Storytelling for Demo Teams

Here it is– the final piece to the puzzle; my secret weapon; that frustratingly elusive element in my demos that everyone’s tried for years to figure out. Story. Such a deceptively simple word, isn’t it? But chalk full of so much complication.

Writers will tell you that story doesn’t exist without conflict. (Ok, that’s partially true.) English teachers will tell you it’s centered around theme. (Also important.) But I say it’s more basic than that. I believe it’s about conveying an emotional message.

From the time man figured out how to draw charcoal stick-figures on a cave wall, humans have used storytelling to pass along messages. Sometimes they were warnings, other times they were preserving heroic deeds and a culture’s history. But no matter how embellished or fictional, the core mission was always to convey a message, usually by manipulating the audience’s emotions.

When you stop and think about all the movies/books/games/etc. that have stayed with you over the years, what is it you remember them for? Chances are, they “moved” you in some way. They had an emotional impact on you. Right? Whether it was a message of happiness, hope, fear or anger, you remember how the story made you feel. That’s why I say emotion is the heart of storytelling. (Sorry, couldn’t help myself.)

But you can’t just say “I want to tell a happy story,” or “my story’s about revenge.” (Well, you could, but you probably won’t get much further than that.) Emotions are broad things, with a thousand different ways to convey them. So you need a target. A goal. Something that directs you. In short, you need a Summary Sentence.

I spoke once before about this soundbite approach to storytelling. But this time I got off my lazy butt and located the book: Animation Magic by Don Hahn. In it, Mr. Hahn talks about how each Disney film starts from an idea that can be summed up by a simple theme, and contains one central actionable task. He gives several examples from the different movies, but since Beauty and the Beast has always been my favorite, I’ll use that one. He summed it up under the theme, “don’t judge a book by its cover” with the actionable task of “break the spell.” This is the same strategy I use to comprise a Summary Sentence (because I’m an uber-dork Disney fangirl, as we’ve previously established, and I thought it was brilliant when I was 11); one part emotional content (“theme”) and one part conflict (“actionable task”).

Why is conflict suddenly an essential part of the equation? Didn’t I just say that storytelling was about the emotional content? You’re right, I did. But a beautiful message doesn’t make an entertaining story. For that, you need plot, and plot consists mostly of, guess what? Conflict. Plus, I’m a writer, so you really should have seen that coming. 😉

Think of conflict as the delivery service for your message. It’s the UPS of the storytelling world, dropping your emotional content in a nice pretty box, (Ok, dirty and bashed-to-hell box), at your audience’s feet.  For whatever reason, we humans are hard-wired to be riveted to conflict-filled situations. Just look at any reality TV show. Is the cast of Jersey Shore really talented enough to warrant the millions of dollars they earn? Of course not. They’re obnoxious idiots. But they know how to thrive off their audience’s sick fascination with drama. So now they’re rich obnoxious idiots. Point is, you need conflict in order to convey your message. And this two-part Equation of Storytelling, (emotional content + conflict = story), is tailor-made for demo teams.

Demos are, by nature, short. You only have maybe 5 minutes to convey your story. Which is why such a focused approach to storytelling works so well. It’s like Simon Cowell, blunt and to the point. Every one of my demos starts with a concept, (emotional content), and from there I build a story that best conveys that message, (conflict). For example, one of my most memorable demos, and sadly, one I don’t have a convenient video for, was titled Eternal Balance. Set to “Two Worlds” by Phil Collins, it was about two warring sides that come together in unity at the end. If you dissect that sentence, you get the emotional content– unity — and the conflict– two warring sides. Put them together like I did and you get the Summary Sentence for the demo– i.e. the point. Starting to make sense?

But that still doesn’t explain how you go about finding a concept, does it? Those of you who have followed me for a while already know where this is heading. I’ve talked about it before, detailing the level of my freakness quite effectively here, and I also hinted at it in Musical Emphasis under Staging, and Musical Storytelling in Musicality. The short answer is that I get all my creative inspiration from music. Especially when it comes to demo teams. Music contains all the information you need to create an award winning demo, if you know how to listen for it.

Last week, I showed you how to listen and interpret musical layers. Listening for story cues is very similar, except that you step back and look at the music as a whole. Instead of dissecting the various layers, you listen to the overall song, looking for the emotional content and built-in storyline that all music has. (Yes, even Gangnam Style has a story. It’s a super deep tale about a dude hitting on a girl who apparently really enjoys her coffee. Hey, what did you expect from a song whose stated philosophy is to “dress classy, dance cheesy”? ;))

The first thing I look for in a potential song is tone. By that, I don’t mean the actual notes. I pay attention to how it makes me feel, to it’s emotional tone. Is it somber and heavy, or light and bouncy? Is it frenetic and aggressive, or is it soft and melancholy? Music is a language, and just like you can often figure out context in a language you don’t know through tone of voice and body language, you can decipher emotion in music by paying attention to the overall sound and feel of the piece.

Give it a try. Open up iTunes and randomly choose 3 or 4 songs. Hopefully you have a somewhat eclectic music library and will get songs of varying genres and tempos. Listen to them with your eyes closed, (I know, I say that a lot, but it really does enhance your connection to sound when your ears don’t have to compete with your eyes), and don’t focus on anything in particular. Let all the layers wash over you and pay attention not to the lyrics, the drum beat, the background instruments, but to how it makes you feel. What emotion does it elicit from you? Do you feel how it varies from song to song? How, even if you get the same emotion more than once, it’s a slightly different shade each time? That’s the first half of the equation– the emotional message.

Now we just need conflict. To find it, I look at a combination of things. The first is lyrics, if the song has them. Not all potential songs do. But it requires a more advanced ear to be able to do this with instrumental songs, so we’ll stick with mainstream music for now. Secondly, I look at the types of instruments being used and try to see what kind of images they evoke. Certain instruments are distinctly ethnic, automatically giving you an Asian, Middle-Eastern, Celtic or just plain Tribal vibe. Pay attention to that as it will point in the direction of a setting, and can help determine costume/prop choice down the road. And lastly, I let the song tell me what it’s about.

Wow, could that be any more vague and unhelpful? What I mean is that I basically turn my imagination loose and let it do what it will. I let the music tell me, through a combination of overall tone, instrument choice, pacing, emotion, lyrics, etc., what it wants to be. This is the part I honestly don’t know how to teach. All I can say is that it feels kind of like flipping through TV channels, trying out different ideas and images until something clicks. The best guidance I can give is to ask yourself, “What does this sound like?” Does it sound like a brutal war set in ancient Greece or is it a demented circus with clowns and stuff bouncing around? A cheesy romantic comedy, or a twisted horror story of revenge? This is where the real creativity in demo teams comes in.

The thing to remember about storytelling, in any form, is that there are no right or wrong answers. Even if everyone reading this worked on the same concept, the same summary sentence, we would end up with as many different variations as there are participants. But that’s why this method works. It takes universal themes and conflicts that an audience will resonate with and allows you to infuse your own personal interpretation and creativity into them. And the best way I know to learn how to do it is through practice. So let’s do that.

Take those same 3 or 4 songs you just listened to and play them again. This time, pay close attention to the lyrics, the instruments, everything, keeping the emotional message you already identified in mind. There should be a built-in story. Whether it’s heartbreak and revenge, or falling in love, or an identity crisis killing-spree, everybody sings about something. This is where you’ll find your conflict for the second half of the equation. As you finish each song, try to sum up the story in a succinct sentence.

Don’t freak out, it’s not as hard as it seems. In fact, it’s a natural human inclination. What’s the first question you hear when you tell someone about a book or movie you just finished that they’ve never heard of?

“What’s it about?”

And what do you immediately answer with? A sentence or two that sums up the entire plot in one fell swoop. Not so different, is it? Only this time, you’re summing up your own story. Kind of. Ideally it should be a story based on the one already contained in the music. This is why songs with lyrics are easier, because technically, someone else already wrote the story. You’re just mooching off of it to create your own version. (Yay for shortcuts!)

So now you know the secret, the thing that makes my demos seem different. My Equation of Storytelling. Pair it with the tools I’ve given you over the past couple weeks and you’ll soon see a dramatic difference in your performances. Story is most important in this style of demo, but remember that you need all three, Staging, Musicality and Storytelling to create that magic winning combo of skill and entertainment.

If anyone out there actually implements my method, I’d love to hear how it worked out for you. Please come share your experiences in the comments and maybe a link to a video so we can see it in action. 🙂


2 thoughts on “Storytelling for Demo Teams

  1. I’m so excited that you posted this blog! I have been working on demos for years and this advice is going to totally change the way I approach a demo. I teach TSD in a charter school and my club students do 2 or 3 demos a year. They have progressively gotten better and I had found some pretty great music recently to use for our demos. I have attached a video from my FB page from a couple of years ago. This is a 7 minute video, the beginning has no music, and the second part just opens up to our artistry. This group put their demo together in 6 weeks, we did have absences which totally affected the performance. But we managed. Hope you enjoy!

    • Thanks for commenting Kim! I’m so glad you found it helpful. It was quite an interesting process for me to write this one. I’ve never had to break my own method down to that level before, so I learned almost as much about it as you probably did. Haha!

      I really do think that story changes everything in a demo, so I’m glad you’ll be incorporating it. We need more people in the association using this approach. 😉

      I’ll have to watch the video when I get to a computer that has a flash player (iPads still don’t have that capability unfortunately 😦 ) but I look forward to seeing it! 🙂

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