Storytelling is not a skill we’re born with. It’s a skill we must learn to get better at, with practice. In What Great Storytellers Know, you’ll learn the seven storytelling skills that you can hone to become your most inspiring and influential self.
Skill #1 Be where you are
The greatest storytellers have two superpowers. They are great listeners and first-class noticers. In a fast-paced world, we’re so busy trying to get things done and don’t allow ourselves to slow down and notice. It feels so tempting to walk and listen to a podcast at the same time. But this habit of killing two birds with one stone is also killing our storytelling potential.
“For every podcast we listen to on our walk, we’re forsaking the opportunity to notice and ignoring a dozen potential stories.”
If you want to be a better storyteller, embrace the fact that you can’t pay attention to two things at once. Your attention belongs to you and you have the complete control to reclaim it. Here’s a few suggestions:
- See with your ears and your eyes.
- Leave your phone in your pockets and look up.
- Listen for stories in everyday conversation – in cafes, public transport, dining tables.
- Talk to strangers and look for the unfamiliar.
- Begin a sentence with “So, tell me about….”
- Watch how people interact with their environment and each other.
- Listen to a child.
- Slow down.
Skill #2 Find the extraordinary in the everyday
We’re so used to the stories of high drama on movie screens – Batman or Superman saving the day, rushing to the rescue of children who would otherwise plunge to their death. Not every story needs to be an epic tale of a caped crusader saving the world.
“Some of the best stories are about ordinary moments in our lives that teach us to be braver or kinder, more open-minded or loving.”
A colleague who challenges the status quo on behalf of the team. A partner who supports a dream. A teacher who helps her students believe in themselves. Great storytellers are always mining their life and everyday encounters for stories. Oprah just did that for her Golden Globes speech.
Skill #3 Harness the power of the particular
The most common storytelling mistake is the failure to help the audience experience the story. Your goal is to bring the audience on a rather emotional journey, not just a factual or chronical one. The best stories are not only true, they convey the truth by helping the audience live it.
When we’re specific, we take our audience on an emotional journey with us. They may not have experienced it firsthand but they can closely relate to our story. Here’s a few suggestions:
- Describe tiny, true details.
- Zoom in on one small scene of a bigger story.
- Draw the reader or listener into a single moment in time.
- Help the audience experience as the events unfold.
- Ground the audience with locations, character names, seasons and so on.
- Paint a mental picture of what the characters are feeling, seeing, experiencing…
Skill #4 Speak from the heart
It’s one thing to know the steps to telling a great story. It’s another thing to tell it. Like every other skill, you master the art of storytelling by practising. You have to get yourself in front of people and watch and listen for what resonates with them.
“You could watch Roger Federer return serves all day long, but that doesn’t mean you could replicate them.”
Here’s a few ways to put this skill into practice:
- Become a kitchen table storyteller and tell powerful stories in everyday settings.
- Start a blog.
- Create a note-taking, story-writing ritual.
- Consider how you could rework stories you’ve already told.
- Reminisce with family and friends.
Skill #5 Stand in the audience’s shoes
No story is for everyone. If you’re going to make an impact, it’s vital to know who your stories are for. When you understand the worldview of your audience, you resonate more deeply with them. Worldviews are not objective and supported by facts. Worldviews are subjective, value-based reflections of our experiences and beliefs.
“The greatest gift you can give a person is to see who she is and reflect that back to her.”
When we help people be who they want to be, when we’re doing our best and most meaningful work. Here are some suggestions to become more empathetic:
- Listen, not to wait for your turn to speak, but to understand.
- Avoid judgement while listening.
- Ask (more) questions.
- Describe the change your audience wants to make.
- Decide how you hope your audience will be changed by having heard your story.
Skill #6 Give your stories a shape and a point
All stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. At the beginning, you engage the audience. In the middle, you show the challenge the hero must overcome. In the end, you describe how the hero has changed as a result. Particular details are revealed to the audience in that order.
You can use the 5Cs to ‘scaffold’ more powerful stories:
- Context: Quiet girl from a bookish family is living happily in her own ordinary world.
- Catalyst: She goes to camp with her suitcase full of books.
- Complication: The girl is teased about her introversion.
- Change: She puts her books away and tries to fit in but doesn’t feel right about doing it.
- Consequence: She overcomes her fear of public speaking so she can spread the message about the need to accept and create a culture that embraces both extroverts and introverts.
Can you guess whose story is that? Hint: She is the author of the world’s best-selling book on introversion.
Skill #7 Speak your truth
We humans are the ultimate paradox. There are two things we want. We want to hide. And we want to be seen. Glossophobia is the fear of public speaking. If you’re like me and like many other people, you might have suffered from it out of the fear of embarrassment or rejection.
The truth is even the most experienced speakers must work to overcome the physical sensations and thinking patterns that prevent them from showing up as their best selves. The renowned author and speaker Simon Sinek tells himself he is ‘excited’ to go onstage to speak to his audience, instead of telling himself ‘nervous’. It takes the same energy but the results are totally different. Same physiology, different mindset.
Here are some tips to practice speaking your truth:
- Let go of the need to perform.
- Choose contribution over perfection.
- Show up in the service of others.
- Be grateful for the opportunity to share your ideas.
- Silence your inner critic.