How to Tell an Engaging Story
Summertime. What childhood memories does that word conjure up for you? Ice cream? Splashing in a pool? Camping?
I remember Grandma and Granddad’s summertime visits. Every year they flew over from England. We would save up our favorite summer activities—drives through the Columbia Gorge, walks in the Portland Rose Test Garden, backyard campfires, the Clark County Fair, a week at Seaside—to share with Grandma and Granddad and show off the great Pacific Northwest.
The BEST thing about those visits, though, was bedtime. Grandma sang songs and told stories late into the night. She wasn’t really good at getting us to sleep. But she was GREAT at telling stories. My brother and sister and I would listen with rapt attention, eyes wide open, not a bit sleepy, as she spun tales.
I’ve considered writing down Grandma’s stories, but there were so few words! She rarely completed a sentence. With a few phrases, miming, and brilliant facial expressions, she managed to draw you right in. You never doubted what happened—you could see it! You knew exactly how everyone felt because it was painted on Grandma’s face. You felt like you were really there, not just listening to someone tell a story.
Storytelling adds life to dry information. Want to make a memorable point? Tell a story. Want to excite and inspire? Tell a story. Want to sell a product, attract new clients, or start a movement? Tell a story. According to Seth Godin, “All Marketers Tell Stories.” Says Joanna Barsh in Centered Leadership, “If we want to lead, stories are one of the most powerful tools to mobilize others to follow” (p. 178). Stories activate your entire brain: the cause-and-effect left hemisphere, the big picture right hemisphere, the instincts of the limbic system, and the emotions of the prefrontal cortex. Stories make information relatable and lead people to draw their own conclusions.
But so often when we try to tell stories, we bore people to tears! Why?
1. Too many words.
Information is not communication. Throwing words at people can confuse and overwhelm your listeners, not to mention bore them. Don’t fall into the trap of turning stories into police reports—nothing more than an orderly presentation of raw data. Details are great when they paint a picture that draws people INTO the story, but random information detracts. Be concise.
2. Too little expression.
I am a huge fan of children’s literature and loved reading to my own children at bedtime (hmmm… I wonder where that came from?). I am always surprised, however, when I hear how most adults read children’s books: like reports. They simply say the words that are on the page. You’ll never get a kid excited about reading doing it that way! And you’ll never get board members or voters or clients or employees excited about anything by speaking that way, either. Tell your story with expression: get loud, get quiet, pause for dramatic effect, smile, frown, hold your breath to create suspense. In other words, go nonverbal. Don’t just tell the story, BE the story.
John Medina, author of Brain Rules, says we are hardwired to ignore boring things. The more you can fully arouse the brain, the more likely people will pay attention, learn, and remember. Here are three things the brain wants and needs:
- Emotion. Grandma’s stories made me giggle, shocked and surprised me, or kept me in suspense. Arouse emotion to arouse the brain.
- Relevance. You’ve all heard presenters who just love the sound of their own voice. Your story has to have a point. The story isn’t about you, it’s about helping others understand your message. Keep it short, simple, and relevant.
- Connections. When my daughter was younger, new words and concepts showed up in her play. She’d create a story that her dollies and ponies acted out in order to process the new information. We ALL do this, though perhaps not with My Little Ponies. Your listeners will remember more if you give them a break from data and tell a story to illustrate your point.
It’s been decades since I sat on the edge of my bed listening to Grandma tell a bedtime story, but I still remember like it was yesterday. What do you want people to learn? to remember? to buy into? To make an impact, learn how to create and deliver a great story.