What if there were a proven (and simple) way to craft a story you need to tell that would keep your audience listening until you were through?
Well, the good news is, there is—it’s called bookending.
If you think of any presentation, article or blog post as a foot race around a track, bookended stories are the ones that begin and end in the same place. And just as a pair of bookends defines a set of books, the starting and finish lines of a race define the path of individual steps that will lead to the finish.
Bookending is a proven technique that gives writers, speakers and sales professionals who are making pitches a way to keep their audiences plugged in and waiting to discover how every step of a story ties together. Let’s learn how to bookend and, by doing so, the art of keeping your audience on edge with every step of your story, written or spoken.
Preparing for the Race
Every story you love likely offers up a Big Universal Question (BUQ). Your BUQ is the starting line of a race you can win. Here are a few classic examples:
You’ve Got Mail: What happens when a small bookshop owner starts an email relationship with the owner of a massive bookstore chain that will ultimately put her out of business?
Hansel and Gretel: What happens when a witch who loves eating children lures two children into her home?
Dead Poets Society: What happens when an upstart teacher gets hired to teach English at a conservative boys' prep school?
BUQs are also often called log lines or premises. Whatever you call them, they all ask, “What would happen if …,” and they make readers do two things:
- Start your story with a goal (a question they want the answer to) in mind, and
- Tune in until the last moment to find out the answer.
Your first step in bookending is to discover the one Big Universal Question that your post, presentation or pitch will answer. Without a BUQ, your audience is already heading out the door.
And now you’re probably saying, "That’s all well and good, Erika, but how do I come up with a BUQ that will get me off the starting block and into the race?"
Discovering Your Big Universal Question
Big Universal Questions all come from pain. And if you can identify your audience’s pain point (or at least the one you’re amazingly qualified to address), you’re halfway to getting the kick you need to win the race for your audience’s attention.
See, audiences are smart, but they have a limited attention span. You might want to talk about five things in your article or speech, but in truth, we all hold the capacity (and attention span) to process just one thing at a time. BUQs help you uncover that one thing—that one pain—and offer your audience a much-needed remedy. This step-by-step process will help you discover the Big Universal Question your story must offer:
- Make a list of your audience’s most pressing challenges—the stuff that keeps them up at night.
- Associate an emotion with each challenge not being solved. Are they frustrated? Dejected? Beat down? In fear for their jobs?
- Use the phrases "Have you ever felt" … and "Do you ever" … to begin brainstorming potential questions that speak to the pain point you want to discuss.
- Narrow down the list to the question that hits closest to home for your exact topic. Test this question on people in your target audience. When the answer is a yes eight times out of 10, you’ve found your BUQ.
Now that you’ve found it, it's time to get off the starting block and run with it.
Putting the Runner in the Race
Once you know how to begin your blog post, talk or sales presentation, you need to get to the meat of the matter and talk about the obstacles and your solutions for getting around them. That’s what your audience is really there for—to know that you understand their problems and challenges, and that you can show them viable and practical solutions for turning their current frustrations into things of the past.
Once you’re off the starting blocks, the race portion of your story is the place where you make your audience glad they trusted you. It’s the place where you deliver the answer to the BUQ you asked in the beginning and where your audience will be both glad you asked it and even more glad when you deliver the relief they’re about to receive.
Now your only job is to bring it all home.
Crossing the Finish Line
You found the BUQ. You offered tangible solutions that will give your audience the relief they crave. Your last step is to finish strong without tripping and falling.
Easy, right? Actually, it is. Getting across the finish line in a bookending technique is as simple as revisiting your initial question. You might even use the phrasing “So, [then restate BUQ]?”
From there, you speak briefly about the solutions you offered, how they're simple and, while not always obvious, worth fighting the good fight to achieve. Because here’s the thing: With every blog post, article, keynote speech or sales presentation you create, you’re asking your audience to do work and, in many instances, pay you money in order to have you work with them to do this work.
Asking people to do work isn’t an easy ask. But by bookending your story—starting with a question, ending with the same question and offering solutions in between that answer said question—your audience has a through line to follow. That through line will keep them on edge, awaiting those remedies that you’re ready to offer. And that, my fellow professional storytellers, is the reason you stay tuned in to your favorite books, movies and TV shows.
Because you can’t wait to see how it all turns out. Your audience? They can’t wait, either.
So is there a proven (and simple) way to craft a story you need to tell that will keep your audience listening until you're through?
Yes, it's called bookending. And here's the proof: You read to the very end.
I used a bookending technique for my TEDxBoulder talk in 2012. It led to a standing ovation by 2,000 people. This was the first time I'd ever used this technique, but needless to say, I still use it. And I'm a believer.
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