How do I improve my storytelling?
August 18, 2017 7:59 AM   Subscribe

Some people can tell the most boring story and keep an audience on the edges of their seats. On the other hand, when I try to tell people about the most interesting things I've experienced (and there are some pretty interesting ones), it tends to land with a thud. I seem to have no natural talent for storytelling, but I'm hoping it's something I can learn to improve.

This applies to both spoken and written communication, in social and business contexts. I think there must be some foundational techniques for structuring and telling stories to make them effective, but I haven't really been able to reverse engineer them.

Are there books, websites, or other materials I should look at to learn this? Or do you have any specific tips or guidance for me?
posted by primethyme to Writing & Language (14 answers total) 100 users marked this as a favorite
Lifehacker just had an episode of their podcast where they interviewed Catherine Burns and Alan Alda about storytelling. I've not listened to it yet, but the description sounds like it would be worth checking out.

Ira Glass, the most amazing storyteller of our time, also gives talks on this pretty regularly. The youtube links are dead on this, but here's a written breakdown of those talks, I do believe.
posted by furnace.heart at 8:09 AM on August 18, 2017 [3 favorites]

The sociolinguist William Labov 'reverse engineered' everyday stories people tell. Here's an overview [PDF] of his model, another overview that mentions weaknesses of the model, and five papers by Labov that include examples: 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5. The short of it is people often lead with a comment that sort of encapsulates what they're talking about, then set the scene, then say a little about what happened, then (most crucially) reach some kind of evaluation--ideally embedded in the emotional words of some witness to the scene rather than the narrator's external judgment--before closing out the story with some result and a little "and that was that" kind of remark.
posted by Wobbuffet at 8:17 AM on August 18, 2017 [11 favorites]

My wife and I had a conversation about this - she was asking how I managed to tell neat little stories that had a beginning, middle, and end, and people seemed to find them interesting and/or funny. The answer?


I... talk to myself. Kind of a lot, actually. And one of the things I talk to myself about is telling stories, over and over, until they line up the relevant points and land on the punchline in an efficient way. The reason most people's stories don't work is they are sort of scattershot about details, line up 80% of the relevant facts, give the punchline, realize no one got it, add two more facts, and then laugh at their own joke. (My father, everyone!) If you actually talk through them and practice them, you can tease out which bits are important and which bits aren't, and, like anything, enough practice makes them come out smoothly. (This does mean if you hang out with me in enough different contexts, you're going to hear some of them more than once, and they're going to sound awfully similar each time. It's the way things go, I guess.)

My wife and I actually spent about half of a ten-hour drive workshopping some anecdotes for her so that she'd feel confident about having them ready to go it a weekend-long social event. And it totally worked!
posted by restless_nomad at 8:59 AM on August 18, 2017 [30 favorites]

Toastmasters is more about public speaking, but it would seem to me that there is considerable overlap. Perhaps consider joining a local Toastmasters chapter?
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 9:46 AM on August 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

There are storytelling clubs around if you are near a sizable city. Sometimes
they intersect with the improv comedy crowd. Either join the club or go to some of their events and note how they structure and pace their stories.
posted by TomFoolery at 11:20 AM on August 18, 2017

This Lynda course discusses storytelling through a marketing filter, but there are some good insights to be had.
posted by DrAstroZoom at 12:42 PM on August 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

One filmmaker from the 50's once said, "Make 'em laugh, make 'em cry, but most of all make 'em wait. (to laugh or cry)"

Dramatic tension is created by opposing forces. A story is only as good as the antagonist, which does not have to be a person. Have a good antagonist, build the tension over time, keep the Hero on the verge of failing at every step until the very end.
posted by trinity8-director at 1:05 PM on August 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

Never tell a long slow story to tired or hungry people.
posted by serena15221 at 2:17 PM on August 18, 2017

Matthew Dicks has won 32 Moth storytelling events and he has appeared The Gist Podcast a total of 9 times to share insights into how great stories are developed and told. I learned a lot.
posted by mmascolino at 2:36 PM on August 18, 2017 [4 favorites]

Leave stuff out., Less Is More. You don't have to repeat every little thing that happened. Read some Ernest Hemingway to learn how, or at least to get some good examples. And watch your audience; cut to the chase if they're getting visibly restless.
posted by Rash at 9:43 PM on August 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

All of the above, and:

In your heart, you have to think you're charming and kinda awesome. You not only want to tell the story but also you should want to connect with the people to whom you're telling it, and want to leave them feeling happy.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:57 AM on August 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

As a kid, I had a reasonably well developed inner voice that came through in my writing and my verbal communication. I attribute this skill to an exceptional teacher I had in one of my english classes early on. She'd force us, many times per week, to write, in pen, stream-of-thought, on prompts she'd provide.

Then, many years later, I started a company. And it was very, very difficult.

I discovered that I wasn't quite as good at storytelling as I thought I was. For the first time in m life, there were business professionals, engineers, designers, investors, and many other intelligent people that couldn't understand what I was trying to say. It was uncomfortable.

I ended up taking several courses (one in particular) that helped me immensely. It suggested an idea that I did NOT like at first - use structures. I didn't like this at all, because my education as a kid -- indeed the education that made me skilled at verbal communication -- was contrary to this idea. But the hurdle I had to get over was the difference between communication and story telling!

After I got over my dislike of structure, I saw immediate results. Stating the status quo, then the complication the protagonist encounters that upsets the status quo, the questions this complication raises, and the journey to answer those questions almost always makes for a compelling story. If you communicate it well, then you're successful.

It took more preparation than I liked, but it was well worth the trade-off, especially in a professional setting. And with practice, it begins to come much more naturally now, to the point where I can structure lots of different ideas in terms of stories.

I'd recommend watching this video if you want to learn more:

If you are telling a story to an analytical audience, then I'd also recommend this video:

Good luck!
posted by davezor at 10:23 PM on August 19, 2017

I'd recommend Writing for Story. Jon Franklin won two Pulitzer prizes and became an professor. He broke down short stories and adapted what he found for non-fiction. I think the basic insight is easy to grasp and can apply to any kind of story. You need a conflict, you walk through about 3 complications and then you have a resolution. You can substitute an opportunity or a desire for the conflict. The trick to a satisfying story is that the ending has to resolve the conflict you started out with -- or the complications make that impossible. He had his students do each of the steps in a strict subject-active verb-object outline that was just 15 words.

There are also a ton of podcasts and writing blogs out there that break down stories all kinds of ways. One that was particularly good was Storywonk. They are defunct now, but the podcasts are still up there. If you happen to like one of the shows they dissect (Buffy, Marvel properties, etc.) they take individual episodes/movies and walk through the story structure. It may be too much detail, but it's fun to listen to if you're interested in that kind of thing.
posted by 1369ic at 8:13 AM on August 20, 2017

"Never tell a long slow story to tired or hungry people."

... or to people in a hurry.
posted by bz at 7:46 PM on August 20, 2017

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