Impactful Tales — How to Master Storytelling in 3 Words

October 16, 2023
8 min read
Photo by Nick Karvounis on Unsplash
Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.
Leonardo da Vinci

Three little words help you tell better stories.

Have you ever wondered why some people are great storytellers and others not so much?

The answer is [and then].

You've heard it before. Blah...blah... blah... [And then] Blah...blah... blah... [And then] Blah...blah... blah... [And then].

It's not the Blah...blah... blah... that makes you reach for a double shot of espresso. It's the [and then] that makes you wish for a Red Bull chaser.

[And then] is monotonous, dry, and boring.

[And then] is a list you could put in any order. Your brain doesn’t like it. Your brain listens for a twist, a reason, a cause and effect in the story.  But with [and then], it doesn't get it. Instead, it gets the dry, droning, over-explanation of Uncle Colm in Derry Girls.

You don't want [and then], you want a connector.

Connectors are words that build a logical thread in your argument. They are conjunctions used to establish relationships between ideas and events. They're the antidote to [and then] and the nexus of your narrative.

Three words: [But], [therefore], and [meanwhile].

But first, a source.

Tony Zhou is a filmmaker and video essayist known for his YouTube series "Every Frame a Painting." In one essay, Zhou examines Orson Welles's storytelling technique and his use of three little words as narrative devices on display in the movie F is for Fake.

[But]: This word introduces the idea of opposition. For example, the hero has done something, but the villain has done something to oppose it.

In Zhou’s F is for Fake video example:

“You’re a painter; why do you want people to do fakes?” [But] “Because the fakes are as good as the real ones, then there’s a market, and there’s a demand.”

[Therefore]: This word introduces the idea of progression. For example, the hero has done something, and therefore the world adjusts to her actions, usually introducing a new struggle the hero must overcome.

Back to Zhou’s F is for Fake example:

[Therefore] “If you didn’t have an art market, then fakers could not exist.”

[Meanwhile]: This word introduces the idea of parallelism, of two things happening at the same time. For example, the hero is saving the world. Meanwhile, her friend is off dealing with the fallout.

Zhou makes this work in an essay film:

“Let’s say you have two stories. Let one of them build up. When it reaches peak interest, switch to the other. Let this one build. And when this gets to the top, go back to the first.”

This connecting logic is a must-have for filmmakers. It's equally applicable to narratives of all stripes, from a board deck to Bridget Jones's Diary.

It works to build a structure that isn’t boring.

Therefore, it's applicable to you.

That is if you want to up your business storytelling game.

[But] isn't just a new struggle for a hero. It can be used to introduce a problem or challenge after a point has been made.

For instance, you have just pointed out a successful result. E.g., "Our sales have increased by 20%."  The next slide is a "but." E.g., "But our profit margins have shrunk.

[Therefore] may not be the world embracing our hero's actions. It can be used to present a solution to the situation on the previous slide.

For instance, if one slide presents a problem. E.g., "Our profit margins are shrinking,"  the next slide could present a solution using "therefore," E.g., "Therefore, we need to reduce our production costs."

[Meanwhile] can introduce a parallel development or process.

For instance, if one slide talks about efforts to reduce production costs, the next slide could discuss another aspect of the business using "meanwhile"

E.g., "Meanwhile, our marketing team is working on a new go-to-market campaign."

Meanwhile, you’re creating a board presentation.

Or it could be a keynote, sales pitch, or other high-stakes presentation. Whatever it is, “and then” won’t cut it. More [But], [Therefore] and [Meanwhile] will. Which, by the way, will explain the curious reason I’ve been using [ ] around those words.  But more on that later.

Think of PowerPoint as a movie or a screenplay.

Movies have storyboards. Three acts. They have beats in the story—moments that propel the story forward. Those moments compel the viewer to process and engage.

Those moments are connected by [but],  [therefore] and [meanwhile].

In PowerPoint, the storyboard is the “slide sorter” view. “Grid view” in Google Slides. The three acts are a Hook, Meat, and Payoff. Each slide is a beat in the story. Each slide has a point. Each slide has a headline.

[But],  [therefore], and [meanwhile] fall between each headline.

They’re often silent or implied. Therefore, the [ ]. So, an example of a series of slide headlines might look like this.

Last year, our team had tremendous success.

| Sets the stage, highlighting the positive achievements of the company.


We face significant headwinds in today’s market.

| Introduces a problem or challenge, creating a contrast with the previous positive note.


Our strategic plan to overcome these headwinds.

| Presents a solution or response to the problem introduced in the previous slide.


Exploring exciting adjacent opportunities in the market.

| Shifts the focus to another topic, discussing new opportunities that are arising at the same time as the company is dealing with its challenges.


Understanding the risks of these new opportunities.

| Introduces a new problem or challenge, this time related to the new opportunities.


A strategy to mitigate risks and seize opportunities.

| Presents solutions or responses to the new problem.


Tracking the progress of our ongoing initiatives.

| Shifts the focus again, this time to discuss other initiatives happening simultaneously.


Identifying areas for improvement in our initiatives.

| Introduces another problem or challenge related to the ongoing initiatives.


Our comprehensive plan for continuous improvement and growth.

| Presents solutions or responses to the problem, wrapping up the presentation on a positive and forward-looking note.

You can see in this fake set of headlines the transition isn’t an “and then.”

But, therefore, meanwhile, worth a try?

Gavin McMahon is a founder and Chief Content Officer for fassforward consulting group. He leads Learning Design and Product development across fassforward’s range of services. This crosses diverse topics, including Leadership, Culture, Decision-making, Information design, Storytelling, and Customer Experience. He is also a contributor to Forbes Business Council.

Eugene Yoon is a graphic designer and illustrator at fassforward. She is a crafter of Visual Logic. Eugene is multifaceted and works on various types of projects, including but not limited to product design, UX and web design, data visualization, print design, advertising, and presentation design.

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