5 Tips For New Storytellers

by Johnn Four

Our brains and culture are hard-wired for storytelling. It helps us communicate easier, remember more and fit in better. However, as The Future of Storytelling course explains, great storytelling is a skill set. That’s good news for people like you and me, because it means we can get better at telling stories with just a little study and practice. 

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Think of all the ways we tell stories today. From books to movies to games. But this type of communication goes deeper than that. It’s personal. Telling stories about your day with friends over dinner, for example, is fun and makes you likeable. And one of the easiest ways to introduce yourself to people and make new friends is to tell a great story.  At work and school, you can use stories to get your point across better. Sometimes it’s hard getting a word in edgewise with an active group. But watch everyone quiet down, focus in and listen when you launch a good story. If you write or blog or even draw, good understanding of stories will add new depth to your work. Story adds a new layer of interpretation, or another signal, for your audience to delve into and reflect upon.

Today, good storytellers are rewarded in many ways for their skills. And the Future Of Storytelling provides an excellent study on the background mechanics you need to understand to become a good storyteller. The first week alone reveals all the Lego blocks of stories, arming you with the essential pieces you can assemble to craft your own telling tales.  But study only takes you so far. You need to get out there and tell some stories!  And again, if you’re like me, even with the storytelling class under your belt, it’s nerve-wracking. That moment when you capture everyone’s attention and you’re committed…. You hope the story isn’t lame. You hope you deliver it well. You hope they like it. It’s a scary moment as a newbie storyteller.

So today I have a few quick tips for you to make your first stories easier and more comfortable. I’ll let The Future of Storytelling course make you a master. I just want to help you get started using your fledgling skills.

1. Start With A Verbal Story To A Friend

You have so many mediums to choose from for telling your stories. You can write an email. Pen a short story. Type an epic post on Facebook. Open a Google Hangout. Create a slideshow. But the best way to dive into storytelling is with a friend, in person, face to face. This is a nice, fast and safe place to start, because your friend wants you to succeed.

You also get real-time feedback this way. Who knows how the email recipient reacts? Or how the YouTube audience feels? But with your friend, you can watch their face, read their body language, watch their reactions as your story unfolds. This gives you early and essential feedback on whether the story payoff was satisfying, if your pacing was good and if you had a good hold of your audience. You can also ask your friend for their honest opinion about what they thought of the story and your delivery. What better, faster way to improve than that?

2. Start With A Joke

Growing up I used to tell a lot of dumb jokes. I didn’t even understand most of the adult concepts layered into the anecdotes. I just liked the way they made people laugh. Well, you can use jokes as a fun way to practice storytelling, something my younger self seemed to intuit. And I’m not talking one-liners or Knock Knock jokes here. Google for jokes that take about 10 seconds to tell. Memorize them and then unleash them.

The building blocks of good stories are all there in a good joke. The hook, hold and especially, the payoff. You’ll learn great pacing from jokes. You’ll learn the proper story sequence too (try starting with the punchline and see how well the joke works). Because jokes are short and simple, they are great for budding storytellers. Build a repertoire of five or so great jokes and you will have a wonderful icebreaker or mood-changer in your back pocket for the rest of your life.

3. Tell The Same Story Several Times

Storytelling is a skill. You need to practice to get better. However, what might not be obvious is you need to practice the stories themselves, too, until they are great. A standup comic never launches a new act in front of a huge audience. They never try jokes for the first time on TV. Instead, they start in bars and clubs and stay at that level for a while. They perform their set over and over, getting real-time audience feedback, and making changes to their content and delivery until their act is perfect. Then they hit the big, televised events. You should do the same thing. Tell your story. Then think how it could be better next time and make tweaks. Tell it again. And again. In this way, you master each story and you build a library of stories to pluck from for any occasion over time.

Most important, with repetition you experience how a story can change and improve. Great stories are just partly about the content. Storytelling mastery comes also from your understanding and skills with all the building blocks that make up a story. As you re-tell a story, you can see these parts and how they work and interact. It’s a little bit like the movie The Matrix, when Neo can see through reality into the green streaming computer code of the simulation. You too can see to this depth in stories with practice on your path to becoming a great storyteller. And the feeling of telling a familiar, well-practiced, perfected story is amazing.

4. Make The Story About Yourself

Start with stories about yourself so you begin with familiar territory. This helps you concentrate on the other pieces of delivering the story because you won’t have to memorize or create something new. You’ve already experienced and internalized the content of the story. You now just need to work on the key parts of it, as outlined in the course. For example, think about something interesting that happened this week at work or school. Then recount the events of that situation in the order they happened. Then work on a good Hook, Hold and Payoff, and flesh out the characters a bit. Now you have the makings of a good story, but you won’t have to work hard to remember all the details as you tell it – you’ve already lived them.

5. Focus On The Payoff

Stories contain an amazing number of components. This overwhelms beginner storytellers. So, my solution is to focus first on the Payoff, or end of the story. The end of a story is what leaves the biggest and longest impression in your audience. You can fumble the beginning and middle of a story, its characters and conflicts, and all its other pieces. But if you nail the ending – the Payoff – you finish on a high note. And that emotion is what your audience will take away and remember you and your story by. Now, you will need to practice and eventually get all the components working well for your stories. But to cut through the confusion and trepidation of telling your first story, narrow your efforts down to giving your story a great ending. This approach will build your confidence faster, as well.

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Regardless of what kind of stories you tell and what medium you use, practice is the only thing that will make your stories great over time. Use these tips to try telling your first few stories so you become comfortable as a practicing storyteller. Grab a couple of great jokes, land the punchlines well, and think about events as they happen in your life that will make great grist for your next story.

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