Storytelling isn’t easy. In fact, it’s one of the hardest social skills for anyone to master. As I’ve mentioned in other posts and my books, sticking to stories 20 seconds or less is ideal for beginners. But no matter how good your story is, there are three story killers to watch out for:
1. Environment: Wrong time, wrong audience, wrong place
2. Details: Too much or too little information
3. Non-Verbal Skills: Not enough energy, enthusiasm, or animation
1. Environment: Don’t Let Your Story Go to the Crows
Everyone has experienced that moment when you started sharing a story with a group, and within five seconds, someone else cuts in, talking about something else. Am I right? What about when someone simply starts talking over you? I can’t stand it when that happens! I have a naturally quiet voice so this was a regular occurrence for me.
The Story Environment, which includes Audience, Mood, and Context, are very important in ensuring your story flourishes. Do you have a family member who loves to steal the spotlight? Do you have a few very opinionated friends? Are you at a loud bar full of distractions?
For discussion’s sake, let’s break the groups you’ll encounter into two types: The Greenhouse group and The Flock of Crows.
The first group, The Greenhouse, consists of a few people or just you and someone else. There are some long moments of silence and there few distractions. It’s generally quiet. This environment is perfectly suited for any type of story to grow and flourish. Everyone has time to listen to any length story and will give their full attention. The conversation moves at a slower pace. An office with cubicles or drinking at a friend’s house is a very rich environment for stories to grow.
The second group, The Flock of Crows, is often quite a bit larger, is prone to fast-moving conversation, and consists of skilled conversationalists or storytellers, who all demand attention. You might say there is frequent “squawking.” There is nothing inherently negative about this group. In fact, they can be very lively and fun to chat with. However, they can be very dangerous for the novice storyteller. Only the hardiest of plants can withstand the appetite of the crow. Your stories can be eaten alive by the crows if you aren’t able to deliver them in a timely, efficient and interesting fashion. Stories told with the Flock of Crows group have to be quick, action-packed, and succinct to stand a chance.
2. Details: Does Your Story Have A TMI Or TLI Problem?
Unfortunately there is no magic formula for knowing exactly how much information is enough. Your audience and the environment are the two primary gauges for determining how much information you should include. Talking at a Greenhouse? Go ahead and throw in some more details. Talking to a Flock of Crows? Only add a few key details – skim over the rest.
I’m sure you’ve heard or told a story like the following:
“I did that too. I was probably like 11-years-old; no, actually I think I was about 12-years-old. I was around 11 or 12, I think. Jane, can you remember how old I was? Anyway, what I was saying was….”
You can lose someone very quickly by obsessing over trivial details. Whether the storyteller was 11 or 12 doesn’t matter at all. The entire issue is resolved with a statement such as “I was around 11.” Conversational stories don’t sound like stories you read in a book. Many exceptional storytellers take short cuts, abbreviating their statements, so they can skip to the interesting parts. A normal story may proceed like this:
“And Jake falls down – blood’s oozing from his nose. He’s screaming uncontrollably and I’m horrified – ‘what am I going to do?’”
Many professional speakers swear by one maxim more than all others: Know your audience. Stories – and entertaining in general – are not about you as much as your audience. Adapt to your audience. What parts do you think they wish to hear?
If you’re speaking with an engineer about your broken car, they may want to hear about the type of wrench you used or the specific problem with your car’s engine. If you aren’t speaking with an engineer or car enthusiast, you may decide to sacrifice extraneous details for more entertaining options. Consider the example story below, told to two different audiences:
Talking to Engineer / Car Enthusiast: “My ’04 Pontiac wouldn’t start, so I took it to the mechanic and they told me that the cam shaft crank 8.2 valve cylinder was broken and that I should it try to at least sell the transmission and wheels for a few hundred bucks. He said it would cost me $2,437.00 to replace the entire engine, can you believe that?”
Talking to Everyone Else: “My useless car wouldn’t start again. So I took it to the mechanic, and they basically said that I should just sell the piece of junk for parts. Can you believe that?”
Both stories are good stories if told to the right people. Of course, you can always start with the latter version and add on if the listener inquires further.
3. Non-Verbal Skills:
This post doesn’t have enough space left to cover non-verbal skills. Just remember, good stories require the speaker to be enthusiastic, energetic, articulate, and animated to some degree.