John was struggling with how to handle a difficult situation with a key vendor for the company. He went to his supervisor, Stephanie, and asked her advice on what he should do. Rather than telling him what to do, or even giving her direct input, Stephanie replied, “John, let me tell you a story …” She went on to tell a story about an experience she had early in her career and the consequences of her decision over the years. When she was done, she paused and waited. After a few seconds of silence, John smiled and said: “Got it. Thanks.” He stood up and left the room, even though Stephanie hadn’t directly answered his question.
Throughout history and across cultures, stories have been used more than any other form of verbal expression to communicate foundational life lessons. If you read the Greek philosophers, the wisdom literature from Asia, and the literature across the centuries designed to teach guiding principles for life – the “authors” used stories grounded in daily life rather than just stating the principle (or making lists of them, as most business books and articles do today.)
Tips for Telling Stories
Some people are natural storytellers – they just “do it”. People listen to them, laugh, and enjoy hearing their stories. For the rest of us, we need to work at it a bit. Otherwise, our stories seem to fall flat with little impact on our listeners and sometimes there is just an awkward silence when we finish. So here are some tips for learning to tell effective stories.
Where to Get Your Stories. There are several sources for stories but the best one is your life. You’ve gone through some situations that were challenging, hair-raising, and funny. You were there so it is easy for you to remember. Some personal experiences and the stories that flow from that have to do with direct life experience. You were there, felt the feelings, know what the dangers were, and how you felt when you got through the situation. Other experiences are more indirect. You were there but it was someone else going through the situation and you watched what happened (think about your parents while you were growing up, situations with your children, trips with friends).
A second treasure trove of stories are those told by others. This can include stories told by friends and family, stories told by authors in books, or the situations created and demonstrated in movies and TV shows. (By the way, movies are the modern cultural equivalent of orally told stories in past cultures.) YouTube videos also provide good visual short stories. Note that trying to retell a story you’ve heard told by a friend can be difficult to tell effectively to others (especially if you only heard it once).
Practical Suggestions. When telling a story, start by giving the context and setting (the “set up”) for what happens in the story is critical. Some people start into a story without giving the listeners any clues either that they are telling a story or what the overall context is. Next, share the main character’s perspective on what is going on – how did they see the situation? What were they feeling? This heightens the interest and energy level. Then, make sure you get the sequence right. Not much “kills” a story more quickly than the storyteller having to go back and correct themselves (‘No, that’s not right.”) about what happened and when. Clearly describing the challenge or dilemma (along with the person’s feeling response) is the next critical step. Make sure your listeners know what the problem is that the character is facing, and their emotional response to the situation. Tell what decision was made or the action chosen and then describe the result and its on impact you and the others in the situation. Sometimes listeners “miss” an important part of the story or the context and need to be told exactly what happened and why it was important. If needed, tell the lesson you learned. In many stories, this is obvious, but sometimes the lesson you learned is important to delineate.
We all have interesting stories to tell. Sometimes we just need to stop and reflect, and then think about the best way to share the story in a way that will connect emotionally with others.
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