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"Breaking Bad" Story-Telling Habits

Speakers and storytellers can learn a LOT from the TV series, “Breaking Bad.” The show had what most Toastmasters, speakers, and comics don’t have when they tell a story: a character with desire.

(The last episode aired this past week, but, if you’re not caught up on it yet, don’t worry: there are no spoilers in this blog – so keep reading.)

What fueled the show through five brilliant seasons with meth-like energy was the driving desire of the lead character, Walter White, played by Bryan Cranston.

On the surface, the show is about a chemistry teacher who gets cancer and becomes a meth dealer because, as he says, “I want to provide for my family.”

However, we the audience learn what really is the driving force in White’s psyche: his narcissistic desire for power, money, and respect. And, in a way, what we learn about Walter is to some degree true for many people: their public presentation of what they want in life – and most importantly why they want it -- is far from the truth. And often, those very desires can drive someone to ruin.

This very basic element -- the hero’s desire -- is what is lacking in 90% of the stories I hear from speakers. Most of the stories I’m given to work with are just a list of things that happened to the story teller, with them bouncing like a pinball off the flappers of life that throw them in all sorts of directions: getting ill, finding true love, going skydiving, and so on. “This happened… then this happened… then this happened…

When I hear this pattern, I always ask this question: “What is it that you, the main character, want in the story?

They look at me via Skype with blank eyes, saying: “I don't know.”

If you’re going to speak, you need to get that you are not a passive victim of life. Your desires are creating your life. And, you can’t be a speaker unless you can be responsible for the forward nature of your life because of those desires. When we stand up in front of others, we have a responsibility of consciousness. When we give advice to other people, we have a responsibility to have done considerable work on ourselves -- and are able to come forward directly and honestly by admitting what we want or wanted in all the stories of our life.

Most speakers think that their signature story begins with not just a large event -- but a large life–changing event. But, I find the best stories start way before that dramatic event. It's much more compelling to describe a triumphant moment in your life -- such as getting on in front of people and speaking, or facing something that terrifies you -- when you can frame your story so that the audience knows your past, your challenges -- and most importantly -- what drives you.

On a personal note, the events that drive me started in childhood. My desire to become a comic and later, a professional speaker, was guided by the first 15 years of my life, when I was frequently laughed at not because of my sense of humor – but because of my speech impediment. I didn’t want people to stop laughing: I just wanted them to laugh for the right reason.

What is it that you want -- and why?

It’s much more powerful to share how you had to stand up to your doctors during a life threatening illness when you reveal that you had been unable to stand up to your husband, or even to stand up to anyone to take care of your own needs.

It means so much more to take a huge risk and do something dangerous where you plunge into the unknown … when your audience knows that all your life you've been committed to security and being safe.

So much of the pain and suffering of Walter White in Breaking Bad was not the lies he told others -- but the lies he told himself. Without revealing any details of the finale -- let’s just say he finally got honest.

Let's get honest in each story you tell: what did you really want?

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Judy's Blog

Judy Carter blogs on comedy, storytelling and public speaking techniques, using personal stories and her adventures as a stand-up comic turned motivational public speaker. Her weekly blogs are read by fans of her books, “The Comedy Bible” (Simon and Schuster) and “The Message of You” (St. Martin’s Press), which include comics, speakers, and entrepreneurs. She is also known for teaching the value of humor and storytelling to businesses as a leadership and stress reduction tool.