How To Master The Act Of Storytelling
What are the secrets of the master storytellers? Here are several techniques used by the best:
1. Constantly gather stories. Exceptional speakers are always searching for ideas that they can weave into a story. You should, too. Save ideas and articles that amuse you, infuriate you , or inspire you . Stockpile these stories, because you just never know how or when you might be able to knit them into a speech. You have to capture these stories immediately, however, because those fickle thoughts will evaporate in a flash if you don’t.
2. Strive for universal appeal. Search for stories that have universal appeal. What lesson did you learn about perseverance by continuing to try out for the swim team or the cheerleading squad despite repeatedly being cut? What lessons about optimism does your disabled child teach you? What lesson did you learn about commitment as you watched your grandparents renew their wedding vows after being married for 70 years? Everyone has real-life experiences that can become the vehicle for a universal message that will move and teach any audience.
3. Make your stories relevant. Select stories that are relevant to your talk, stories that clarify, not cloud, your purpose. For example, imagine that you are making a sales presentation, unveiling a revolutionary new product, “Chicken Paste.” Rather than plunging, as you should, right into your talk by highlighting all the benefits of congealed chicken parts in a handy tube , you begin instead with your hilarious but irrelevant airline story (“It was a nine-hour flight from London, I was shoehorned in the middle seat between two sumo wrestlers adjacent to the latrine . . . blather, blather”).
Your flight debacle might amuse your listeners, but you will have diverted their attention from Chicken Paste. They will be contemplating your airline predicament rather than focusing on the advantages of a meal in a tube. Make your stories relevant, or you will only confuse your audience and dilute your message. Ask yourself, “Does this story support and illustrate my point?” If the answer is no, discard it.
4. Describe people, not concepts. People are always fascinated with human-interest stories. People magazine, Entertainment Tonight, and the Oprah Winfrey Show succeed because they involve people. Your audience will not relate to abstract concepts such as “courage” and “heroism.” Instead, tell your audience about the courageous athlete who repeatedly failed but refused to quit or the teacher who sacrificed lucrative business opportunities because of his love for teaching. Your listeners care about real people and real events.
5. Deliver the details. Provide precise, meaty descriptions. If you rely on bland, commonplace words rather than fresh, colorful ideas, you will dull the senses of your listeners. For example, if you merely mention a “car” and leave it at that, your listeners will filter that word through their individual perceptions. To some, the word signifies a Ford minivan; to others, a compact Honda sedan; to still others, a Porsche 911 Turbo. But if you instead describe a “fire-engine-red Corvette,” you will conjure up an exact picture. To help your listeners visualize exactly what you want them to see, provide details. Choose words that are whimsical, offbeat, arresting, or vivid—for good reason:
Words can reveal thoughts, conceal pain, paint dreams, correct errors, and pass along dearly bought lessons to the latest generation. . . . Words can build walls between people, or bridges. Words can tear down or build up, wound or heal, tarnish or cleanse.
6. Display emotions. You need to share your story in a way that is congruent with the message. If you tell a tale indifferently, then indifference is exactly the response you will get from your audience. The very best stories crackle with powerful emotions such as love, fear, antipathy, and anger. Pound your fist, wag your finger, rumble and thunder—heck, toss in some salty language if it’s appropriate. Your voice, body language, and facial expressions must depict the emotion and convey the anger that you feel. Don’t blow a gasket, but you get the point. To really engage your audience in your stories, create drama.
7. Titillate the senses. A mesmerizing story engages the senses, emotions, and intellect of your listeners. Infuse life into your stories by delivering them using vocal energy, diverse pacing, timely pauses, expansive gestures, and wide-eyed excitement. You need to share vivid, lifelike details with excitement and passion. Make your listeners experience your story by taking them on a journey and describing the events in a way that will touch their senses. If you can get beyond your listeners’ minds and into their hearts, you will elevate your message from the merely interesting to the unforgettable.
We always hope that our listeners will cling to our words and recall them forever, but typically, they don’t. Most audiences forget most of what speakers say—quickly. It’s disheartening, but it’s true. If your listeners remember what you said even a week after your speech, you are ahead of most speakers. But your listeners seldom forget a story that moves, surprises, or enchants them. Do you want your messages to be remembered? Then forget what you learned in grade school—go ahead and tell stories.