Humans are born storytellers. The way we tell and share our stories about who we are, what we do, and what we want. This, in turn, affects who sees us, hears about us, and whether or not the right people connect with us.
When you want to learn how to describe yourself or your business, people look to storytelling as a way to improve their core message. But what is storytelling? And how do you actually get better at it? The word is vague and yet so appealing — but it can be difficult to know where to start, and how to use what you learn in your everyday practice.
This section will look at some of the core truths about stories and storytelling — and I’ll share a few tools that are practical and that you can implement quickly for many communication needs, ranging from a personal biography to the description of your company.
Storytelling is a fundamental human tool that we all do innately — but over time, we’ve been bombarded with terrible examples of storytelling that aren’t good models to look to. Our brains are wired for storytelling — because it helps us learn, explore, and retain information through second- and third-hand experiences.
What are stories and who tells them?
Stories are innately human: everyone is a born storyteller.
When you recount events that you’ve done — even the simple sentence as you walk through the door, “You won’t believe what just happened — first I went to the grocery store, then…” — your ears prick up. You’ve set up the most basic form of a story: do you know what it is?
Here’s another example — “The beach was dark and quiet. It was eerie — the moon was dark and someone had turned off all the lights on the boardwalk. Alison felt uneasy as she stepped nervously out into the dark. Who had turned out all the lights?”
Both of these examples use a very specific form of storytelling that we’re all hardwired to understand. Do you know what it is?
I’ll explain it today as we deconstruct storytelling. But first, I want to debunk a few myths about storytelling. Somehow we think that only an elite few can be storytellers, and it’s a skill that we don’t have.
Common storytelling principles:
#1: Everyone is a storyteller.
It’s sometimes thought that storytelling is limited to an elite few, or a professional clique. In reality, that’s not true—all humans are born storytellers, and we’re born to look for, hear, and describe our world in stories. Children are born telling stories — in fact, we play for exactly this reason. Play is our built-in mode of imagining the future and the past. In telling stories, and playing make-believe, we’re able to learn at a much faster pace than if we had to rely only on our own experience.
We are learning creatures. We learn by experience — and through our imagination. When something good happens to us, that’s a reward. When something bad happens, there’s a punishment. These incentives teach us over time. In stories, we get to pick up and enter into the landscape of someone else’s learning — and learn for ourselves, even though we may be sitting in one place, not moving. When someone comes back to us and says, “Avoid Atlantic avenue, it’s crazy full of traffic,” we select a different route because we got information — and a story – about someone else’s experience.
#2: We tell stories to connect, dream, and imagine.
We use storytelling to connect inwardly to ourselves, outwardly towards others, and to imagine futures. Humans spend up to four hours per day inside of imaginary landscapes — in daydreams, thoughts, visualizations, and places beyond the present. We live in a world of stories.
#3: Stories are how we are hardwired.
Prior to written language, we had to keep important information about the world around us, somehow. We’ve constructed melodies, songs, and other modes of storing information. Is it any coincidence that “storing” and “storytelling” are related? We are hardwired to remember cause and effect relationships — I saw a spider, that spider killed my friend, spiders are bad. “REMEMBER THIS!” Shouts your brain.
In research in The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottfried, he talks about how we actually make up stories all the time, whenever we see two events happening. If we see a group of women and they’re all wearing tiny shorts, we might tell as story to ourselves about how they are all going to the beach. In research on people with their two brain hemispheres segmented or separated, they discover that our brains actually wire stories into our minds when presented two pieces of information. This brings us to idea #4.
#4: A story is what you take with you.
In any situation or setting, a story is what you take with you. When giving a presentation or sharing your brand or idea, what someone walks away with is the story. They’ve taken all the information they’ve been given and distilled it into the easiest parts to remember.
Bonus tip #1 — at conferences and in introductions. At a conference, if you babble and ramble when introducing yourself to people, they’ll forget most of what you said. If you string it into a story, and you keep it simple, people will be able to take that with you. You don’t need to get all the perfect information into one sentence; in fact, being imperfect can prompt likability and curiosity!
A quick and easy test for how good your story is is to listen in to what’s being said. Introduce yourself to someone, and then listen to when they introduce you. I’ll often keep it simple — I focus on writing and swimming, and I’ll say, “I work as a writer; I teach writing, and I’m also an open-water swimmer.”
When I’m being introduced, Clay leans over and grabs his friend and says, “You gotta meet Sarah, she’s a swimmer!” — I listen to what people hang on to.
A story is what you take with you. Listen to what people catch from your descriptions, and guide your story towards what people naturally keep bringing up!
#5: We are surrounded by far too many examples of bad storytelling — powerpoints, inadequacy marketing, and droll presentations have numbed our innate ability to tell stories.
Unfortunately, we’re surrounded by terrible examples of storytelling. In Story Wars, by Jonah Sachs, he talks about all the sins of modern storytelling — from Vanity to Authority and more. Basically, the last century of mass broadcasting let the leaders in charge of storytelling get lazy. There’s too much talking about yourself, not listening to the audience, and shouting lists. Technology (like powerpoint) even encourages bad storytelling by putting bullets and lists as the mode of operation.
#6: When you sell anything — yourself, a brand, a business — you tell a story.
When you sell things, you tell a story. It’s not about the thing at hand — lists are bad. Think about a toothbrush. You’re not selling a plastic stick with a bunch of flexible bristles on it. You’re selling the idea of a cleaner mouth. Why is that clean mouth important?
Think about Listerine: you’re not selling a bottle of alcohol, you’re selling … a date. The ability to be well-liked. Advertisements are stories about who you are and who you should be, and they want to capitalize on something deeper than the physical thing that they are selling. What do they believe about human nature? What story are they telling you, implied or otherwise?
How you can improve your storytelling today.
#7: Your English teacher was right — it is about “showing” versus “telling.”
Too often we jump straight to the point. “It was the hardest day of my life.” “The thing is, simplicity matters.” “Never underestimate the power of a good friend.”
Whatever your core philosophical statement, usually it’s often unsaid. Just like the toothbrush examples before, the point of your story isn’t to beat someone over the head with the idea, but rather to SHOW it through lots of vivid detail and an example that highlights your core philosophy. For example —
[It was the hardest day of my life.] vs: I’d just finished a fourteen hour shift in the cement factory. I had no idea what my dad did, so that summer I signed up to join him at work. Three days in, and I could barely lift my hands. My forearms burned, and my calves were shot from jumping in and out of the trucks. I’d probably lifted more than a hundred sacks of cement mix in and out of the truck.
[Never underestimate the power of a good friend.] vs: I’d just found out that my grandmother had passed, and I couldn’t make it home in time. My job had closed the week before, our office putting up the ‘for sale’ sign after more than 8 months in the red. On the bus ride home through the foggy drizzle of Portland’s grey fall days, I wondered how I could pay for groceries for the rest of the week. As I got off the bus, I saw someone sitting on my stoop. Probably another homeless person, I muttered, thinking I’d be one soon myself. As I got closer, I saw that it was Alex, holding two bags of Indian food takeout. He wrapped me in a big hug. “I thought that you could use this today,” he explained, pointing to the food. “Let’s eat.”
#8: Detail, detail, detail. The environment matters — because you’re telling someone about a world they’re imagining through your descriptions.
Great storytelling is about detail — but a specific kind of detail. How do you set the stage and the context for what’s happening? What does it feel like to be you? Stories immerse us in an event far away from where we are, catapulting us into a new time and space. Key descriptions anchor us into this new space through the use of all of the senses — smell, sight, touch, taste, sound, texture, even kinesthetics. Begin by describing the world around you, in vivid sensory detail. The English language has thousands of words to describe the subtle differences in texture and weight and material. Tell the story of what the world looks like. Great fiction books often begin with these details — take a look at 1984 or Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for great opening scenes that write about detail.
With written narrative, all we have are words — versus in film, where we can show rich detail through visual imagery. In writing, all we have are words — and choosing words and describing the environment and scene, in detail, is what brings someone into your story.
#9: Introduce conflict — by using the “bait” method.
Here’s a secret about the human brain: we all like to be smart. We like to figure things out, and know the answers to things. Whenever we are presented with a puzzle, we like seeing if we can figure it out before someone else does.
In storytelling, a great way to engage your audience is to add a teaser at the beginning. By using a little bit of bait, you stoke the curiosity in your listener’s mind. Ira Glass talks about this often, and if you introduce a story with an underlying question (like “the house was eerily dark,” or “it was a different night than any other,”) the listener begins to wonder why it was so dark, or why the night was different.
This “curiosity gap” between a piece of information that asks a question, and the story that resolves the question, helps the reader stay engaged and curious about the story. A little bit of conflict introduces a puzzle to be fixed!
#10: Shorter is often better. Keep it simple!
At the end of the day, a story is what you take with you — and we don’t remember every detail of every story, but rather, the highlights real. When you’re presenting your idea, biography, or product, start with something short and sweet.
Conclusions and take-aways: journaling and practice.
What did you take away from this introduction to storytelling? How can you change your story to make it sweeter, simpler, and easier to understand?
Here are a few ways to take your work forward in your journal and practice:
- Practice: how can you write a one-sentence description of who you are that’s super simple? What three keywords or nouns would you use to describe you? Think of it as a gift to your audience — the less you say, the more they can remember.
- Writing exercise: describe your environment, in vivid detail. What is the shape of the space that you are in? What does it smell like, taste like, sound like?
- Bookmark 10 great “About” pages that you love and highlight what stands out to you. What techniques and styles are used that you particularly admire?
- Take a quick look at your email inbox (but don’t get lost in it!). Take a screen shot of your inbox and print it out. Highlight what’s already been read, and what you’ve skipped. Are there any themes? Look at what you click — which email titles are stories? Which ones are boring? What do you skip over? Your inbox is a great case-study for clues to how storytelling works in your everyday life. What can you learn?
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