Seven Secrets for Stellar Storytelling

pinocchio

My granddad used to tell us some extraordinary stories. He had the ability to draw a room full of people in, have them hanging on his every word, and leave them all with tears of laughter in their eyes. Watching my granddad tell stories inspired me to learn to do it as well as he did.

One of the most important parts of public speaking is learning to be a great storyteller. We are attracted to stories and narratives. We use them to create understanding, and share experience. Your audience is going to identify more strongly with your message if you share it with a great story. The following seven tricks will help you become the same sort of outstanding storyteller that my granddad was.

7. Be Enthusiastic

Nobody wants to listen to a story if its teller isn’t enthusiastic about its telling. Whether the story be funny, or poignant, it is absolutely essential that you inject the necessary energy to highlight your story’s content. You need to tell the story with some enthusiasm and excitement for the art of storytelling.

Part of demonstrating enthusiasm is to alter your vocal tone appropriately. Let your voice reveal to your audience the emotion you want them to feel. Allow your eyes to reveal the excitement and passion you find in the story. Get your body involved, and let the energy of the story motivate your actions and gestures. When you let enthusiasm guide your storytelling, you really bring charisma and charm into play.

6. Embellish the good parts

One of the things my grandfather always told me was to never let the truth get in the way of a great story. While outright lying is rarely a strategy you want to employ with an audience, a good storyteller definitely knows when it is necessary to relax the truth in the interest of getting the point across.

A really great story always has its high points, and a really great storyteller will build on those by adding rich detail, special emphasis, and  a little bit of poetic license to really hammer home the best parts of the story. Embellishing the good parts makes the story that much more engaging for your audience, and allows them to connect with the story. It also allows you to highlight those parts of the story that are most significant to communicating your message.

5. Eliminate the unnecessary

Just as a great storyteller should highlight and emphasize the good parts, she should be quick to eliminate those details or ideas that are inconsequential and insignificant to the main point of the story. I’ve seen people with great enthusiasm and tons of charm trip and fall over this very problem. It can be very difficult to tell what is necessary, and what is not.

So, begin by asking yourself this question: Does what I’m saying help relay my point? If the answer is no, then move on quickly. Cut and edit details that are ultimately irrelevant. Get rid of digressions that may take you away from the point you’re trying to communicate. Get back to the story and its purpose, and be relentless at doing so. Remember, brevity is the soul of wit.

4. Build the emotional connection

The awesome thing about storytelling is that it taps into our desire to connect and share with one another. A really great storyteller will use their story to engage with their audience’s emotions, and build a deep rapport with them. Engaging your audience’s emotions is so critical to building trust and credibility with them. A good storyteller will highlight and emphasize those moments that make deep connections.

Perhaps the quickest way to build an emotional connection with your audience is to make them laugh. Injecting appropriate and relevant humor into a story is an easy way to put people at ease, and help them identify with you. Shared laughter eases tension, and helps to build a sense of camaraderie. Even if the story is designed to ultimately elicit tears, getting the audience to laugh is a sure-fire way to make the drama more powerful.

3. Follow narrative structure

I’m sure everybody remembers the narrative structure from English class. For those who don’t, it looks something like this:

The structure of a narrative storyImage from Qwikstep.com

Rising action builds over the course of the story to a climax, and is followed by a period of denouement and resolution. Pretty simple stuff.

But it is extraordinarily powerful as a storytelling tool. The reason that we’re familiar with this form is because it is really effective in creating engagement with the narrative. A good storyteller will follow this form, building to increasingly large climactic moments, and drawing the audience deeper into the story.

2. Give it some Character

One of my favorite audiobook experiences is listening to the Harry Potter series as read by actor Jim Dale. Dale created hundreds of unique character voices that manage to really capture the essence of the characters in the series. Listening to him read the books is an absolute joy, because he brings so much wonderful character to the story.

I wouldn’t suggest that you ought to create dozens of different voices of your own for every story you tell. However, the lesson that you can take from Jim Dale’s performance is that it is really critical to let the character of the story shine through. The stories we tell are often stories about others, and it is important that we let the character of those about whom we are speaking be revealed in our telling. It makes the storytelling experience more authentic and inviting. Storytellers don’t need to do a bunch of silly voices, but it is really important that they let down their inhibitions, and allow the multitude of personalities and experiences in the story to really come to the surface.

1. Control your Timing

The most important thing about storytelling is timing. In order for your jokes to work, they have to be well-timed. If you want your audience to share a powerful moment, you have to allow that moment time to occur. When you want your audience to feel passion, you have to build and layer and stack things in such a way that they are moved. Not only do you want to be brief, but you want to make sure that you’ve left room for the performance of the story to work to its maximum effect.

One of the biggest mistakes I see with timing is that speakers get so caught up in telling their story, they forget to pause to give their audience time to react. They step on their laughs, and they sail through moments that need more time to sit with the audience. Another problem is that speakers get so caught up in telling their stories, that they fail to recognize that the story has eaten up more of their time than they had planned. Stories are tricky, and it’s important to time them right. Getting control of a story’s timing is the number one thing that separates a bad story from a good one, or a good one from an amazing one.

What are your secrets for telling a good story? Sound off in the comments below.

  1. mari says:

    I totally agree that your audience will identify with your and your message through a great story. Great storytellers say things that resonate with their audiences which is very important. It makes them more trustworthy and memorable in their audiences’ eyes.

    I wish I had some secrets for telling a good story but I think this post took the words out of my mouth!

    • Richard G. says:

      Thanks Mari. I’m glad you found this useful. I quite agree that this is the key to making a speaker more trustworthy and memorable.

      Also, congratulations on being my very first commenter. :)

  2. Michael says:

    Rich,

    Have you seen Kurt Vonnegut’s fortune charts. They’re fantastic.