I was recently in a fancy restaurant with some friends from high school. People I hadn’t seen in a long time.
We had just arrived a few minutes earlier and we had exchanged some pleasantries.
Small talk. Then suddenly, silence.
We all looked at each other somewhat uncomfortably. Who will break the silence?
A thought popped into my head. I have a crazy story for you guys.
“So guys, you know how I went on a holiday to Albania last week? Well, the border control officers asked for a bribe! That country is so corrupt.”
Lukewarm response. Does no-one care about my travel adventures? Do they even like me?
That was not the problem.
One way or another I had stumbled through my entire education, through high school and university without learning a critical life skill: telling stories.
Some people seem to be gifted. They make the most boring events sound fascinating. When they talk, you want them to talk faster because you want to know what’s going to happen next.
When they take a break, when there’s a silence, everyone’s like “aaaand?? what happened?”
Unfortunately I am not like that.
Here’s the recipe for a great story:
- Backstory: describing the situation
- Setup: character traits or circumstances that hint at the punch line to make the listener or reader curious. For example: “you know how I get when I’m hungry”, or “what was about to happen.. I would have never seen it coming, not in a million years…”, or “as you know, this guy is a complete tool… but somehow…”
- Development: The story goes in one direction…
- Punch Line: …and then takes a completely different turn
Good storytellers can go through this cycle multiple times within one story.
Good story tellers create expectation. They create tension. Then, BOOM, something unexpected happens. There’s always surprise in a good story. It’s -1 to 1.
Bad storytellers just sum up facts, or state what happened. Or they quote something which they didn’t quite remember correctly. Its always 0. There’s no surprising turn. They keep talking until someone’s had enough and takes over the conversation.
You don’t always need to tell stories. When you’re having dinner with your long-term girlfriend it’s perfectly fine to talk about what you had for lunch.
But some people go through life wondering why no-one ever listens to them. They ask themselves, am I just a boring person? What the hell is wrong with me? The answer: no. You’re (probably) not boring. You just never learned this essential skill.
Here are some tips to become a better storyteller:
- Take breaks in-between sentences. Some people believe that what they have to say is unimportant, so they try to say it as quickly as possible as to not waste anyone’s time. By doing this, they sound boring. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Take your time to tell a story slowly and confidently.
- Whenever you experience something interesting, think about how to put it in story form. A lot of people do this automatically. Some people just don’t. Nothing wrong with that. Don’t say “I got stung by a weever fish”. Say “I got stung by something in the water. At first, I thought, whatever, it can’t be that bad. I kept surfing but after a few minutes I realised something was seriously wrong. The pain spread from my legs and I felt like I was going to die. Turns out, it was a weever fish, one of the most venomous fish. Luckily the life guards knew exactly what to do!” (I’ve actually had this happen recently by the way)
- Have a few go-to stories in your head and reuse as often as possible (for different audiences obviously).
- Tell the story from an underdog perspective. Make people root for you. It’s you versus the world, and you’re taking your audience with you on a wild ride.
- It’s always about feelings. It’s not about winning the lottery. It’s about the crazy adrenalin rush that you felt when that happened.
- Build an internal database of illustrations and metaphors.
- Create curiosity.
- Add conflict.
People don’t care about features. They don’t care about the exact sequence of steps you took to fix the copier at work.
However, they do care about that time you went to a bar straight after hitting the gym. That time when you were stinking up the place with your dirty, sweaty clothes and still miraculously managed to score that hottie’s number.
-1 to 1.