You know when someone’s telling a story and they just go on and on and on and you’re trying to show interest, but in you’re mind you’re saying “Err, what’s your point to the panel, caller?” Spurting a stream of consciousness does not constitute storytelling – because it doesn’t consider and engage with the audience who has to hear it. This kind of drivel is annoying in a personal context and downright unacceptable in business presentations.
Storytelling is as much an art as it is a science, and because of this, there are some great creative techniques that can bring any old story to life. The below excerpt, from author and artist Debbie Millman’s commencement speech at San Jose State University in 2013, is a great example of storytelling techniques best practices in use.
“For most of my adult life, I traveled a safe path. I remember in vivid detail the moment I began my journey: August 1983, the hot muggy summer of David Bowie’s Modern Love and Synchronicity by The Police. A few months after I graduated college, I stood on the corner of Seventh Avenue and Bleeker Street in New York City, wearing pastel blue trousers, a hot pink t-shirt and bright white Capezio oxfords. I lingered at the intersection, peering deep into my future, and contemplated the choice between the secure and the uncertain, between the creative and the logical, between the known and the unknown.”
We’ve used Millman’s excerpt to break down 5 fundamental techniques of good storytelling for you.
When thinking about telling a story to connect with your audience, you need to think about the context of your audience and the outcome you’re trying to achieve. What kind of state is your audience going to be in? Are they resistant to or anxious about your message? Do they feel excited about it? How would you like them to feel when they leave the room? Thinking about your audience’s context will help you pick a story that will connect with them emotionally. It will enable you to capture their attention in the first few seconds. Millman understands that graduating students will suddenly be faced with making some of life’s biggest choices, and will be wondering how to make that decision. She shares her experience of being in the same boat. You can see why this connects.
And what do you want to be the outcome? Do you want the audience to open their minds, to change a behaviour or to think about a problem in another way? Use the context of your audience and the outcome that you’re looking for to decide the kind of story you’ll need and the key action you’ll need the audience to take away. Perhaps in Millman’s example, she is letting the audience know they are not alone – and that it is normal to feel uncertain about their next steps. What do you want your audience to do or feel?
Create the experience
When setting the scene at the beginning of your story, think about how you will put people in the time and place of the setting. Millman uses time-specific fashions and music to denote the time, and uses weather and street names to denote the specific place. The weather gives us a feel for the atmosphere as well – you could almost be there on the street corner with her.
We’ve all endured an over-told story. That droning, detail-filled, disaster where you hear everything BUT the point. Humans are storytellers by nature, but it is important to keep in mind that story time can quickly become very boring. Be sure to keep it brief – deploying only the detail that is pertinent. What to include and not to include is an entire e-book in itself, but a general rule of thumb is to only include whatever drives the narrative forward. A cool trick to try is to reveal character within an action. The extract from Millman’s commencement speech above shows her ‘peeping deep into my future’. She’s created a brief action that describes a lot about her state of being while continuing to propel the narrative forward. For absolute beginners: cut and keep cutting until you have bare bones only. That’s your story
Compelling stories always contain some kind of conflict or challenge. These can be people against people, against circumstance or against nature. It is through conflict, errors and challenges that you learn, so be sure to include some kind of conflict that your audience can appreciate. Millman very effectively describes the conflict between wanting to fulfill her own hopes and dreams and the pressure to live up to external expectations. It is brief, but effective because you are compelled to discover how she resolves it.
The Colin James Method® Facilitators train corporate executives to improve their professional communication skills with a proven methodology. Our highly trained Facilitators and Coaches are recognised for their experience in their fields and have worked with many individuals and organisations around the world to master the art of communication.
Erica Bagshaw is an entrepreneur, Executive Coach and Co-Founder of The Colin James Method® and Inner Profit Pty Ltd a vibrant leadership development company in Australia. She has spent the majority of her career growing and developing close client partnerships. She loves sharing her expertise on the perfect pitch.