Sam Simon on Compelling Storytelling

sam simonEarlier this month, Sam Simon lost his battle with colorectal cancer. If his name is not familiar, the span of influence affected something you’ve enjoyed. Sam was a director, producer, and writer for such shows as Cheers, Barney Miller, Fat Albert, and It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and was co-creator of The Simpsons. He was also an accomplished philanthropist advocating for homeless shelters and animal rights. With over $100 million donated in his lifetime, his name is featured on buildings, foundations, and a boat, all of which serve as a testament to his generosity.

In the early 1980s, Sam was the youngest showrunnner in television history when he oversaw Taxi. Since that time, he continuously displayed his sensibility for how a show should operate. He knew what a character needed to be interesting, how to set the desired tone, and most important, how to tell a story. Don’t assume this is common knowledge. Hundreds of shows don’t get made every year because they lacked Sam’s know-how. This is no different from the storytelling within organizations.

Within the last ten years, the push towards effective storytelling has been prevalent in the business world – advertising, branding, culture, engagement, etc. As research shows, a well-constructed narrative is more persuasive than simply laying out the facts. Paul Zak’s study on the neurobiological effects of storytelling found that:

…character-driven stories with emotional content result in a better understanding of the key points a speaker wishes to make and enable better recall of these points weeks later.

If leaders are expected to effectively tell a story, it would not be a bad idea to rely on the professional experience of someone with Sam’s credentials. When interviewed on WTF Podcast with Marc Maron, Sam discussed the three rules that any television writer (and storyteller) must know.

#1 Story above all

When Sam discussed the components of a captivating sitcom plot, he was looking for something more interesting than “a guy goes on a date.” Each story needed to go somewhere. Characters needed to be affected by whatever happened in the previous half hour.

Your story should have the same twists and turns. If you only highlight the high points, you are boring your audience. Sure, it shows how successful you are, but who wants to listen to that (besides your mom). Consider what you are attempting to convey. How is it different from what is happening now? Make this part of the tale along with the trials, tribulations, and ultimate victory.

#2 Don’t be afraid of the quiet moments

When watching a sitcom, it is easy to hear the rapid-fire jokes. However, have you noticed the beats between jokes; these “breaks” are as important as the jokes themselves. It is partially pacing but also the use of silence.

Silence is a powerful and underrated storytelling technique. As JD Schramm wrote, it “draws emphasis to what was just said or what is about to come – and allows others to contribute their own interpretations.” When we get nervous, it is normal to try and fill the empty space. Instead, take a breath. It will let your words sink in and build anticipation for what you are about to say.

#3 Love your characters

Writer Ken Levine once called Sam “the real creative force behind The Simpsons.” Ken stated that Simon “brought a level of honesty to the characters.” In a two-dimensional cartoon world, Sam made the characters three-dimensional with real emotions, quirks, and motivations. And Sam’s stories were “all about character, not just a string of gags.”

You’ve gotta love your characters to have a hit show. – Sam Simon

Sam had Bart, Homer, and Mr. Burns. Who are your characters? In our use of the word, the character is whoever you are telling the story about – your product, company brand, new initiative, etc. Once it is identified, figure out how you can love (or at least really, really like) your product, if you don’t already. This will make your story more compelling and more sincere.

With months to live, Sam continued telling humorous stories about his doctors, the various medical procedures, and his mortality. Storytelling was ingrained in how Sam communicated. As a result, people wanted to listen to what he had to say. If you want the same level of influence, try building a story around your ideas. There is no magic formula to ensure it will work, but it’s better than reciting dry facts.

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