15 Ready-Made Storytelling Techniques for Leaders
Sometimes, our best lessons come at the least expected times.
The other day, I was taking with a friend who is a mom as well as a prominent psychologist. We were at a beach birthday party for a couple of friends, a perfect day in Bolinas. She came up to me emphatically and said, “Jay! I’ve been working on my story skills!” It turns out her son, Noah, was pushing her to tell about 30 stories a day. At first, she said, she was exhausted, but she found the stories began to teach her things. For example, she said, “I started using sensory details, and stretching them out, and planning out the next steps of the story. Creeeeeeeeeek!” She said, as she reached up and faux-opened a door.
Now, I know, your messages are often more sophisticated. But the techniques, interestingly, are very similar. Here are a few of them:
1. Scan your life. What stories do you tell already? What key insights have you made that aren’t yet connected to a story? As you consider this, look around in your own life for stories. Consider the ones you already tell. What’s working in these stories? Do they drop deep into the suspense and the surprise, and land a key insight? Do they tell it all at the beginning, leaving the end flat – or just wander on with no certain point? What does the story carry that compels you to tell it?
2. Know the change. A story is like a little module of change in the world, and revealed best when linked to one or two key moments in time. To help enliven this idea as you’re considering a story, ask yourself, “What changed?” If you’re in doubt, ask yourself again! And consider how you may accentuate that change. Oftentimes the best way to do this is to go back to the beginning of your story, and consider how the world was before. What was happening? What did you (or the main character) believe? How did that change?
3. Own your message. Think about this: What’s the one thing you want your audience to remember? Tell your story to deliver that one message. I know, you’ve got 10 things you want them to remember. But choose one, and you’ll have a greater likelihood that it will be the thing that endures when your audiences are bombarded with 4,000 ads, posts, tweets and emails each day. If your story survives until the next day, you’ve done your job.
4. Immerse yourself in the experience. Go back into the experience and freeze it. Treat your story like a wax museum, and bring your curiosity to see what else is there. Can you smell the green grass on the field? Can you feel the soft rain on the corrugated metal roof, when there’s a knock at the door? Was the take-away what you once thought? You may even find that there are other lessons waiting for you.
5. Details, details! Use those details. The sensory details help us anchor in time and space, making the story into a movie inside the head of your listeners. Two details are often good for each scene in your story. If you say, “I knew a man,” they might draw a blank. But if you say, “I knew a man that always wore a brown hat and whistled all the time,” they’ll have something to connect to – and the story will come alive.
5. Surprise! Build it, build it, and then…the twist! This is the twist, the place where things turn. It’s the core center of your change, which is the core center of your story. The more surprise you can use – I don’t mean like a birthday party surprise, rather suspense that builds up the tension then turns – anything that gives us a feeling of the unexpected will do. That’s what makes heads turn.
6. Travel across time. Don’t get sunk in the details of time passing – to move around in time is part of your asset as a storyteller. You are free to begin in 1962, move to 1982, and then come to today. Or, have everything happen yesterday. But you don’t need to take 2 hours to form a story from an experience that took two hours to live out.
7. Get thyself a story buddy. Call on a friend to let them know you’re working on your story skills. Again, low bar! Then share some stories with them. If in person, you buy the mocha fancy latte.
8. Find the lesson. When, exactly, did you learn to always call ahead before visiting? What great lessons have you learned in your life, and are there stories to carry them? When looking for your stories, gravitate to what you learned. And when you tell the story, if you are sharing a lesson, you may end with “ever since then I always…” This anchors your lesson, helps you with your bridge, and reveals how the world was changed because of this experience.
9. Tell it first. Write some talking points for your story, and practice telling it – to yourself or to your story buddy – before writing it out long form. See the experience in your mind, like framed pictures of each scene, and commit those images to your memory, connected to the talking points. “Why not just write the story down?” you ask. If you write the whole story first, you may get hung up on the written words, the specific details and how you wrote them, rather than truly embodying the moment in a story. Don’t memorize the words. Memorize the experience.
10. Get your story goggles on. Look everywhere, are you beginning to see stories differently? Listen at dinner for stories. Watch movies and commercials. Check in after meetings. Were there any memorable, retellable stories told today? Were any told yesterday? Ask yourself why, and what they taught you.
11. Set a low bar for yourself as you begin. When I was in my 20’s I worked in a school in the French Alps. My best French teachers was a little freckled 5 year old boy named Pierre. Pierre didn’t judge my abilities – he was more curious than anything else. The bar was low for my success, and I learned new words from him every day. And it’s the same with stories…if you can workshop your storytelling ability, ensuring that you reveal some suspense, and some real change that occurred in your story, you’ll be well on your way. But you have to manage your expectations from the beginning.
12. Remember, it’s a journey. A story is a journey, from one state of being to another state, where the world changes. And, as the storyteller, you’re the guide, so be prepared to take your audience out of their seat and into their imagination. Anchor in the details, and zoom across time to another place. If you do that, they can’t help but go with you on this journey…and leave thoughts of emails and schedules behind.
13. Find 5 stories. See if you can develop five key stories that you hold in your pocket to tell to various audiences and to land various points. Begin with one, trying it out with your story buddy – or friends at dinner.
14. Practice. Remember, this is a storytelling practice, not a storytelling perfect. I wish I could say there’s a drug I could give you to make you a better storyteller! But it seems there are only drugs that make you a worse storyteller, sorry.
15. Set your sights on your end line. This is the last stop on your journey, your last stepping stone. When you’re telling a story in front of an audience, it’s a good idea to know where you’re going to go. This will help you navigate along the way with more flexibility and fun.
I hope at least one of these techniques improves your next story. Happy Journeys!