The people who come to our classes and workshops at the South Mountain Community College Storytelling Institute often tell us, “I’m a terrible storyteller. I just ramble on and on and people lose interest. I get embarrassed.” While this is a common fear of many storytellers, the fact is that everyone has a story to share. Check out the tips below to see how to avoid rambling, hold your audience’s attention, and become a more effective storyteller.
To really connect with listeners, make sure that your story is based in specific moments in time and that you are describing that moment. For example, instead of saying, “The trip was a disaster,” try something like this:
It was the longest day of my life. The air-conditioning went out in mom’s old brown Buick after ten miles. We had a flat tire in Yuma and the spare was also flat. We couldn’t get a signal on the flip-phone, and we stood on the narrow shoulder of the road for over an hour as the big-rigs flew past and threatened to blow us into the dry brush. Finally, a highway patrolman stopped and took George into town to get help. We had to stay overnight at a Motel 6 in Yuma and didn’t get to San Diego until the next day.
Include color, size, texture, temperature, and scale to help your story play like a private movie in the minds of your listeners. Visualizing the story helps to keep your listeners engaged and means they are more likely to remember what you have told them.
The thing that makes stories distinct as a narrative form is that they document change. This can range from the smallest change in perspective to the biggest, most life-altering transformation. Here are some simple story structures you can use:
We learned this structure from one of our mentors, the great storyteller Donald Davis. Donald says that if you want to create a picture in your listener’s minds (which you do!), you need to talk about the people, the place, the problem, and the progress.
*We added another P – the point – to make sure the meaning of the story is communicated. The example in our first tip tells you the place and the problem. If we added more about the people, the progress, and the point, it would be a whole story.
We learned this one from Donald, too. It starts with a “Normal World” of someone’s experience. Trouble comes to that world and the world is turned Upside Down. Someone Gets Help or Learns Something New, and a New Normal world is established. In the previous example, we see mostly the Trouble. To make it a whole story, we’d need to know more about the normal world, the help the storyteller received or what was learned, and what the new normal world looked like.
This structure is one I’ve heard in many stories. First you describe How Things Used to Be, then What Changed, and then How Things Are Now and What It Means. This is how we often naturally talk about our lives, our projects, our communities – all the things that matter most to us.
Learning to rely on story structures also makes it easier to manage the length of your stories. For example, if you want to tell a particular story in just five minutes, you might use one minute to tell the People and Place, two minutes on the Problem, and the last two to talk about the Progress and the Point.
images + structure = emotion
That’s what the imminent scholar of storytelling, Harold Scheub, learned from his years of observing master African storytellers. When you place concrete images in a story structure that documents change, you will evoke emotion in your listeners. To do this most effectively, you must know what the story is about and be willing to share what it means to you and how you feel about it. In short, being vulnerable and open helps you connect with your audience. And when you do that, your listeners are more likely to remember you, your story, and what it means to them.
Once you’ve put your story together, tell it to other people! Watch their faces for their reactions to know how the story is landing with others. Take note of any questions they may have and resolve them before you tell it again. Let the story live in your own voice, and tell it naturally and authentically.
Be on the lookout for our next post, Three Things You Need to Know About Storytelling for Leadership.
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