How To Tell A Great Story
Stories grab us. They take us in, transport us, and allow us to live vicariously and visually through another’s experience. As I’ve said often in my work around presence, shared stories accelerate interpersonal connection. Learning to tell stories to capture, direct and sustain the attention of others is a key leadership skill. Storytelling also greatly helps anyone speaking or presenting in front of an audience.
Yet, as much as we love to hear the stories of others, in my research I’ve found that most people don’t consider themselves good storytellers. I will often hear reasons such as:
- I never think of it
- I tend to ramble and lose the point
- I have a hard time gauging interest
- I am never sure how much detail to use
- I don’t have good stories to share
But just because something is uncomfortable doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Learning to tell stories with confidence is worth the effort. As I wrote about here, there’s a good reason. We retain stories far longer than data, and have evolved to listen and learn from them. Stories underpin cultures of companies, organizations, and entire countries. New people learn what to do and how to assimilate though hearing the stories of others.
The same can be said for anecdotes, which are basically short stories. A Stanford research study showed that statistics alone have a retention rate of 5-10%, but when coupled with anecdotes, the retention rate rises to 65-70%.
The reality is that many of us don’t bother with stories – not because we don’t think they are important – but because we’re not sure how to tell them well. Here are some of my best tips for how to embrace the amazing storyteller that lies within all of us.
1. Keep a log of story content.
It’s much easier to find the right stories if you have a list to go to. Get in the habit of jotting down notes about content that would make for a good story – client wins, challenges, times of perseverance, etc. To get yourself started, spend an hour just thinking about experiences you’ve had where you’ve overcome hardship and made yourself (or others) proud.
Once you make a habit of it, you’ll find that you can get new fodder frequently – which you can tap into when you need it.
2. When you have important points, match them with a story.
One of the most powerful applications of stories in a work setting is for conveying messages that you want to have resonance, from widespread culture changes to personal mentoring. To use stories, you only need to pause, and remember to do so. And check that list you just made.
The next time you find yourself contemplating what words you want to say (an indicator of an important message), also consider what story would help support your points. You’ll find that it will help you communicate your message, and for the listener to hear it.
3. Practice them.
There’s a misperception that great storytellers can whip these yarns out of their hats and deliver with aplomb. The best stories are well-told stories – because they get better with each telling. Whenever someone in my workshops volunteers to tell a good story, it’s one that they’ve told many times before.
If you want to get better at telling any story, start putting it out there for various groups of people. I guarantee you that you’ll learn from each experience. And instead of getting stale, you’ll get better.
One caution: you do want to vary the audiences you tell your stories to. Practicing is important, but you don’t want to be known for telling the same stories to the same people.
4. Don’t try to be perfect.
Many of us strive to be perfect in so much of our lives, but you definitely don’t want to show up that way in your stories. Perfect storytellers are boring and robotic. Perfect characters in stories are alienating. No one wants to hear how awesome you are, or how well you nailed your goal.
Instead, we’re enraptured by stories that involve some vulnerability. We want to hear about struggles, and how to overcome them – so be honest. When you share stories, be revealing about the hurdles along the way. It’s okay to talk about success, just don’t omit what got you there.
5. Use good story structure.
A good story isn’t complicated – it’s actually quite simple. I advise putting stories into a structure that has the following:
- Clear moral or purpose – there’s a reason why you’re telling this story, to this audience, at this time
- Personal connection – the story involves either you, or someone you feel connected to
- Common reference points – the audience understands the context and situation of the story
- Detailed characters and imagery – have enough visual description that we can see what you’re seeing
- Conflict, vulnerability, or achievement we can relate to – similar to point #4, show us the challenges
- Pacing – there’s a clear beginning, ending, and segue way back to the topic
Finally, a lesson I’m constantly relearning is that you can never have enough use of stories. I will jam pack a keynote with stories and examples, and will still get questions from the audience to hear more. So don’t worry about burdening anyone with your stories, and instead consider them as gifts.
After all, you might hear a good one in return.
Kristi Hedges is a leadership coach, speaker and author of Power of Presence: Unlock Your Potential to Influence and Engage Others. Find her at kristihedges.com and @kristihedges.
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