There is a large difference between telling a story and telling a story. The difference may be even slighter than the minimal italics used in that sentence, but it contributes a great deal to the reception of a story and the efficacy of the teller.
A clear memory from middle school—around age 14—was a History teacher explaining to me that an essay couldn’t just be a regurgitation of facts; just as with a paper written for English class, there had to be a point to the writing. Even History textbooks themselves aren’t just lists of things that happened, but rather work to detail relevant material in an engaging way.
Whether we as social creatures are relaying a dream, describing our day, or explaining a third-quarter earnings report, there is a vast difference between going down the list of facts and data and using that information to create a compelling narrative. The former is generally dry, uninteresting, and uninspiring, while the latter helps lead the audience on a path of discovery.
I am a huge fan of the 1998 movie Ronin starring Robert De Niro and Jean Reno, and can talk endlessly about its themes, characterizations, and plot development. No matter my enthusiasm however, if I were to describe what happened in each scene—without the benefit of its role in the greater story—not only would I fail to convey what I found impactful, I would also likely unintentionally dissuade people from watching one of my favorite films.
Even as someone who calls himself a writer—and begrudgingly an author—I often find myself getting caught up in a fact-based rather than narrative approach to the stories I want to tell, and work to retool what I’m doing, whether leading a role-playing group, crafting some fiction, or presenting to business associates. It’s an easy trap, reciting what happened rather than presenting an overarching idea, and I want to help everyone be more cognizant of the way they present the stories we all tell.
The ability to communicate effectively is not an arcane and esoteric study, but does often rely on practice and introspection. Great public speakers are all story-tellers of a sort and all have worked to hone their craft. Become aware of your own storytelling habits and by keeping these tips in mind you will invariably become a more interesting, engaging, and effective communicator, whatever your medium of choice.
4 Key Tips to Stop Boring your Audiences
- Picture the story, start to finish, in your mind before speaking (or writing, as appropriate). This will help you establish for yourself a through-line that will help you avoid meandering digressions that don’t add to the whole
- Drop the unimportant stuff! Think back to tip #1 and for each idea or segment ask yourself “does this move the story forward?” Most audiences aren’t attached to the specific minutiae behind the scenes of each story, and by including everything you’ll lose their interest quickly. JRR Tolkien may have gotten away with it, but none of us are JRR Tolkien
- If you find yourself saying “and then…” more than once or twice, take a step back and reevaluate what you’re communicating. This is a great way to keep yourself from unintentionally running down a list rather than sharing a story
- Stop when you’ve made your point. It is common for new sales agents to keep talking after the client has said yes, and end up saying something that accidentally talks them out of the purchase. Know when you have accomplished your goal and recognize that you don’t need to go further to make your point
- (Bonus Tip!) Have a point. This may sound like a basic concept, but how often do you encounter others talking or trying to tell stories that don’t seem to go anywhere or have any relevance? Without a purpose to your narrative the very real question of “why am I even listening to this?” creeps up into the audience’s (sub)conscious
Header image from Pixabay.com, a wonderful source of royalty-free stock images