Telling stories for entertainment goes back into the farthest back history of mankind. People have always told stories – to share history, to motivate others to act, and just to get a laugh. What makes a storyteller memorable is their ability to pull their audience’s emotion into the story and make it personal.
How do you make a story personal? How do you grab your listeners’ emotions and hold onto them?
There you have the biggest question of public speaking.
Your Own Style
Have you ever told a story that made someone laugh? How did that make you feel?
Most of us like to make other people smile and laugh. That positive reinforcement builds a strong relationship between people. When we share our emotions or when we create an emotional response in others, we see them change. In the most basic way, communication seeks this change.
If every one of us told the story of the same story, it would still be very different because we all have our unique style. It’s hard to say what your style is until you spend some time developing it. Our perspective of the world, our emotions, and experiences color how we tell a story.
A very famous Japanese movie, Rashomon, explores this idea. A man is found murdered and three witnesses testify to the series of events. Two of them tell the story in such a way that makes them look good. The third still doesn’t tell the whole truth until the very end. (It’s a pretty intense story!)
Go All In
Before we go for the oversell and make every story overly dramatic, let’s examine what you want to do with a story.
1. What is the purpose of your story?
- To entertain
- To impress
- To persuade
2. Who is your audience?
These two factors must be kept in mind as you prepare a story to be told.
If you’re going to tell a story, you want to give your audience as much as they can take – and maybe a bit more. You want to engage their emotions. How do you do that?
- Determine the path of your story
- Find the heart of your story
- Give the listener sensations.
Let’s break this down into the component parts.
Determine the Path of Your Story
There’s an order to your story. You’re not limited to telling it in chronological order – the time sequence. Sometimes you can create a better story by telling it in a different way.
One of the best parts of telling a story is watching your audience wonder what’s going to happen. When you create curiosity in them, you build up the power of your impact on your audience. Even little kids know this. “Mom! Do you know what just happened?” they will ask.
I’m going to tell you a couple of stories about my father and me.
The first one is about my dad’s final item on his bucket list – and how I managed to fulfill that for him. The second is about how my dad nearly made me quit weightlifting.
Which one do you want to hear first?
With that introduction, one of them may be more interesting to you than the other. I’ll bet it’s the one about weightlifting because
- It’s more unexpected – after all, I’m pretty old and don’t look like a weightlifter.
- The other gives so many details that you already know the ending.
So when you decide to tell a story, you need to figure out how you’re going to tell the story to create curiosity in the listener and help them find it interesting.
The next thing to consider: what order will you tell the story? Do you include the information that’s important to the story at the beginning or when it becomes important in the story? Neither is the “right” way. I think that being able to know which method to pick shows how good a storyteller you are.
Suspense is one emotion that most people enjoy to some degree. Horror movies thrive on that emotion. When you’re telling a story -whether it’s about zombies or about the World Series – you create a desire in the listener to hear the whole story.
How do you build suspense?
Writer’s Digest suggests 9 ways which create that emotion in your audience. I think the three best are:
Create a dilemma. How does your major actor in your story deal with a problem? Problems don’t need to be complicated: should I do this or shouldn’t I? The person facing this decision will make it based on their character. When the dilemma is more personal, it makes a better story.
Complications. When things get out of control, your job as a storyteller is to keep the details straight even when the story goes sideways. It’s important to finish the story with all the story’s important elements tied up. If you don’t put all the pieces of the story together well, your audience will be confused.
Don’t unnecessarily add details that don’t matter. Shaggy Dog Stories are long, complex stories with weird endings that make the listener wonder why they bothered.
Be Unpredictable. If your listener knows the end of your story, then why should they listen? A story about how a common event that goes wrong is interesting. A story about an uncommon event and how it’s resolved is less interesting – that’s predictable.
When putting your story together, think about the plotline that you learn in literature:
The plot line starts with statements about the background of the story to give the listeners the context. On this graphic, it’s called exposition. Then the rising action tells us what creates the climax, or the high point or the biggest action of the story. The falling action covers the impact of the climax, down to the denouement, which is the resolution of the story.
The plotline works. People have been using it since the time of the ancient Greeks and Moses. The audience recognizes each part and will go with the story as long as it interests them.
That’s why suspense is so powerful – it makes the listener want to hear the whole story.
Find the Heart of Your Story
The heart of your story is not the plot or even the big climax. The heart of your story is the emotion you want your audience to feel at every stage of the tale. This will not be the same emotion all the time.
The happy ending that everyone wants has to follow a hardship. You want the audience to feel something about the trial.
The Job of the Storyteller Is to Create Emotion in the Listener
The purpose of a speech is to persuade. The purpose of a story is to create an emotion in the listener. Speeches will often use stories to create emotion in order to connect with their audience. That’s one of the reasons we cover storytelling. Emotions build relationships between the speaker and the listener.
Think about the story of Joseph from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (taken from the Bible.) Joseph was a snotty, obnoxious boy who knew that his father loved him more than the other sons. Then the others sold him into slavery and told their father that Joseph had died. Joseph then spent the next decades of his life in service to others or in jail until the opportunity to rescue his family from dying in a famine came along.
Do we feel happy the whole way through the story? No. The audience needs to feel the dislike of the brothers for Joseph. We need to grieve with Jacob. We need to feel the chance for revenge that Joseph faces (that’s the suspense) and the joy of the father and son reunion.
How do we create the feelings in the audience we want them to experience?
You have to make the listener care about the main character in your story.
The characters must be believable, be imperfect and be able to accomplish their goals.
Believable. No one believes that a mermaid wants to become human. Disney made it work in the movie The Little Mermaid. But the original story written by Hans Christian Anderson was far less beautiful than the movie. The mermaid gave up her voice, yes – but she failed in her task and was told that unless she killed the prince, she would die.
None of that is very believable – until you read the story of her tremendous love for the prince. We relate to that kind of emotion and that makes the story and the mermaid believable.
Imperfect. A perfect person has no flaws and no reason to suffer or to improve. The mermaid in both versions wanted to be human. She saw herself as imperfect and was willing to give up everything to achieve “perfection” as she sees it. This leads directly to the next point:
Ability To Achieve. If the main character doesn’t have a chance to achieve their goal, then the story has to show what happened and why this wasn’t possible. This often leads to a very depressing ending. Now, there are some stories, like Joseph’s story, where the ability to achieve his destiny as his father’s favorite son and heir is completely lost – but the replacement is far better for Joseph and for his family.
Use their senses
If you can pull in images that will help the audience feel those sensations, it will pull them into your story. If you’re telling the story about a baseball game, you could
- mention the weather (hot, rainy, cold)
- talk about the smells (popcorn, hotdogs, sweaty guy in front of you)
- get specific about what you touch (your glove, the sticky seats, the press of the crowd)
- the sounds you hear (the shouts during the home run hit, the whistle of the ball as it approaches you in the bleachers)
All of these can be made emotional by the words you use and the images you present.
All In: All the Emotion
When you can get your audience to feel the emotion you want them to experience, you’ve succeeded with your story.
Using the right words helps. So does what you do with your body. We’ll talk about body language next week for storytelling.