I was recently asked to write 10 top tips for effective storytelling for the June 2014 issue of British Airways in-flight magazine Business Life. Deciding what to include was tricky but a very useful discipline. Is it possible to say anything useful about storytelling in such a condensed format? See what you think
1. Use stories selectively. Stories activate the listener’s imagination and emotions by conveying a real or imagined human experience. That is their particular strength and their limitation. Use stories for what they’re good at and make sure you don’t overload them with data, anlaysis, opinions, argument etc.
2. Listen before you speak. Know your audience and what they care about. You can be very challenging if that is what’s called for but people are much more likely to pay attention to what you have to say if you begin by acknowledging the realities of their situation. Good storytelling demands more than proclaiming your message; it’s a two-way process.
3. Aim carefully. Think about the point you want to make and what effect you want your story to have and choose a story that illustrates your point in action. An audience works out the point of a well-told story for themselves because it gives them a vicarious experience for their imaginations, and emotions to work with.
4. Make it personal. The story does not have to be about you. In fact, it’s often more persuasive if you make someone else the hero or heroine. But you do need to find a personal connection with the story which might reveal your part in it or be as simple as letting the audience know how you are touched, inspired, or affected by the events you have recounted.
5. Make it real. Stories are always about particular characters doing something specific at a certain time in a particular place. All stories are essentially about how characters meet the obstacles that thwart their desires. Make your story come alive with concrete descriptions, three-dimensional characters, dramatic moments, humour and passion.
6. Learn the story not the words. Avoid the common mistake of novice storytellers who kill their stories by carefully writing them out and reciting them from memory. Instead, make sure you know how the story works: the sequence of events and key turning points and trust your innate ability to find the words. Practice telling it aloud and get feedback from a colleague.
7. Connect with the audience. When you tell your story to an audience, make eye-contact; use your gaze both to see and be seen. Your relationship with the audience moment by moment is your best support, even if you are feeling nervous. The power of your story comes as much from your mutual connection with the audience as it does from the words.
8. Use simple language. The ear favours informal, straight-forward language. If the audience has to spend its energy untangling complex sub-clauses and trying to make sense of unfamilar jargon they won’t be paying attention to the story itself and they won’t get the point. Tell the story in your own words and avoid clichés like the plague (no really).
9. Let the story do the work. Do listeners the courtesy of allowing them to make sense of your story for themselves. Resist the temptation to tell them the moral of your story or what it means, it’s self-defeating. Tell your story with conviction and it will stand for itself.
10. Remember we are all storytellers. Stories are how we make sense of our lives and always have been. There have been civilisations that have flourished without benefit of the wheel, but none has ever been devoid of stories or storytellers. If you can tell a good story, you’ll always have a willing audience.
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