Once Upon A Time - Storytelling
People love stories. They love to tell them and they love to hear them. A really good story makes a camp fire worth lighting, a cocktail party worth attending and a reunion worth holding. A story can evoke tears and laughter. A good story can touch something familiar in each of us and yet show us something new about our lives, our world and ourselves.
Stories are also powerful tools for growth and learning. They can reach resistant learners in ways that even well-delivered lectures may not. Unlike conventional lectures, stories have a way of circumventing the mind's logic to capture the imagination.
Speakers can use stories to entertain, inspire, instruct - or do all three. Most stories are either crafted or chosen. The crafted ones are "baked from scratch"; the chosen ones are "recrafted" - in other words, tailored to fit the storyteller, audience and learning objective. The objective is paramount. Stories without purpose obviously lack relevance, but they also tend to lack charm.
Whether a speaker chooses to craft or recraft a story, several key steps are involved. The first step is to clarify the story's purpose. Here's a checklist of questions to ask yourself:
Most people can learn to tell stories well, but some may find storytelling so challenging that they prefer to use other approaches. If you decide to incorporate a story into a presentation, you may find it helpful to structure your story around the following elements: the context, the challenge and the climax.
The story's context establishes the setting or scene. It's the "once upon a time" part that invites listeners into the story and lets them share the visions of the storyteller.
The first step in creating the context is to write the story so you can critique it and measure the time it takes to tell it. A story should start with a transition that uses words or cues - such as a long pause - to signify that a story is beginning.
Listeners shouldn't wonder why you are telling them what you're telling them, and they shouldn't be asking themselves, "Where does this fit in?"
After the transition, it's important to create a realistic back-drop. Often, a story takes more time to relate than it takes to happen, so you should allow enough time to set the scene. Even well-told stories often violate grammatical rules and commonly shift between the past tense and the present. The past tense describes what happened; the present tense is acted out.
When creating the context of your story, ask yourself the following questions:
A good story should contain a challenge, which can also be described as "dissonance." To communicate dissonance, it's important to create a dilemma that listeners can identify with.
The following questions can help you create dissonance:
The story's climax is essentially a punch line with a lesson. Of course, the lesson is usually longer than the typical punch line of a joke.
The climax is more than just an ending - it's a resolution that can be used as a tool for helping listeners learn. The storyteller instructs through resolution, and the listeners allow their need for resolution to lead them into learning. As the story is told, it educates all who hear it. However, the climax must clearly fit the challenge and also carry listeners in new and somewhat unexpected directions. A surprise twist is often what most affects an audience.
If a story were mapped out, the climax would reside on the other side of the gaps created by the challenge. If listeners leap over the gaps, thus eliminating the dissonance, they experience insight and learning. But the climax must be truly inviting, realistic and relevant. If the climax or resolution is too routine or far-fetched, there is no insight. Listeners must be able to relate to and identify with how the story ends.
When creating the climax, ask yourself the following questions:
At the story's end, listeners should say, "I wouldn't have thought of that" or "I wasn't expecting that." They should also feel, upon reflection, that the story makes perfect sense.
Even a well-crafted story can fail to achieve its objective if it isn't told well. Here are a few techniques and tips for effectively delivering a story.
Dramatize. Don't be afraid to ham it up a bit. Remember, you're trying to paint a picture. As you speak, focus on the scene in your mind and try to become part of it. Relive the story as you tell it.
Describe. Use a lot of details in the beginning of the story and then faze them out. Listeners need to hear more details while you're creating the context.
A good rule of thumb is to start by using more details than you think the story needs. Your goal is to draw listeners into the scene. Once you establish the context and move on to the challenge and climax, fewer details are needed.
Shift. While telling the story, you sometimes act as a guide. Other times, you're part of the action. In other words, you step in and out of the scene. These dual functions make it acceptable for the storyteller to shift between the past and present tense.
Pause. Timing is key to good storytelling. So-called "pregnant pauses" can entice listeners and imbue a story with drama and suspense. Practice your presentation by recording your story on audiotape and listening for places where pauses might add punch. Then tell your story at a pace that is slow, but not too slow.
Gesture. Use different gestures, varied facial expressions and dramatic body movements. Such techniques can help turn a written story into a living demonstration.
The proverbial admonition to "stick by the story" is good advice. The storyteller who goes off on tangents loses momentum and ultimately frustrates the listeners. Don't introduce secondary issues or new words and concepts. And don't ask questions during the story. Questions can be effective learning tools, but they tend to break the thread of the narrative.
Avoid biting sarcasm and satire. Even sad stories should have an element of joy. If a story is too acerbic, listeners tend to resist. The same goes for exaggeration. Most storytellers tend to embellish stories and tailor them to fit their needs and goals. That's expected, but too much poetic license can actually undermine the authenticity and realism that make a story powerful. If the audience members don't buy your story, then they won't buy your learning point either.
Good story tellers, like master vintners with a full-bodied wine, know that a good story mellows and improves with age. Above all, a good story is simple, stylish and straightforward.
Storytellers tend to have their own favorite recipes for stories, but these are a good general guide:
Speakers who have decided to use stories often don't know where and when to fit them into their programs.
Stories fit just about anywhere. For example, they can work as introductions or as conclusions. As an introduction, a story can announce and organize the main points of the program to follow. As a conclusion, a story can reiterate the core principles, ideas and concepts of the presentation. Using a story to wrap up a program can cut through any confusion that may have built up along the way.
Stories also act as breathers. They can provide welcome respites when topics are complex or abstract, and they can alleviate emotionally charged discussions.
Furthermore, stories can clarify vague or easily misinterpreted points by adding specific, concrete details. They can help listeners make reasonable deductions from disparate elements and, thus, better understand the speech as a whole.
Stories can be very effective when concepts are tricky - that is, when hard-to-communicate nuances are critical to understanding the presentation. Stories can engage learners emotionally and show them the consequences of taking or omitting certain actions.
Clearly, stories can enliven training or provide an attractive alternative to traditional lectures. But it isn't enough simply to "make up a story." As with most worthwhile endeavors, effective storytelling requires Thorough planning. Make sure your stories pack a punch and that you have a socko delivery.
Chip Bell is a Toastmaster in southern California.