What Humpty Dumpty can teach us about storytelling

A few weeks ago I sat through a lengthy and confusing presentation in a dimly lit conference room struggling to find meaning or purpose in the story being shared. The whole experience reminded me of our good friend Humpty Dumpty and the world’s simplest three act structure to telling better stories:

Act 1: Set the Stage and Spark Curiosity “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.” Straight up you’ve got me intrigued. Why on earth is he up there? What’s he doing? What’s he thinking? What’s going to happen next?

A great story captivates the audience’s attention from the outset, sparking their curiosity and setting the stage for the journey ahead.

Act 2: Build Tension and Engage Empathy: “Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.” Oh, HELL NO Humpty. Is he going to be okay? Why wasn’t there a railing for him to hold onto? I’m sure he’ll be fine, this is a nursery rhyme after all, and we love a happy ending.

A compelling story presents a challenge or conflict that captures the audience’s interest and empathy.

Act 3: Deliver a Climax and Resolve the Tension: “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again.” Wait, what?! You mean even the entire King’s army couldn’t help poor old Humpty? What happened to happy endings? Ergh, this story is brutal, I need a drink.

A memorable story concludes with a powerful climax addressing the tension that was built in Act 2. It provides closure and resolution, even if it’s not a happy ending, as in the case of old Hump.

All compelling stories have these three acts in common. So next time you share a story or are giving a presentation consider how you might ‘do a humpty’ and tell it in as few words as possible using this simple three act structure.