You want to tell a unique story. But can your story achieve uniqueness? It can. But the underlying themes probably aren’t so special and that’s a good thing.
Most stories, almost all of them, work within one or more universal themes. A universal theme is a core question or issue that the story addresses. Think of these as the big words that look best with capital letters: Love. Hate. Loss. Sorrow. Discovery. Apocalypse. Friendship. Motherhood. Education. War. Disaster. Peace. Joy. Simplicity.
Universal themes are the reason we can relate to someone else’s love story. We’ve felt love and loss as well. When you hear a story about someone else’s love and loss, it taps into those emotional memories. The emotions are shared even if the storyteller’s experience is unique. Thanks to the magic of neurochemistry, we experience the same emotions as the storyteller when listening to their story. They also experience ours.
The great thing about a universal theme is that you can use them to figure out which story to tell. We do this without thinking at parties or over drinks when one person tells their “my worst travel experience” story and everyone chimes in with their own. That’s story sharing with a shared theme.
Sharing stories or competing for the absolute worst lost luggage experience can be a powerful bonding experience. Everyone gives something of themselves and receives something in return from fellow storytellers.
How can you use the power of the universal theme in your storytelling?
First, look at the information or message you want to convey. In a recent workshop, a participant described work he does on polycystic liver disease. People who suffer from polycystic liver disease can have hugely enlarged livers. As a result, men might look like they have enormous beer bellies and women might look pregnant. Failing to look further than the surface could have serious consequences for these men and women. What are some possible universal themes here?
There are a few. For example, health and wellness, the mystery of the human body, fear, the unknown, perhaps pain and suffering, could all be considered universal themes relating to a discussion of disease. In this case, we chose “things are not what they appear to be.”
Once you’ve identified a universal theme in your presentation material, examine your life and look for a story that shares the same theme.
My “things are not what they appear to be” anecdote is from my years teaching at the Hogeschool van Amsterdam. At the time, I was a good seven years older than my students, but I didn’t always look that much older. It was the beginning of the semester and students were walking into the classroom for their first class. I arrived after the room started to fill and waited along with the students to enter and get to the front of the room. While I was waiting, one student leaned towards me and asked, “who’s the teacher?” “I am,” I answered.
Things were not as they seemed for my students. For me, it was a flattering and amusing moment that I’m not planning on forgetting. A story like this would make an audience smile and hopefully identify with either myself or the student. We’ve all either made a mistake like this or been the subject of this kind of mistake.
Now that we’re all together in this shared feeling, you, the presenter, can introduce another situation in which this same feeling occurs. However, the stakes are higher in the next stage of the presentation because tension always rises in storytelling. In the case of polycystic liver disease, looking overweight or pregnant could conceal a serious disease.
Universal themes forge a link between the audience and the storyteller by introducing a shared emotion. When you share an emotion with your audience, you have their attention. You can capitalize on that by moving into a well-developed content.
This type of storytelling introduction has an advantage over methods like asking the audience a question or sketching a hypothetical situation because of the shared emotion it generates. You’re sharing something authentic and personal. You’re investing in this moment with your audience.
A well-chosen and composed introductory anecdote can create an opportunity for your audience to access the human problem in the complex material you want to present. It also increases the chances that they will be paying attention when you dive in to the material you want to share.
Think about a presentation you will be giving soon or an interview question you might have to answer. Can you find some universal themes hiding in there? Use those themes to look for a related story in your personal experience and tell that story along with your answer or presentation.