The most important of all musical concepts is rhythm: the pace of events as they unfold; the regularity of that pace, or its interruption; and the overall tempo, whether it is swift or slow.

This foundational concept is also essential to storytelling, whether your story is told in video, a PowerPoint presentation, a series of images or a speech.

-- David will present "What Does It All Mean? Effective Storytelling for Researchers" at CRC, October 8-10 in Orlando --

No matter what the medium, effective storytelling is rhythmic storytelling. Stories work best when they move through time in a way that is logical, engaging and ultimately satisfying.

It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing
To get an idea of what we mean, consider Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. King’s overall cadence, the rise and fall of his voice and the repetition of the phrase “I have a dream” all generate an overall rhythmic feel that draws us in, even as much as the meaning of the words themselves.

Effective Storytelling and The Rhythm of Story Shapes
Put simply, stories that work are stories that have a shape. The fortune of the main character, for example, goes up and down over the course of the narrative. The great American novelist, Kurt Vonnegut, gave a famous talk on the shapes of stories.

One of the classic story shapes is known as “Man-In-Hole,” in which the hero starts his day with average fortune, then faces a problem in which his fortune drops precipitously, putting him in a “hole.” He then works his way out of the hole, and, in many cases, ends up in a better position than when the story began.

There is rhythm here. Things go up and they go down. Tension is built and released. Within the larger rhythmic structure of the main story shape there are often smaller structures, as well, which also generate rhythm. Scene changes and plot twists, for example, interrupt the rhythmic flow and take us in a new rhythmic direction. As a movie reaches its climax, the rhythm may increase in pace only for it to subside as the story resolves.

Rhythmic Storytelling Even Applies To Static Images
It’s easy to understand how rhythm applies to stories in books, music and videos, since they quite explicitly move through time. But what about photographs, which their creators often describe as “telling a story,” yet are static in nature?

Here, too, we find rhythm. Successful images move our eye through the image in a specific, directed way. The composition acts as guide. There is a flow. Take this famous shot by Ansel Adams. Notice how your eye naturally moves up the snaking river and ends up in the mountains. Although it is static, there is rhythm and movement in this photograph.

Ansel Adams: The Tetons and the Snake River

How To Get Rhythm Into Your Own Storytelling
The most important thing you can do to become a rhythmic storyteller is to try to answer a number of questions as you develop your story:

  1. Is there an overall groove? Is this a story that, broadly speaking, moves quickly or at a more leisurely pace?
  2. Does the story have an overall shape? Is there a general sense of tension and release?
  3. Are events happening at the “right” time?
  4. Does a certain section last too long or is it too short? Do you feel a need, at certain points, for “something else to happen”?
  5. Conversely, do you feel that a particular section deserves to be lingered upon a bit longer?
  6. Does the story feel like it’s flowing, that it’s moving forward like one of your favorite songs?

Get Rhythmic and You’ll Get Engagement
All of life is rhythm. Whether it’s our heartbeat or the regular motions of the planets, we are embedded in a rhythmic universe.

That’s why rhythm has such enormous power. It’s built into who we are.

So the next time you prepare a story – whether it’s a video, a novel or a business presentation – think about its rhythm and craft it in a way that’s musical.

Your audience may not tap their feet but they will, no doubt, catch your rhythm and be with you all the way.