Guidelines for Effective Storytelling

I enjoy the story of the new prisoner spending his first night in jail. The evening meal was a somber affair until one prisoner arose and called out "Thirty-seven." The dining room erupted in hysterical laughter. Another rose and won instant hilarity by saying "One hundred and fourteen."

"What's going on?" the new prisoner asked his cellmate.

"Well," he replied, "the prison library has only one book ofjokes and, as everyone has memorized them, all we have to do is call out the page number of the joke."

Keen to win favor with his compulsory companions, the new prisoner borrowed the book and started to memorize the jokes. Within a couple ofweeks he felt confident to join in. At the end of a somber meal he rose and called out "Ninety-seven."

The silence was palpable.

"What's wrong?" the new prisoner whispered to his cellmate.

"Well," came the reply, "you picked a good joke, but it was the way you told it."

Delivering your story—the art of effective storytelling—is analogous to learning any new skill, such as driving a car. You begin by driving up and down a driveway before tackling rush-hour traffic on a wild, wet, winter's night. At first you need to concentrate, deliberately, on how to slowly release the brake with one foot, while depressing the accelerator at just the right speed with the other. At the same time you need to keep your eyes on the road, shift gears with one hand, switch on the blinkers with the other—and also keep your hands on the wheel. At first the complexity of the task may seem daunting, but as you acquire the behaviors they become second nature and you drive through heavy traffic without consciously having to think about when you depress pedals or put on blinkers. You may have heard people say, "Oh, he or she is a good storyteller," as though that ability is something that is innate and unattainable by most others. I find it more helpful to think that storytelling, like driving and many other skills in life, is learned or acquired. If some can do it, it is possible for others.

There are three prime variables in effective storytelling. The first is the teller, the second is the listener or listeners, and the third is the process of communication that goes on between the two. In this chapter we will be examining and seeking to develop the skills of the first (i.e., the storyteller). I have provided some guidelines and tools that will help you develop or refine your skills of communication in this area. Ifyou take the time to listen to a masterful storyteller, these are the skills you are likely to observe him or her using. What that storyteller has done to develop mastery is what any actor, athlete, or other competent professional has done. He or she has studied role models, worked at building the appropriate skills, and then practiced, practiced, and practiced. Maybe he or she started right where you are at this moment. Good practitioners of any art are worth observing, for in them we can see the things they do to make their art so effective.

Listen to and observe your friends or colleagues as well. Who relates an experience—say, of a recently seen movie—in a way that has you yawning in the first thirty seconds, and who does it in a manner that has you rushing out to purchase a ticket to the next session? What are the differences in their styles? Who do you rate as a good storyteller of either a joke or a day-to-day event? How do they capture your attention in the first place? What do they do that holds your attention? What use do they make of their voice and how do they deliver the punch line? From your observations, what behaviors can you model and what should you avoid? Observing and experimenting with these things may contribute to your own skills in the art of storytelling.

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