A Storytelling Lesson from the January 6 Committee

“But” Can Turn Your PowerPoint Into a Story—Part2

One of the more compelling stories of the last few weeks is Missouri Senator Josh Hawley running from the January 6th capitol insurrectionists after holding up a fist in solidarity with their purpose. The Kansas City Star provided a masterful evisceration of their senator’s actions on July 23. The story is compelling because of the visual irony between the fist and the running and Hawley’s rhetoric about manliness. Aside from the cynical takes on saying or doing anything for money and power, the dramatic lessons on storytelling show the power of hooking an audience. The January 6 Committee used the story as a robust encapsulation of the attack on democracy.

“But” starts a remarkable story

One of the storytelling lessons we’ve been talking about is how a “but”—in this case, an ironic juxtaposition—can turn a sundry set of facts into a remarkable story that must be retold. The juxtaposition of the fist and the run tell the entire story in two images.

When I was talking recently with a group of scientific communicators, they pushed back on using “but.” This group of thoughtful, credentialed professionals proved their emotional intelligence by saying how—to a person—they had weeded “but” from their vocabulary. Usually, they use “and” instead. “But” triggers a turning away reaction, they said. It puts up barriers. And that is all true in interpersonal communication and when trying to exert influence. However, “but” is an excellent signaling word when pointing out that a story is about to pivot. “But” is a semaphore signaling everything is about to change.

Maybe you gathered the courage to turn your PowerPoint into a story by following the advice of Randy Olson as we talked about here. You’ve replaced your “And, and, and” with “And, But, Therefore” and along the way, you located the center of your story.

The critical work of turning your “And, and, and” into “And, But, Therefore” pivots on the realization that you cannot count on the innate interest of an audience. It’s an old copywriting maxim that nobody really wants to read your headline and no one really cares about your message, so you have to interrupt them.

A story, however, turns that maxim on its head. All of us care about a story—it’s in our DNA. One critical word can center your story.

Is there a way to design a story for your next communication? The January 6th committee found a center to their story, and Olson also thinks so. He cites the “Dobzhansky method” from a lecture he heard from the world-famous geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky, a lecture that had nothing and everything to do with storytelling.[i] This method highlights the critical word at the center of a story:

“nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”[ii]

In this case, the “light of evolution” is the lens through which all the lessons of biology start to align, according to Dobzhansky. It is hard work to locate that central word around which a story turns. But it is important work if you want to be heard and understood. Most readers and listeners are not interested enough to make the connections themselves. But don’t think of it as dumbing down your message. It is simply making it much more accessible.

#1—Fold it Tiny

The hard work of telling a story begins by reducing your story to the bare essentials. This reduction helps you sort out what you are trying to say—because you must understand the message before your audience will. One word. That’s all you get.

Most of our presentations are full of bullet points that we say in semi-rapid-fire. I doubt any of us expect our audience to remember the points. Usually, we have main points and subpoints. In our minds, it all adds together into an argument. The audience may or may not follow the argument.

But what if instead of offering a dozen bullet points, we said, “My purpose in standing here is that I want to convince you that we’ve been using the wrong metrics to gauge the health of our collaboration processes,” or whatever the point of your presentation is.

That’s the message.

#2—Through the Keyhole

This next step involves paring your twelve bullets to the top two most compelling bullets and presenting them as our current reality. This is how our story begins: a bit of context but know that an overwhelming amount of context may misdirect the audience. Then we introduce the “but.” Maybe it is a paired set of images that show irony; maybe it is an image that shows how things should be. But our pivot that takes us through the keyhole is successful if our audience is hooked. The audience must want to hear more. This is also what makes for sharable content. If someone literally wants to remark.

#3—Unfurl and Sail

After you’ve gained interest through curiosity, you tell the rest of the tale.

Can everything or anything be turned into a story? Probably. But the more important question is whether you can summon the courage to say things differently. Are you willing to step outside the genre your office or classroom seems to have locked you into?

It takes courage to be heard.


[i] Randy Olson. Houston, We Have a Narrative: Why Science Needs Story. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2015., 81-82

[ii] Randy Olson. Houston, We Have a Narrative: Why Science Needs Story. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2015. 82

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