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On Storytelling

Storytelling and listening are reciprocal; water takes the shape of its glass.

A few years ago, I joined a group of twelve strangers, ranging in age from 27 to 75, for a six-hour workshop on storytelling led by Jerome Deroy and Terence Mickey. I learned that good storytelling requires a lot of you: listening, feeling, writing, sharing, and vulnerability.

I left the workshop delighted, and exhausted.

Since note-taking and great listening were at odds with one another, I had to control my inner stenographer. Now, I’ll share the salient pints that I can remember.

High resolution listening

I strain to hear the speaker clearly over the noise in the hallway. Might we close the door?

As a speaker tells their story, take inventory of both your internal distractions (e.g. I’m hungry) and external distractions (e.g. the guy next to me is typing on a mechanical keyboard using his elbows). For example, it could be a thought, a feeling, a judgment, or a physical sensation. Your inner voice bringing these needs to your attention competes with the voice of the person speaking right there in front of you.

Am I thinking about the bills I will have to pay?
It feels cold in here. I wish I brought a sweater. I wonder if the heat will kick on soon. Is it just me?
Am I missing a loved one?

To ease internal distractions, try to acknowledge and then dismiss them.

To ease external distractions, particularly those under your immediate control, take action to remove them. No need to wait or muffle your needs.

So, the next time you face an external distraction, instead of second-guessing your body and wondering whether your body temperature is abnormal and then seeking validation by scanning the room for others shivering around you, just do something about it.

A story well told

How can you help a listener connect to your story?

First, listen to people tell their stories. Take note of the exact moments when a speaker lures you in, when you lean in and rest your elbows on your knees or feel a tingling on your scalp.

What happened? Was it the content? Was it their body language? Did you see it with your eyes or hear it with your ears?

Here are a few patterns that I’ve found engage me as a listener.

Pausing
Don’t rush.

Wait. Breathe. Begin again. Stop. Continue.

Honesty & Vulnerability
Tell the story as it were, not as you prefer it to be. Unpopular opinions, unflattering behavior, and repeated mistakes are part of life. To tell an honest story is to tell a story with imperfections, which is to tell a story that is believable and that your audience can relate to.

As for vulnerability, well, a vulnerable speaker has my heart and ear.

They include the details that once made them uncomfortable, details that they could have left out and probably would have preferred to. However, they chose not to.

Tone and volume
Events, descriptions, and time convey the content of the speaker’s story while tone and volume help reveal the emotion of the speaker (and may wake a dozing listener).

Specificity
The small sounds, smells, and nicknames you use in your story will become the anchors a listener recalls.

Precarious context
Juxtapositions, uncertainty, risk, promises, losses, and poor odds attract the listener’s attention and build their anticipation.

When telling a story

Remember, as you use a word in your story, the listener is imagining it.

Write your story as if it were told through a camera lens (and microphone)
Cameras are observers, capturing only what is seen or heard. They cannot speak on behalf of a character’s inner feelings, thoughts, needs, or wants. Write from the perspective of an onlooker, and discard the rest.

Communicate feeling through events, not internal dialogue
Stick to What, How, Where, When, and Who. Then, What Happened Next. And repeat.

This is harder than you might think.

For exercise, try telling a story without using the words, ‘I thought’ or ‘I felt.’ Tell your story with actions, events, and observable behavior.

Compare these two sentences:

  1. I was terrified of heights, but after surviving my very first jump from a diving board, I felt courageous.

  2. I was terrified of heights, but after surviving my very first jump from a diving board, I emerged from the water laughing, tossed my goggles at my mother and sprinted to the back of the line for my next jump.

The first sentence merely tells the reader how I felt, courageous.The second sentence attempts to show the reader how I felt using actions visible to any onlooker.

Use a story arc and your space
A story consists of a few major events that form an arc: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement.

To help you to remember the flow of your story and utilize the physical space available to you, pair each point in your story with a unique location in the room. As you arrive at a new point in your story, begin walking toward its designated location in the room.

This is handy for people who, as soon as they step in front of an audience, freeze and forget they are capable of moving their limbs.

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