Storytelling is as old as humankind.
The first story was likely about where to find food—maybe even a long tale about fending off a saber-toothed tiger.
Today, the stories we hear most often are personal ones that depict true life experiences—other types include yarns, fables, children’s stories, or other people’s accounts told in third person and obtained through public domain or permission. All manner of stories await our telling.
I come from a family of preachers of Scots–Irish descent, so storytelling is in my blood. My maternal grandfather was a skillful teller of tales—true and exaggerated—and he told them with great delight to anyone who’d grant him an ear.
He even wrote a story about a violin that’s been in our family since 1846, from the violin’s point of view, which he sometimes recited to us.
I have that violin and the handwritten story beautifully rendered in calligraphy; framed and hanging on my wall. It’s a reminder of my roots, as well as my self-imposed obligation to keep up the family tradition of storytelling.
How do we know if our story is worth telling?
Everyone has a story to tell, but it can be hard to get started.
Try jotting down some memorable events or experiences that happened to you. Stories can include the following:
>> A lesson we learned—whether small or large—such as “how my dog taught me never to judge a person.”
>> Personal growth or an experience that had a significant impact on our life, such as “I had low self-confidence until I learned to speak a second language.”
>> Interesting or unusual encounters with things or other people, such as “I lived next door to a spy.”
>> Out of the ordinary experiences or memories, such as “I raised five younger siblings after my parents died.”
Stories make up our lives and can arise from the minutia, as well as from the significant.
The most important criteria is that they must engage an audience in some way by being entertaining, poignant, or enlightening.
The event, encounter, or experience itself doesn’t have to be hugely significant. I heard lots of stories where the central focus itself wasn’t particularly out of the ordinary, but the tellers were so good at crafting a story around it that their telling made it compelling. And if you can make people laugh, your audience will disregard that the story itself isn’t all that major.
One well-known teller had a fantastic story about a play he did in high school. His telling of how he and his fellow students managed to pull it off on opening night was hilarious (despite the fact that they didn’t rehearse much and were nowhere near ready to perform). It was all in his style and delivery, not to mention pointing out the obvious in a funny way.
Now that we have a story, how do we craft it?
Like any good story, an oral story usually involves stakes: meaning you—the teller—has something to lose if you don’t achieve a goal, fulfill a promise, or risk failing at something.
Think how a murder mystery is more compelling when the investigator is on the verge of losing her job if she doesn’t solve the crime. Your experience doesn’t have to be dramatic, but “higher stakes” stories are usually more captivating. And no matter what, the most enthralling stories are the ones about overcoming an obstacle.
Remember, you can always make a seemingly low-stakes story higher by telling the audience why winning that Bake-Off contest was so important. For instance: “I wanted to win it for my grandmother who was cheated out of first place 20 years ago.”
Here are some additional elements that make a good story:
>> Pushing the boundaries of your comfort zone—such as navigating an unexpected, scary, and impossible situation, or encounters with those who taught you an important lesson or who were great mentors in your life.
>> Your story doesn’t have to be funny, but adding a few lines of humor—especially the self-effacing kind—can really please the audience. However, avoid cheap laughs or elements that make fun of other people, cultures, religions, and so on.
>> Your opening line should intrigue or capture the audience’s attention. One of my most popular stories starts with: “I once lived with a group of spiritual seekers, and at one particularly low point for me, I was determined to poison them all.” A line like that hooks the audience so they want to know how I got to that low point and if I really succeeded at poisoning my friends.
>> Your story’s ending is just as important, if not more so, than its beginning. Make your last line the strongest one. That is what the audience will remember. Whether funny or poignant, it should be memorable and leave the audience feeling touched in some way—making them laugh, tear up, think about your message, or reflect on their own experience.
Good oral storytelling is an art that takes a lot of practice and courage.
When I overcame my fear of telling stories in front of a live audience, I realized how much I love being on the stage and entertaining others.
It might take you some time to find your voice, but once you do, own it and hone it.
Remember, storytelling is not stand-up comedy—stories should have a beginning, a middle, and an ending.
Stay away from complaints and criticism because an upbeat message is always more inspiring and people will want to listen.
Above all, remember that to be a successful storyteller, you must take the audience on your journey with you.
And they want you to succeed—whatever that looks like for you.