Who wrote the book on storytelling? It could be you …

Study Your Own Stories

Ask me how to be a better storyteller.

  • What’s the one thing I need to focus on to tell a better story?
  • Where should my story start?
  • Why are my stories so boring?

In Story Mode, we field questions like these all the time—especially from people who want to deliver better presentations at work.

Naturally, I have ideas and opinions in response to all those questions.* But before I leap to share my wisdom, I like to turn the question back on the asker. Not just to channel my inner therapist, but because I know I’m not the only expert in the room.

Each and every one of us is a storyteller.

Are you a human who communicates with other humans? If so, you speak the language of storytelling—and you understand it, too.

Every day, you participate in stories from both sides. Sometimes you are the creator, trying to get your own points across. Even more often you are the consumer, subject to a barrage of communication that ranges from awful to awesome.

All this experience adds up to a wealth of storytelling intelligence. The textbook is in you. To put that knowledge to work, you just need to study and apply it.

You’ve encountered a host of positive and negative role models.

Think about it. You’ve seen enough TED Talks and stand-up comedians to know what good looks like. You’ve also suffered through enough boring lectures and quarterly town halls to know what bad feels like.

Your memory just went to work, didn’t it? You’re recalling that speaker who took the stage and held your attention the whole freaking time. You’re thinking back on those mind-numbing team meetings when your boss rambled on and on about … what was it? You can’t remember.

Hold those thoughts. Each one is a story that will teach you to be a better storyteller. To find those valuable lessons, you need details.

Mine your memories for specifics.

Take a few moments to answer the prompts in the following two-step exercise. Pause long enough to make mental notes, at least. Better yet, jot your short answers on a scrap of paper or digital note. I’m awarding invisible #PointlessPoints for this extra effort. The points don’t matter, but the lessons you learn from this simple exercise can have immediate, positive impact on your communication skills.

Step 1: Recall the Awesome

  • Recall a moment or event when you witnessed a truly excellent presentation.
  • Who was the speaker? Why were they speaking? Why were you there?
  • Do you remember any key point(s) from the message? If so, what stuck with you?
  • Describe the way that person spoke, moved, or interacted with you.
  • What would you like to emulate?

For me, this is a keynote speaker who addressed a sales conference I attended close to 20 years ago. I don’t remember her name, but I do remember her Aussie accent. Even more, I remember her message: your attitude affects your results. Why do I remember? Because she showed the difference between positive and negative attitudes. She put on Eeyore ears and acted like a pessimist, then switched to Tigger ears and behaved like an optimist. Throughout her presentation, she used her words, her face, her energy, her props—her whole self—to express her point of view. To this day and because of her, I strive to be a Tigger.

What’s more, as a presenter, I look for ways to use my physical presence (maybe even props) to reinforce my message.

Step 2: Recall the Awful

  • Recall a moment or event when you witnessed a truly dreadful presentation.
  • Who was the speaker? Why were they speaking? Why were you there?
  • Do you remember any key point(s) from the message? If so, what stuck with you?
  • Describe the way that person moved, talked, or interacted with you.
  • What do you hope you neveremulate?

This takes me back to a college class in finite mathematics. The professor was a small, sixty-something man who lectured from the stage of a massive auditorium. Week after week, he stood stock still behind the podium. If he used visuals, they were blurry worksheets on an overhead projector. I don’t remember him ever making eye contact with me or any of the other 200 students dozing in the seats. He didn’t allow time for questions; for clarification, we had to seek out a teaching assistant during office hours. I passed the class but retained absolutely none of what I “learned.”

However, I absorbed several useful lessons from this man’s teaching. As a presenter, I steer clear of every podium; I deliberately make eye contact with people in the room; and I always engage the audience in conversation.

From this quick review of just two of your storytelling stories, you’ve generated a short list of dos and don’ts. (Bonus: you’ve studied two of my stories, too.)

Now, put your storytelling discoveries into practice.

Literally, practice. When preparing for your next presentation, face yourself in the mirror and rehearse your message. Force yourself to incorporate at least one of the admirable habits you noted in this memory-mining exercise; and by all means, avoid all the deplorable ones.

Better yet, hand your list of positive and negative habits over to someone else: a colleague, friend, or family member you trust to give you honest feedback. Rehearse for them.

Studying storytelling stories will make you a better storyteller.

In the few minutes you’ve spent reading this post, you’ve recalled just two moments from your history as a consumer of stories. Imagine how many more you could explore! Dig deep in your memory bank of experiences. Think back on the stories and storytellers you’ve encountered. Catalog the details that made each one awesome or awful.

You’ll find that you already know what to do and what not to do. The key is knowing what you know—and putting it to use.

* You didn’t think I’d leave you hanging on those three questions, did you? Of course not!

What’s the one thing I need to focus on to tell a better story? Details! Replace vague words with concrete ones and general concepts with specifics. Paint a vivid picture so we will see, feel, and do exactly what you intend.

Where should my story start? Probably not at the beginning. Background can be tedious, and often downright unnecessary. Try dropping us into the middle of the action.

Why are my stories so boring? Probably because you are bored. Your best stories are the ones that matter to you and your audience. #RefuseToBeBoring. Choose a subject that lights you up. Your passion will spark our interest.

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