by Lisa B. Marshall
Back in October, British listener Phil Grainger wrote:
I struggle with speakers who don’t tell a story; they just use facts <boring>. Can you share your thoughts on effective storytelling?
Then just today, 17 year-old New York City listener, Kaci, sent me an email that read:
Do you have any advice on effectively telling a story?
If you’re a regular listener, you know that last week I started talking about what makes a compelling story, and today I have much more to add. Last week, I discussed the importance of getting attention from the start and including a memorable close. As examples, I talked about the movie Slumdog Millionaire and I also incorporated a very quick personal story. I used two different stories on purpose so that this week we could talk about additional fundamental features of effective stories. So, if you didn’t listen or read last week’s show you might want to do that now.
Why Is Storytelling Important
But, before we talk about the basic building blocks of a story, let me take a step back and briefly talk about why storytelling is so powerful. Humans have an instinctive predilection for stories. Think about it. Togo the caveman hunts the big wooly mammoth and he returns to tell his story by painting pictures on the cave walls. Today, Jon, comes back from a big night out at the bars and shares his story by posting gossip and photos on his Facebook wall.
We all tell stories. We tell stories of romantic love. We tell stories about our conflicts. We tell stories that explain how we got that distinctive scar on our knee.
If you’re trying to inform, persuade, motivate, or entertain, you need to incorporate stories. That means every time you speak, you should think about how to enhance your message with stories.
Stories Connect Communities
Stories connect people. Stories promote social cohesion, convey complex meaning, and communicate common values and rules. It’s how we learn from other people’s experiences. More importantly, stories provide a rich context for learning, which means we’re better able to remember a story’s ideas and act on them or share them with others. In fact, recent research suggests (Green, 2004; Escalas, 2007) that people accept ideas more readily when presented in a story than when presented as facts for analysis. I included references in the show notes if you are interested in learning more about that.
So basically what I’m saying is this: if you’re trying to inform, persuade, motivate, or entertain, you need to incorporate stories. Yes, that means, every time you speak, you should think about how to enhance your message with stories.
What Is A Story?
In my experience, many people struggle with creating and telling stories. I’m not exactly sure why. Maybe it’s because they think storytelling is something bigger than it really is.
Stories are just a sequence of actions or events. Ira Glass, who is a master storyteller and the host of NPR’s This American Life, says a story is a person saying, “This happened, and that led to this next thing, and this next thing and so on; one thing following another. And some things in the sequence can be: then that made me think of this, and that made me say this.”
Putting actions into a sequence is a story. It’s that simple. And stories make listening to anything more interesting. Last week I could have said, “I saw Slumdog Millionaire.” Instead, I explained a sequence of actions: my husband making a suggestion, me needing to do work, but ultimately deciding to go to the movie anyway.
So did you notice how I worked in that minor internal conflict? Many times stories are created by an internal or external struggle between opposing forces. In Slumdog Millionaire, the main character is torn between his sense of loyalty to his brother and his love for a girl.
Usually a story begins by establishing the setting. Slumdog Millionaire starts with images of present day slums in Mumbai, India. This tells us where and when the actions take place. The purpose is to engage us or transport us directly into the story. Research (Green, 2004) suggests that the closer our prior experiences and knowledge are to the story, the more we’ll be engaged.
So what does this mean for everyday storytellers, like us? You know, people who tell stories at the dinner table, at parties, during interviews, or maybe even during work presentations. It just means we need to establish a setting--one that the listeners can easily relate to.
For example, you might say "At school last week" or "As I was driving home from work" or "Two years ago when I was living in New York city" In last week’s show I established the context by saying, “This past Saturday afternoon when I was supposed to be finalizing my presentation…”
OK, so once the setting has been established you need characters to make the story happen. It’s the characters that interact in the setting, perform the actions, and make decisions. You can develop characters by using dialogue and actions. By incorporating dialogue into the story, the listener learns about the character, not only by what they say, but how they say it. The character’s actions, even more than the words, define the character, the true character.
For purposes of everyday storytelling, always include dialogue and incorporate actions. For example in my personal story last week, I included the dialogue between my husband and myself. I also included my decision to procrastinate. Again, I could have just said, “I saw Slumdog Millionaire last weekend;” instead, the dialogue and the action of my decision make the story more interesting. Oh and don’t worry if you only have one character, you can still have dialogue by sharing inner thoughts. For example, last week I thought to myself, “Wow, what a great attention getter.”
Finally, it’s the juicy details that engage listeners and bring your stories to life. Of course, the details need to be relevant. You also need to balance the amount of detail with the time you have.
Everyday stories tend to be short, so choose specific, descriptive verbs and adjectives. For example, saying “She bounded across the room giggly with delight” instead of, “She went across the room,” gives your listeners much more insight into the character. And be sure to only include details that directly impact your overall story. Otherwise you’ll leave your audience wondering why you bothered telling them that detail. To hear how details significantly enhance a story, listen to examples from master storytellers.
So, today’s quick and dirty tip is to strongly encourage you to enhance your messages with stories. Always start by briefly establishing a setting. Then introduce the characters through dialogue. Finally, describe the specific details of the action and decisions of the characters using descriptive verbs and adjectives.
Phil, when it comes to presentations, I think there are two reasons why people communicate using a boring list of facts, instead of using compelling stories: either they don’t understand just how powerful and important stories are, or they’ve never been taught the fundamental building blocks of a story. So it’s up to each of you to share this episode with all the boring storytellers that you know!
P.S. Be sure to check out all the bonus resources this week including a link to a Scientific American article on storytelling, videos of John Truby talking about the anatomy of a good story, videos of Ira Glass talking about storytelling in broadcasting, an example of a traditional and a modern day master storyteller, and finally a link to my favorite podcast, The Moth, which always has great stories that I learn from all the time.
If you’d like to support the show, please consider encouraging your friends and colleagues to listen to the show by subscribing for free on iTunes. And if you like the show, please write a review while you're there.
Finally, I’d like to invite you to join my professional networks (LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter). I love being able to connect with my listeners and hear your stories. Thanks again for your support, I sincerely appreciate it.
If you have a question, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. For information about keynote speeches or workshops, visit lisabmarshall.com.
References & Links
Escalas, Jennifer Edson (2007). Narrative versus Analytical Self-Referencing and Persuasion. Journal of Consumer Research, 34, n. 4, 421-429
Green, M.C. (2004). Transportation into narrative worlds: The role of prior knowledge and perceived realism. Discourse Processes, 38, 247-266
The Secrets of Storytelling: Why We Love a Good Yarn (Scientific American article)
Traditional Irish Storyteller vs. Modern Day YouTube Vlogger
Lessons from John Truby – The Anatomy of A Story
Ira Glass on Storytelling – Part 1
Ira Glass on Storytelling – Part 2
Ira Glass on Storytelling – Part 3
Ira Glass on Storytelling – Part 4
The Moth - Lisa’s favorite podcast that is full of great stories!