How to edit your stories but still make them compelling (4/5 in the story series)

As I opened the email, my heart started racing. It was even more exciting than I’d anticipated!

(prefer to hear this whole post read to you? Click HERE!)

Two months earlier, I’d booked my ticket for Portland’s World Domination Summit – a conference full of do-gooders trying to change the world (like me!). I’d never been before, but knew WDS was a big noise in my industry.

The month before, they’d put out a call for Attendee Storytellers. By this point, I’d been running my live storytelling show for about a year and a half (and coaching all of the storytellers), so I figured I had a good shot. After all, there were, what, 500 people at this conference? So probably 30-odd would apply, and they’d choose around 25 of us.

They needed an inspiring story with a message. I wondered what I’d ever done that was inspiring… and then remembered. Oh yeah. My solo marathon. Two years before, after Hurricane Sandy led to the cancellation of the New York City Marathon that I was due to run, I’d made up for it by running one on my own, in London.

I pitched my story to WDS – starting in an action scene – and sent it off.

“CONGRATULATIONS!” came the email. “You’ve been selected to tell an attendee story on stage!” This was nice to hear, though not unexpected. BUT THEN:

“Hundreds of people applied, and you were one of only twelve selected!”

Well, THIS was exciting! Immediately, I jumped onto Facebook, to my local business group of business ladies.

“GUYS!!!!!” I told them, “Hundreds of people applied to tell a story at WDS, and I’m one of 12 selected!!! I’m going to be telling my story to 500 people!!!”

“Dude,” one of them replied. “The WDS audience is THREE THOUSAND”.



After getting over the fear of speaking to a room that enormous, I had another problem:

I had to get the whole story – Inspirational Message included – down to one and a half minutes.

As I talked about in part 1 of this blog series, when you’re telling a story, you need as much of it as possible to be action scenes. And, as I told you in part 2: action scenes require detail.

So how do you get the narrative of a very eventful 42 kilometer run – that, in the end, took over 7 hours – into a minute and a half?

First, I’ll tell you the story as it was told onstage, then I’ll break down what I did to shrink it.

I’d had been spending five, sweaty months, pounding the streets of Toronto, training to run the New York City Marathon, very, very slowly.

But then, 36 hours before I was due to – it got cancelled, because of Hurricane Sandy. Which was absolutely the right thing for them to do – but now I was stuck. The week after, I was due to visit my family in London to recover, so I decided that I’d run the London Marathon instead.

Except, it wasn’t happening for another five months…

So I decided to run it anyway. On my own.

I thought it was going to be this really solitary pursuit – just me and my thoughts, twenty-six point two miles, no one knows what I’m doing. In fact, my photo was on the front of the BBC website for the entire day, it went viral on twitter, and I had people running with me the whole way. I had friends, and vague acquaintances and then total strangers.

And cheering me on – every now and then, there’d be some guy I’d never seen before, saying, “Are you Marsha?” and then handing me a bottle of Gatorade. And people with big signs, saying, “GO MARSHA GO!”

In the end, I raised $6,000 for the Royal Marsden Cancer charity, in honour of the author Lisa Lynch

And I had one of the GREATEST DAYS OF MY LIFE – and yet, somehow, everyone thought I was a hero.

And what I got from it is: if there’s something you’ve been working towards, really striving for and put so much work in – if it then doesn’t happen, don’t worry. Because what you get instead, might end up being a thousand times better.

*drops mic* *crowd goes wild*

So, let’s look at what I did:

How do you edit a long story down?

(1) Use montage as well as action scenes.

When the story has to be really short, mix some montage – flashes of picture – in with more granular detail of action scenes.

So, in the story above, montage is spending five sweaty months, pounding the streets of Toronto

(Side note: the “very, very slowly” was me making sure I got a gag into the first 15 seconds, so they’d know I was funny)(if you watch the video above, you’ll hear what it’s like to wait for a laugh to roll around 3,000 people!)

Examples of action scenes are my imaginary solitary running scene, and the stranger handing me Gatorade.

(2) Think about what you’re trying to get across. What is essential?

For me, here, it was that:

  • I got a laugh early on
  • the New York marathon got cancelled
  • I ran a solo marathon in London
  • it went viral and strangers came out
  • I had an amazing and fun day
  • I raised a ton of money (and, even though it would use precious ‘time real estate’, mentioning my friend Lisa Lynch’s name and charity was essential to me)
  • I finished with an Inspiring Message at the end (because that was one of the prerequisites)

(3) Cut everything that isn’t essential

There’s an extra part of the story that I love:

At about mile 18, I had four runners with me, and my knee suddenly gave-way. It meant I could walk, but I couldn’t run.

I was so gutted – I didn’t care so much about my time (I was stopping to speak to people along the way, so I was moving slowly), more that I’d now miss people who were waiting to cheer me on, I’d let them down, along with all of these people watching me via Twitter.

I tweeted what had happened, and started limping along. Then, I got a text from my then-boyfriend.

“OH MY GOD!!!!!!!” he wrote. “You’re WINNING!!!!!!”

And I thought – I’m the only one running this race!! I AM winning!!!!

I LOVE this part of the story. And 3,000 people would have laughed really hard at that. But, it wasn’t essential, so it had to be cut. Ginsburg calls it “Killing you darlings”, because that’s how it feels. Even if (like I was) you’re whining, “But that bit’s reeeeeeally gooooooood!” – it still has to go.

(4) See if you can cut any more.

Even if you’re not restricted by time, the less flabby your story, the more powerful it will be.

I learned this during my 15 years as a music radio DJ. My first boss was quite lenient, and would let me ramble on for two-three minutes at a time.

Then I got a strict boss, who would only allow us to speak over music, that was interrupted by a jingle after half a minute. Suddenly, I had to get my stories from three minutes down to 30 seconds. After that, I had to stop talking, because someone else was.

The result – as a huge surprise to me – was WAY more engagement from the listeners. They didn’t drift off half way through, or wish that I’d hurry up and put another record on. I got tons of texts. It was powerful.

How do you edit your stories?
Cut out anything non-ESSENTIAL. Kill your darlings.


In order to edit your stories, think about what you most want to get across as a result of the story, and cut everything else.
And, if you’re really pushed for time, substitute some montages (flashes of pictures) for some action scenes (granular detail).

Next week, I’ll tell you the most powerful way to start your stories – and why the beginning is the most important part.

In the meantime, do you have any epic stories you’ve struggled to pare down? Does this give you some more ideas? Let me know in the comments below! I’d also love to know how you’re enjoying this blog series- if you missed the first three episodes, you can find them here, here and here.

And if you’d like some tailored one-on-one help, figuring out which parts of your story should stay and which go – and finding out how to tell it in the most compelling way, then this is literally my favourite thing to do. No hyperbole – at the end of almost every session, I get off the call with a delighted client and think, “THIS is my JOB???”. Find out how I can help you, here:

Thanks so much for reading! If you know anyone who struggles with editing their stories down, you could share this with them using one of the round buttons below. Or if you want to drop them a more subtle hint, you can share on Facebook HERE or Twitter HERE.

You rule!

xx (Yes Yes) Marsh

PS if you’d like these blogs straight into your inbox – along with tips, secrets and stories that I won’t put on the internet, PLUS the MAGIC BULLET for powerful storytelling! You can get all of that when you join the Yes Yes Family – for free! – by popping your details in here:

Photo credits: Armosa Studios for WDS, and Sophie Harris


  • Rochelle Torke

    Reply Reply May 11, 2016

    LOVE this, Marsha! More great stuff for you. I’m obsessed with brevity and have been trying to master it my entire adult life. Thanks!

    • Rochelle! Thanks so much for stopping by to let me know you liked it.

      I hear you on the wanting to master brevity, a life-long effort for me!

  • v buck generator

    Reply Reply August 23, 2019

    First of all I would like to say superb blog!

    I had a quick question that I’d like to ask if you don’t
    mind. I was interested to find out how you center yourself and clear your
    mind prior to writing. I have had difficulty clearing my thoughts in getting my ideas out.
    I truly do enjoy writing however it just seems like
    the first 10 to 15 minutes are generally lost just trying to figure
    out how to begin. Any suggestions or hints? Kudos!

    • Marsha (Yes Yes Marsha)

      Marsha (Yes Yes Marsha)

      Reply Reply September 22, 2019


      Four ideas:

      (1) For me, doing a drawing (I have no skill but it calms me down) helps.
      (2) I know for some people, Morning Pages can be a big help to get out the flotsam and jetsom.
      (3) There’s a famous writer who I don’t like to name (because I don’t love to celebrate violent people) but who had a great tip of stopping working when you know what’s going to happen next. That way you always know where to start.
      (4) Finally, I think the easiest solution is just to accept that it takes you 10-15 mins and account for it! As my friend Leah Cameron says, sometimes we are like dogs that need to circle their bed three times before we get into it :)

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