By Jackie Graybill, Toastmasters International
Stories are a part of our DNA as humans. We are drawn to them. We can’t get enough of them. Back in our hunter-gather days, we sat around the fire sharing stories that were important for survival. From the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in 1450 to the arrival the movie industry stories remain and important part of the way we transmit information to each other. And what are speeches and presentations, but such a transmission?
The most popular TED Talks contain powerful stories. The most popular TED talk ever (with 71 million views and counting), is the one in which Sir Ken Robinson tells the story of choreographer Gillian Lynne. He uses the story to illustrate his point that schools kill creativity in youngsters, and it is a powerful centrepiece of his talk. https://www.ted.com/talks/sir_ken_robinson_do_schools_kill_creativity
Arresting narratives bring our attention to issues in a way that bald or stringent statistics fail to do. Charities have discovered that, by focusing on the narrative of one starving child instead of the billions around the world, response rates become much higher. All because of the power of story.
How can you spice up your storytelling and ramp up your skills? Practice using the following in your stories and watch for the delightful effect of an instantly more engaged audience!
- Start in the action of the scene so your audience doesn’t fall asleep or get lost in your set up
If you begin in the action and give just enough context to keep your audience from becoming confused, you’ll set yourself apart as a speaker and pique the interest of your listeners. Remember, just like a Hollywood film, you can jump back and forth in time with your story. Start with a dramatic scene and go back to fill in the details. Or try using something like, “later, I would look back on this moment as ____,” filling in the blank with your own appropriate sentiment.
Beginning with a mystery and peppering more mysteries throughout your story creates intrigue, as your listeners want to know what happens and begin guessing at the answer in their own minds. A great start is with something like, “I have a confession to make.” Try working on your mystery skills with the kids in your life. They will enjoy it and you’ll be playing your way to better speaking and storytelling skills in the process.
- Create a loop, or multiple loops
This is the technique of leaving a mystery unsolved before you introduce another one. You can even leave a loop open until the end and give your audience the satisfaction of solving the mystery at the end. Closure is a beautiful thing, so don’t forget to eventually close the loop.
- Shorter is sexier: leave them wanting more
Do your best to cut out any non-pertinent details that don’t set up your story or drive the action forward. If you feel like you might be adding too much detail to a specific aspect of your story, you probably are.
Using analogies, metaphors, similes, and other literary tools can bring interest and humour to your storytelling. For humorous examples, look at the work of comedian Jim Gaffigan, especially the time a bear looked at him and, as he put it, “I was sunburned so I probably looked like a giant land salmon.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DPQklphWxK0
Additionally, check out the book, ‘Metaphors Be With You’, by Dr. Mardy Grothe, for wonderful examples to incorporate into your stories.
- The power of dialogue
Instead of just telling us what your characters have said, become those characters as they have a dialogue with each other. You can utilise the spatial physicality of characters as they talk with each other by shifting slightly where you stand and where you are looking.
- Practice retelling scenes from film and television episodes
Not only will this help to develop your dialogue skills, but as you retell memorable scenes from the screen, you will also start to pick up storytelling techniques as well as learning what elements are best to include and which are unnecessary and don’t drive the action forward, thus slowing down the pace.
- The power of the pause
When speaking, a second can feel like ten, and ten seconds can feel like a minute. Accordingly, pausing can feel unnatural and uncomfortable, but it can also be a welcome gift to your audience, as it gives them time to absorb what you have said. Pauses can also be used to emphasise information, phrases or words in a powerful way.
- Follow the PIXAR formula
The PIXAR story formula, made popular by the elements contained in PIXAR films, is as follows:
Once upon a time
But one day
Because of that
Because of that (add additional “because of that”s as necessary)
Ever since then
Practice your stories according to these elements, and you might be surprised to find out how many effective stories follow this formula. http://thescientistvideographer.com/wordpress/the-pixar-storytelling-formula/
- Engage the senses
Our five senses have a powerful effect on our human experiences and when any of them are evoked, this can trigger audience members in powerful ways. To practice this skill, take someone on a sensory walk. This could be a description of a delicious recipe you made, a nature walk, or anything that includes multiple of the five senses. Just be careful with this powerful story element, as there are some things you may not want to bring up with your listeners (insert dog poop and other cringeworthy sensorial triggers).
- Practice storytelling with the children in your life: they are eager and forgiving audiences
If you have children in your life, you’re aware that they adore being told stories. This is the perfect atmosphere to test various storytelling techniques as you build your skills, as you likely won’t feel judged by your small listeners and will be less inhibited. As long as the storytelling is age appropriate, this will be a win-win for everyone involved in the process.
- Create a story bank and practice telling them
Whenever you are engaged in a conversation and find yourself recalling and sharing a story, add it to your storybank list. This will prove to be a treasure trove when you are preparing for a speech and need to enliven a particular point. Just visit your story bank (I keep mine in my notes app on my phone) and match a point with a story that illustrates it. Practice telling these stories in everyday conversation and every time you tell it, that story’s impact will become stronger as you adjust the elements in it for maximum impact.
And remember 1) you can practice your storytelling in everyday conversations. “How was your meeting?” can turn into, “let me tell you want happened at the meeting today. It was unbelievable!” followed by an interesting story; 2) by increasing our storytelling skills, our presenting/speaking skills are made stronger in the process.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jackie Graybill is a member of Toastmasters International, a not-for-profit organisation that has provided communication and leadership skills since 1924 through a worldwide network of clubs. There are more than 400 clubs and 10,000 members in the UK and Ireland. Members follow a structured educational programme to gain skills and confidence in public and impromptu speaking, chairing meetings and time management. To find your nearest club, visit www.toastmasters.org