How to Improve Your Storytelling – Small Talk Small Ideas

How to improve your storytelling technique:

Communicating well involves being able to tell a good tale. Yet, many of my best clients still can’t tell stories well, especially if it was demanded on the spot. If you’ve ever sat through someone’s story and your mind has started to drift, it’s probably been because of one of these three reasons:

  • The person telling the story wasn’t able to explain it well.
  • The story wasn’t interesting because it was neither relatable nor produced an emotional response.
  • The story was rife with mixed metaphors and confusing symbology.

However, a less well-kept secret is that adept storytellers have usually told the same story time and time again.

If you go to see a comedian, they are usually telling the same jokes they told in another part of the country – years ago. If you’re listening to a great motivational speech, it was probably delivered at the same time, every week, for a couple of months beforehand. If you’re with a great teacher, they are probably teaching you the same thing they’ve taught thousands of other students.

There is no shame in this repetition, especially when telling stories, because each time you tell it you’ll get better at doing so. Each telling will help improve your emotion, your fluency of repetition and your acting skill. This first means that improving your storytelling skills means that much as an actor rehearses for a movie again and again, you’ll be repeating the same story again and again until you get good at it.

Why stories matter:

In the last post I outlined why you should surround yourself with people who enrich you. If you do, you’re liable to have the chance to tell more stories.

Stories bind us together and have done so for generations. From our primitive roots around the campfire when the leader of the tribe beckoned with his flint-knapped axe that meat was to be found over the knolled hill, to the wonderous CGI stories which paint images of worlds we can seldom imagine today, we’ve always loved to hear a tall tale.

Then again, if I told you a story about how I went down to the beach and randomly found a chest of buried treasure you’d probably say ‘Oh wow, that was lucky!’; but if I told you a story of going on an adventure, commandeering a boat, fighting a Kraken and experiencing every emotion you can imagine only to find the exact same treasure chest, you’d probably be more enthralled and be swept along with my words. This is because although we crave the idea of finding great riches for little effort, it is the seeing of other people overcoming strife and then being rewarded for it which truly impresses us. It’s that little human element, the story behind our efforts which makes a something influential, memorable and relatable.

Therefore, if you are having a deep conversation, it’s best to add in a couple of stories to help keep things swimming along. This is easier said than done though! Some struggle with telling stories and this is to be expected, because most schools don’t teach you how to tell them.

Being told ‘tell better stories’ is like being handed a snorkelling kit and simply told ‘figure it out before you hit the bottom’. You’re either going to end up with lungs full of salt-water or look silly as you fumble with it on the way down. To save yourself from an uncomfortable dive, you need to know that a compelling story is nothing more than the recounting of something which creates an emotional response. If you can feel it, you can express it and if you practice telling that story again and again others will start to feel it too.

Make sure it’s relevant:

Throughout your life you will have experienced an innumerable number of emotional moments. There will be times when you’ve overcome some tragedy, completed a difficult task or even moved to some strange place; all these are stories. What makes it easier is starting to categorise them into archetypes and there are seven common story archetypes, each with a particular theme. Have a look at these examples and see how they align with their respective movie

1. Overcoming the Monster – Hercules

2. Rags to Riches – Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

3. Quest – Harry Potter

4. Voyage and Return – Lord of the Rings

5. Comedy – Mrs. Doubtfire

6. Tragedy – Romeo and Juliet

7. Rebirth & Moral Teaching – A Christmas Carol

If you look hard enough, you’ll probably find these archetypes in your own stories. Doing this will help you start to understand which story to share and when.

For example, if you’ve overcome some kind of personal struggle such as abandoning a difficult boss and then setting up your own business, that could be a destroying a monster, blended with a rags to riches tale. If you’ve been hunting for a specific collectable and then found it in the most obscure of places, that could be a quest. Travelling overseas and returning with new experiences of joy, heartbreak and a scar on your arm is a voyage. We’ve all experienced comedic and tragic moments in our life. If you turned your life around somehow, you were reborn.

The greatest of all stories will contain some semblance of moral teaching. These are the moments when we learn something special from hearing them being told. If you can add this element to your own tales, it will allow for not only a greater emotional bond between you and your conversational partner, but also a cultivation of respect from those who hear it, because it shows you learned something they needed to know too.

Be careful however, many stories although entertaining may not be relatable; there’s a reason parables often end with “and the moral of the story is…”, because the lesson to be learned wasn’t obvious.

Don’t tell the same story too often:

You may know of a relative, friend or colleague who always tells the same story, again and again and again much to your chagrin – try not to be this person. A story heard by the same audience once is exciting, a story heard twice is inviting, but a story heard thrice is uninspiring.

On the other hand, even if you can tell a story well, it doesn’t always mean it will be interesting to hear. Relatability is crucial to keep your listeners entertained. I know a gentleman who can have deep and sprawling conversation about his time working in accountancy. His jokes and tales make those familiar with his industry roar with laugher and lean closer, wrapped in absolute attention. But to myself and many others these same stories fall flat due to our not finding them relatable. They are frankly boring enough to put me to sleep.

If you’re about to embark upon a story ask yourself: given what you know of your audience, what do you share in common and what tales will relate to? If you can’t find anything, you’d best not tell that story!

This has been a sample of my new book ‘Small Talk Small Ideas: Fifty Ways to Have a Deep Conversation’, available now!

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