Be Interesting: The Art of Storytelling
We’ve talked about how to increase your personal magnetism and given you topics to endear others to you. But all of it will be for not if when it’s your time to speak you come off as dull. No matter how amazing your adventure was last summer, if your delivery is boring, so too will be your story. Some people are natural born storytellers, pulling in others as they spin their tales. For the less fortunate, they see their audience’s eyes gloss over, potentially only halfheartedly listening while they simultaneously check their emails. The good news is anybody can be a good storyteller, given the right tools.
From an early age, we’ve relied on this ability. Eleven-year-old Tommy will exercise storytelling on a number of pivotal moments, and whether that be fabricating an elaborate backstory explaining why completing his homework was outside his control or rising in popularity by telling all the other kids at school about his game winning goal, his success hinges on his ability to tell his story well. As Tommy grows to Tom and eventually to Thomas, the stories may change, but good technique does not.
Maybe Thomas is telling a date about the summer of ’09 when he went camping in Banff, Canada, how he saw his life flash before his eyes when a grizzly came near his campsite. Perhaps the date goes well and a few years down the road he’s reading his daughter a bedtime story. Whatever it may be, storytelling is an everyday part of life, and people are very often going to equate their interest in your stories to their interest in you.
1. Start by reeling in your audience with a good hook
Apologies for the fishing analogy, but this one rings true. You need to engage your audience. Either start with an attention-grabbing statement or ask them a question, even if it’s just rhetorical. Your listener should be interested from the start; nobody is going to become invested in a story that starts out with “so I was out of bread and had to run to the store.” Even if your subject material isn’t the stuff of a blockbuster adventure, that doesn’t mean you can’t entice your audience from the get-go: “let me just start by asking, have you ever had an entire supermarket stare at you in utter disbelief and horror?
let me just start by asking, have you ever had an entire supermarket stare at you in utter disbelief and horror
2. Alright, you’ve got them interested, now build your scene
You can’t keep your audience’s attention forever with one-liners. Instead, transport them to your story; make them feel like they were there. First, give them context to grab onto and then expand into the setting’s details. Use strong, specific words that will peak your audience’s interest. Your listeners should just about be able to feel the morning fog or smell the stale beer. Storytelling is a two-person experience, so don’t just talk at your audience, but actively engage and include them in that experience. Using the details above, for example, maybe “he was slapped awake by a crisp fog that had rolled in just hours before. With the stench of stale beer clinging to his jacket, he rose and did what he could not manage the night before: turning his damn key to open that treacherous door.”
3 Tension: build and release it
No good story is linear. That is to say, there should be moments of tension that engage the audience, followed by ease and a release of that tension. Of course, all stories reach their peak moment of tension at their climax, but there should also be additional moment of tension build up and release throughout. This will keep your listener captivated and interested.
4 Maintain focus and flow
Beginning with focus, it is important not to lose your story in too many unnecessary details. Yes, you want to engage your audience, but if your story turns into a series of ramblings, your listeners won’t be able to concentrate on anything other than how quickly they want your story to be over. Cut the needless details. Your listener doesn’t need to know that your dog was at home while you were camping (unless of course he somehow escaped and scoured Canada looking for you, ultimately saving you from the aforementioned grizzly bear—that’s a good idea, include it).
As for flow, your story should follow its chronological order. Don’t keep backtracking to add in different pieces of the story—you’ll lose your audience. In the event that you do forget a key part of the story, try to avoid saying things like “oh, I forgot, right before this happened we blew all our money at the casino.” Trade it in for something that can be naturally woven in, more along the lines of “and as luck would have it, we were out of money after a few bad hands of black jack just hours prior.”
5 Give your audience closure
Your listener has just sat through your story (hopefully a good one!), so give them what they want: a decisive conclusion. Deliver your story to them wrapped up in a nice little conclusive ending. You may be thinking, what do you know? Some of the best stories are left uncertain. True, the ending of Pulp Fiction is fantastic, and the wonder of that briefcase’s contents is cinematic gold. However, you sir, are not Quentin Tarantino. Further, you’re going to piss off your friends if you don’t finish up your story.
So there’s your framework for great storytelling. I’ll leave you with a few final tips and tricks. Firstly, knowing your story inside and out will greatly enhance your ability to tell it. You won’t need to linger on remembering what happened, and you can instead focus on your showmanship. It also reduces any backtracking. Secondly, tell your story with your whole body. You should use your hands to explain things (it’s proven to be very engaging) and you should use distinct voices and tones for your different characters and settings.
If you’ve made it this far in this relatively long article, you’re ready to go out there and tell a great story. Consequently, I would like to congratulate myself for engaging you and keeping your interest to this point. Of course if you didn’t make it to the end, you’re likely to lead a life of boring your coworkers with bad stories, and I’ll choose to take solace in that, however vain that may be!