Storytelling

As our culture has evolved from an oral tradition to a digital one, great storytellers have become rare and highly valued.  Though the scarcity of experts will make finding a mentor difficult, you can develop excellent storytelling abilities on your own.

As with any learned skill, you must practice every day to move toward mastery.  Fortunately, you can make storytelling a habit by working narratives into every day conversation.  A story can be as simple as an anecdote or as expansive as a case study.  One excellent way to introduce storytelling into your life is to set a goal to make one ‘non-smiler’ smile each day.

Becoming an accomplished storyteller will provide enormous personal and professional benefits.  On a personal level, talented storytellers are the life of the party.  In professional settings, you will rapidly find that people who excel at spinning yarns are far more effective in communicating ideas and motivating others to action.

Find, repeat, and refine your stories

For blossoming storytellers, the most daunting task is discovering stories to begin with.  How often have you heard someone recount an amazing tale and then said to yourself ‘wow, if my life were only that interesting, then I could tell great stories too.’  I am here to tell you that your life is that interesting.  Any situation in which you felt inspired, enraged, or even embarrassed is story fodder.  In fact, any event or interaction that ignited an emotional response is fair game.  The rest is up to you.

With rare exception, the most compelling narratives are about your personal experiences.  One of my favorite modern storytellers, David Sedaris, exemplifies the art of transforming the everyday into the absurd.  For example, take the time Mr. Sedaris summoned a plumber to his apartment in Paris.  Instead of saying merely that he needed the tradesman to fix a commode that would not stop running, he describes how he used broken French to say ‘My toilet… she cries much of the time.’

Most of us spend our days moving hurriedly from place to place without deeply paying attention to what is happening all around us.  We eat breakfast while thinking about our drive to work.  We drive to work while thinking about our ten-o-clock meeting.  We sit in our meeting while pondering what we will eat for lunch.  To be an effective tale weaver, you must closely observe the people and the environment that surround you in the here and now.  Buddhists refer to that state of being as mindfulness.  Use all of your senses so that you can incorporate what you see, hear, smell, touch, taste, think, and feel into your narrative.

When you find a solid story, or better yet several of them, refine them through repetition.  Polish your ability to recount individual tales and the aura of skilled storytelling will develop around you.  Great stories start out as good stories but are gradually enhanced through continual pruning and editing until they become legendary.

Progress from characters to conflict to conclusion

There are innumerable ways to structure plot.  However, you will never go wrong with the tried and true approach of starting with characters, putting them in conflict, and then providing a conclusion; This is the situation-complication-resolution recast in another form.

Authentic characters, with all of their warts and complexity, are the basis for any riveting story.  By identifying with specific character traits, listeners imagine themselves or people they care about as the protagonists. To help your audience form this bond, introduce your characters at the beginning of your story with highly descriptive language.  Though human beings are the most effective characters for this purpose, you can easily substitute companies, animals, settings, or whatever suits your purpose.  In order to set the stage for the coming conflict, make sure to clearly communicate the needs and desires of your characters.

By putting obstacles between your characters and their needs, you inject conflict in a way that triggers your audience’s sense of empathy and their desire to problem solve.  Presenting a single obstacle can be highly effective.  Keeping things simple is indeed the best approach when you have limited time to convey a story.   However, your best strategy is to build progressively more intense barriers for your characters to overcome, all the while keeping the carrot just in front of their noses.  This will fuel intensity and suspense.

Every story should have either a positive or negative ending.  (Yes, a cliffhanger is the third option, but that is best saved for movies with planned sequels.)  Stories with positive endings are highly effective for inspiration.  They make people say and believe, ‘I can do that.’  In contrast, cautionary tales are more effective for teaching.  Since pleasure is a more powerful long term motivation than pain, I recommend telling stories with positive endings the vast majority of the time.

The time to pull out the calamity tale is when you are trying to instill the virtues of safety to audiences that work in dangerous professions like construction or law enforcement.  Nothing says “pay attention” like ‘listen, or you might be the next one to die in a careless, preventable accident.’  If you do tell a story that ends in disaster, spend time at the end exploring ways that the characters could have avoided their fate.

Connect with the deep needs of your listeners

For your stories to have lasting impact, you must strive to connect with listeners on one or more of the four chords of emotional resonance.  In doing so, you provide your audience with nourishment on their journey to self-actualization.

The first chord to strike is the fundamental human need for love and belonging.  Everyone wants to be proud of their lives.  They want to feel that they are important, known, and understood.  In some professions, like teaching and healthcare, people have ample opportunities to connect their work to the positive impact they have on individuals and the world at large.  However, in most professions, employees are many steps removed from that impact.  As a storyteller, you have an opportunity to help connect people to an inspiring noble purpose.

The second chord to play is an appeal to desire and self-interest.  Though less dignified than love and belonging, this emotional facet is equally powerful.  By way of example, an appeal to self-interest is highly effective in situations where you are motivating people to confront a threat to job security or life and limb.

The third chord to play is inspiring self-development.  Human beings are wired to be curious about the world so that they can grow personally and professionally.  Through their indirect nature, stories allow people to think for themselves in a way that builds new skills faster than by absorbing facts.  A story about the way someone rose from mail room clerk to chief executive officer is far more effective than a bulleted checklist of leadership skills.

The fourth chord to strike is that of providing hope.  This is achieved with stories that paint a promising tomorrow that is both reachable and worth the effort.

The four chords are so powerful because they provide a connection between your message or call to action and the fundamental needs that your audience already feels are important.

Establish trust with your audience

To accept you as a storyteller and, more importantly, your message, an audience must trust you.  Because you will often be an unknown quantity, you must weave the threads of trust directly into your stories.

Openness builds trust instantly.  When you are selling an idea or motivating action, your audience will begin listening with a healthy dose of skepticism.  To bring down their defenses, you should strive to give evidence of what is in it for you before you share what is in it for them.  Your motives must be honest, genuine, and pure.  An intelligent audience will rapidly see through smoke and mirrors.  In addition, you exude openness when you use language, gestures, tone, and body language that is congruent and genuine.

Another way to establish trust is by demonstrating your credibility.  If you are telling a story to inspire people to replace energy inefficient lighting with greener options, then you are swimming upstream if your family of three lives in a six thousand square foot home with an Olympic sized swimming pool and finely manicured grounds.  You must show that you walk the walk and that you care.

A final way to establish trust is by showing respect for your audience.  Some speakers make the mistake of expounding at length on their pedigree, believing this lends gravitas.  If you have been given a chance to speak, you have already been accepted as an expert.  Your objective is to highlight how smart your listeners are, not on how accomplished you are.  Though it is safe to challenge conventional wisdom, never challenge your listeners by attempting to prove them wrong.

Allow subtlety to triumph

The mark of a great story is that it allows the listener to discover layer upon layer of wisdom through interpretation.  This subtlety lies in not being overtly outcome focused.  To enable the listener to peel the onion, you must make your stories rich in personal, emotional content as well as vivid sensory detail.

Stories need not be objective.  In fact, the most compelling stories are told from a subjective point of view.  You need your emotions to shine through and that can only be achieved if you express your most strongly held beliefs.  An interesting twist on this theme is to tell a story sequentially from multiple, distinct points of view.

Above all, you will be far more successful with upbeat stories than with negative ones, even in an environment of disillusionment; if applicable, first acknowledge what is wrong, but then move toward positive outcomes.  People crave speakers and stories that are authentic, yes, but also passionate and fun.

Recap

Here are the concepts you can immediately apply to become a thought-provoking storyteller:

  • Find, repeat, and refine your stories
  • Progress from characters to conflict to conclusion
  • Connect with the deep needs of your listeners
  • Establish trust with your audience
  • Allow subtlety to triumph

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