Making Dreams Come True for Comics and Speakers since 1984
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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?


Anonymous said...

Hi Judy. You nailed it on this one! Thanks of the direction

G.M. said...

Great true story!
Thank you for that.

And what I, really, would like to know, is what's the recipe to find it, how to start on that path, what to do, concretely.

Socrates, before you, have, laconically, summarized it in two words, i.e., "Know thyself".


G.M. said...

Sorry about the grammatical error.

Bad way of starting the nirvana road to enlightenment, I'm afraid!



Thanks, Judy, this is very useful.

When I think about your elements of a joke, "attitude" seems like a quick character development for the narrator. "Attitude" might include desire, opponent, goal, conflict, etc. In fact, "attitude" could be the backstory that the write or actor brings to the character.

In other words, your joke structure fits beautiful with John Truby's notion of story beats.

I'd love to hear more about this in your blog.

Julie Kertesz said...

I think, even each of us, because our own history in life "desires" different things, deep inside we all want love and recognition and do something creative, etc. Some basic desires that resonates in all of us and the audience. But we have to bring out in each story "one main desire" and that is less easy.

I did believe my main desire to write (to speak too) was to give confidence to others, probably as I realised how important the self confidence (going up and down) was for me. But each time, I feel some other "Most important thing" comes in each story or gig.

Well, probably lately, to prove it is "not too late".

Kathy Eubanks said...

Wonderful insights for us to improve our own stories and presentations.

Nutmegslim's Tree of Life said...

Thanks Judy! Who would think that's such a thought provoking question? It really is, and as I read your post I had to ask myself, "Self...what did I want?" Just as Julie K above said, the hard part is to find "one main desire" and I bet each of ours stems from one (or more) of Life's basic needs: Food, Shelter (or safety) and Companionship.

God Bless you Judy, you're doing what you're purposed to do!


Barbara Christenson said...

Thank you, Judy! So well said. Every speaker should read this. It's what writers know so well, as evidenced by the writers of Breaking Bad.

Randy Broad said...

Really good analogy Judy. I too am struck by the characters and their 'honesty' in the show...and of course how they tie back to our own lives. Great stuff you put forth and brings to mind Shakespeare's Hamlet, 'To Thine ownself be True.' Really good...thanks.

Michael J. Herman said...

Excellent delineation between Breaking Bad and the world of Speaking/Storytelling. For 20 years I have been amazed at the number of experts who get up and speak on topics that behind the curtain is completely foreign to their identity. Topics like Integrity, Financial Freedom, and Team Building for example. It is interesting to me that Walter White dispensed drugs and we dispense wisdom and yet, our industry often suffers the same ill fated ignorance as does his.
Michael J. Herman, Speaker and Syndicated Columnist

Tabitha Pope said...

Wow! I have read your book and tried to find the message of me; maybe I did and maybe I didn't. However, you made me think why do I have a passion to be a joy everywhere I go? Why do I want to see people stop for awhile and just laugh and feel happy? Now I know where my drive comes from. Thank you! That was liberating!!! Now if I can just figure out all the other brilliant things you teach, I will be good to go:)