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Undercurrent Story Forms
By Clay Parker Jones profile image Clay Parker Jones
4 min read

Undercurrent Story Forms

Five ways to structure your deck to be sure you're telling a story, not just writing action headlines and bullets powered by chatGPT.

Here's a throwback all the way to 2010.

We were trying to uplevel everyone's deckmaking chops, and to lay the groundwork for the next generation of Undercurrenters – so that it'd be easier for everyone to get together on the rough bones of the story that we were trying to tell.

I think we even made videos on how to do these story forms in practice, and we had a program called Études, where new folks could do a few challenging practice-runs in order to be able to tell a good story, using Keynote, under pressure.

(I think the stuff below was made by Mike Arauz, Alex Chung, Bud Caddell, and me, and I'm pretty sure the whole thing was Bud's idea.)

How do you use these?

For one: you can draw them on a whiteboard and put little slide diagrams next to the relevant part of a story.

For two: you could do like the guy who came up with this idea, and use it to tell stories.

For three: you could drop these into Miro or something similar and re-arrange your slides and messages to be sure you're telling a good story.

The Classic

Set the stage. Reveal your client's challenges in a unique, captivating way. Describe your approach to the problem. Lay out the strategy. Provide the details of the solution and reveal a new reality. Then get into the implementation details necessary to bring the aforementioned to life.

The Augmented Classic

This is the same as the one above, but you've got to give the client/stakeholder a high five before moving forward with the rest of the play. This one is good for situations where things are going well, but if the subject doesn't change something about what they're doing, things are likely to go bad.

The Most Important Thing

This is where the deck structure itself starts to get a little bit more interesting, and less obviously linear. This could also be known as "The Bottom Line Up Front" or BLUF, and is a good way of telling expandable elevator-pitch length stories without the use of a deck. (Expandable as in: you can tell a one-minute version of the story, and you can tell a 60 minute version of the story.) As a result, it's really good for senior-level audiences who are tired of hearing someone set the stage for 15 minutes.

Cold open! Right into it! No intros!

Start with the most important thing for your audience to know. Explain why it's the most important thing. Why it's interesting. What you found. What you discovered when searching for this thing. Remind them of the most important thing again, and explain how to capitalize on that thing. What's the kernel of the strategy. What the recommended actions are. How these things all fit together. Close by reminding them of the most important thing.

The Harold

To my knowledge, we never tried this.

The Harold is an improv format, and apparently it is the basis for the story structure for Seinfeld episodes. The "relevant digression" bits are asides to the story that act as a palate cleanser; the A1, B1, C1 boxes are the main elements of the story.

I think this could work for organization design storytelling, where A1 is what's going on with the org, B1 is what's going on with customers, and C1 is what's going on with Or something? And the different "acts" between the digressions are time horizons? Today; Intervention; Resolution? IDK

The Total Enlightenment

I love this one and use it constantly, mostly because it's so adaptable to client workshops and easy-breezy public speaking.

Two axes. X = relationship to your audience's business. Y = information density. Start in the lower-left quadrant, delivering a story verbally about something, or some situation seemingly separate from the audience's challenges. Dig into the interesting mechanics inside the story. The meta-story: why was it like that? how did it get that way? why did it stay that way? what drove the resolution? Use slides, diagrams, examples, tables, math to connect the story back to the audience's current challenge. Show how the mechanics underlying the story can help the audience unpack and resolve their problems. Vividly describe what their new reality might look like.

The diagram makes it feel more complicated than it is, which is sorta "Peak 2010 Undercurrent"; the idea is that you, as a consultant or coach, can gather a number of stories that you understand well, and use those stories to help your audience reveal a better future for themselves.

(I think we called this "Batman Begins" because you climb an information mountain that reveals a solution at the peak. Such dorks!)

By Clay Parker Jones profile image Clay Parker Jones
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