelling" in this book is personal narrative. Drawing from one’s firsthand life experience.

Stories that fail to reflect change are known as anecdotes.

Never tell someone else’s story, because it requires no vulnerability on your part, therefore you cannot be authentic.

  • In such situations, what you could do is tell your side of someone’s story.

You pass the “Dinner test” if the way you tell your story is basically the same as the way you’d tell it over dinner with a friend.

  • Failing the test means you’ll not connect with the reader. They’ll not want to have dinner with you
  • A story should just be a “slightly more crafted version of the story you would tell your buddies over beers.”
  • Example: Someone might ask, who is Heather? A reply like “she was once my girlfriend” does not pass the dinner test. “She’s my ex-girlfriend” does.

Doing “Homework for Life” will help you collect more storyworthy moments, so you have more stories than you have time to tell.

  • Homework for Life is the author’s simple way of collecting one story every day, usually at the end of the day, by asking “If I had to tell a 5-minute story from today, what story would I tell?” … “What was the most storyworthy moment from my day?”
  • Reason to do it is so you don’t forget all the beautiful moments of change in your life that are tragically forgettable if not recorded
  • Who should do it: parents, forgetful people, those who feel insignificant, dog owners, writers, startup founders, business leaders, those who want to be memorable

Matthew Dicks does “Homework for Life” using a spreadsheet with 2 columns

  • Date and Story columns
  • He uses a spreadsheet so it’s easier to sort through and filter than a Word document. Also because the columns have a limited width, which assures him that it’s okay to just a 1-2 sentences per day
  • You can be brief, and yet still read your entries any time and be transported back in time to those very moments. Because they provide instant access to your memory
  • Matthew admits that not every day contains a storyworthy moment, but he is much less likely to let a storyworthy moment go unnoticed than the person who doesn’t hone their storytelling lens by doing Homework for Life
  • Hardest part is developing your storytelling lens, as you may spend 5 minutes everyday for months or a year without feeling like you’ve made progress. Then it clicks eventually and your life is forever changed, because from then on, time slows down as you see become capable of seeing storyworthy moment unfold in real-time

Homework for Life entry examples

  • “Walked Kaleigh. 2:00am. Underwear. Birds. Rain. Beauty.”
  • “I hit on Elysha by spending aan hour of my morning getting the kids dressed, folding laundry, doing dishes, aand cooking pancakes.”
  • “Dog humped my leg at Petco. Woman is less than apologetic. I guess rightfully so. Meaningless apologies.”

Every great story is about a 5-second moment of change in someone’s life. Storytelling is to bring that moment to the greatest clarity possible.

  • 5-second moments are usually little moments, not obviously life-altering moments as we would think
  • The original Jurassic Park by Spielberg is not about adventure and dinosaurs but about a man who is in a relationship with a woman who wants children, but who is himself someone who thinks children are nothing but a burden. In saving two children’s lives in the Park, he transforms into a fatherly figure who actually likes kids, thereby preserving his relationship
  • Matthew’s own story “This is going to suck” talks about his harrowing experience being thrown violently through the windscreen, having his teeth gruesomely torn out of his jaw, and having a boy by the road say to him, “Dude, you’re fucked.” But the real point of the story, the 5-second moment, happens when his parents goes to the hospital to visit him, only to check on his car before checking on him. A few of his colleagues from McDonald’s came to see him, and he realises that his friends are his real family
  • No 5-second moment, no story

The 5-second moment is the most important thing you’ll say in a story, so you should place it as close to the end of the story as possible.

  • The ending is decided. It’s the 5-second moment
  • What about the beginning of the story? Matthew suggests the best way to start a story is to reverse-engineer it by looking at the ending (the 5-second moment)
  • Ask, “What is the opposite of your five-second moment?” The beginning of the story should be the opposite of the end for maximum contrast
  • Choosing the right beginning to a story is the most important decision you’ll make in telling a story, because it creates the satisfying narrative arc that causes people to connect to and remember your story
  • Somtimes it is hard to find the beginning of a story because it happens long before the 5-second moment. The best strategy here is to apply constraints: keep your story as temporally short as possible. This will avoid superfluous details from creeping in. Matthew phases this advice as “start your story as close to the end as possible”

A written story is like a lake. An oral story is like a river. So keep your story simple

  • If the story has parts that are complicated and require a moment to ponder, then the audience needs to step out of the river momentarily to ponder. When they step back in, the water that has flowed by would never be seen again
  • Starting your story as close to the end as possible is a good way to force you to simplify your story
  • Nick: What would happen if we always treated written stories like oral stories and assume they’re rivers? Disservice? Improvement?

2 practical tips for beginning stories.

  • 1 - Begin every story with forward physical movement. Like walking, running, a car chase. This helps the audience that they’re already on their way to somewhere important
  • Many movies begin with forward physical movement. Star Wars opens on two starships racing through space. The Dark Knight begins with a bank robbery in progress. Jurassic Park opens with a cage containing a velociraptor moving through tress toward a group of armed men. Even a drone-shot of New York City creates the desired effect
  • 2 - Don’t start by setting expectations. No thesis statements or “I’ve a funny story.” Just start with the story, or the audience will feel lectured to instead of being brought on a journey of change

You win 80 percent of the storytelling game just by executing on these 3 things:

  1. you only tell stories with a clear 5-second moment of change
  2. you begin with the opposite of the 5-second moment
  3. you start with the story and choose a scene with forward movement

Storytelling is not about a roller-coaster ride of excitement. It’s about bridging the gap between you and a person by creating a space of authenticity, vulnerability, and universal truth.

Lying by omission is encouraged.

  • Start from the fact that technically you already never tell a complete story because you can’t cover every thing, or the story would never end
  • Omit characters who don’t fulfil a role in your story. Do so by pretending they’re not there. The 5-second moment will be clearer
  • Omit redemption, because a story should be like a coat that stays on the audience for as long as possible after the story has been told, and sharing your redemption is like “taking off the coat.” Make the coat hard to remove by omitting redeeming parts of the story, and the story will linger in their hearts and minds

A story should always have a single 5-second moment, not more

  • If there is a second or third, those need to be told as different stories with different details

Effective storytelling is cinema of the mind.

  • Your audience needs to forget that they exist. They also need to forget you exist. That’s effective storytelling — their body is present but their mind is elsewhere
  • The way to maintain cinema of the mind is by always describing the physical location of a scene. That puts people’s minds in specific places, in which they are project their own ideas
  • With location you have a story. Without location you have an essay

If the words “and then” can be placed between two scenes, you’re fucked.

  • Matthew quoted that from South Park creators and writers
  • Good storytelling constantly makes a story go someplace, and the best way to do that with language is with “but” and “therefore” and the equivalents, like “instead” and “yet”

“Come hear our pastor. He’s not very good, but he’s quick.”

  • Shorter stories require less perfection and precision in front of the audience. Longer stories need you to be more entertaining and engaging to keep their attention.
  • But to be even better, you need to work harder to craft a 4-minute story, because it requires “careful crafting and clever construction.”

Surprise is the only way to elicit an emotional reaction.

  • Contrast enhances the surprise when it’s eventually revealed. Talk about the beautiful Christmas lights among the snow before revealing that your head smashed through the windscreen and you tore the teeth out of your jaw

“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” — Anne Lamott, quoted by Matthew

When you know there is a 5-second moment in a story but haven’t quite figured out what it is yet, the best tactic is to tell the story aloud to someone, messy and meandering as it will turn out. This is likely to help bring the 5-second moment to clarity.

Use present tense in storytelling. It transports the audience to the moment to experience it alongside you.

Tell success stories only after you have maligned yourself.

  • “Noise proves nothing. Often a hen who has merely laid an eye cackles as though she has laid an asteroid.” — Mark Twain
  • Failure is more engaging than success
  • The line between hero and an insufferable person is a thin one, tread carefully.
  • Tell how you literally throw a shoe that clobbed a student in the head before you reveal how one of your Monty Python jokes helped you connect and change that student’s life
  • Emphasise that you’re not perfect and neither are you pretending to be

I believe it is the teacher’s responsibility for providing a reason to learn.

You have an obligation to be entertaining if you are speaking to a group of people, whatever the context.

  • Two sins committed by every poor storyteller: you waste people’s time and you make it unpalatable to learn from you.
  • Matthew shares an anecdote from working with a CEO of an engineering company: he admitted that he would always hire a technically weak engineer who is a great communicator over a technically strong engineer who is a poor communicator
  • Why? “I can teach a bad engineer to be a good engineer. But I have no idea ahow to turn a person who can’t write or speak well into someone who can.”

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