Are You a Storyteller?

Good stories don't have to be long.

by Rasmus Rasmussen on June 29, 2010

Storytelling is power. When you tell a good story the world stops, magic happens and those who listen are enthralled. We use stories to build brands, find potential mates, friends and partners. We use them to convey feelings, morals and values that might otherwise be difficult to address. Anything can be sold through storytelling, from religion to mini-ovens.

Telling stories makes you powerful, because they give you an opportunity to control others. Stories can change lives and telling them well makes you extraordinary in the mind of your audience. I’ve narrowed storytelling down to four points. If you practice these, you will become better at it. If you master them, the sky is the limit.

1. Know the Ending

If you’re telling a joke, you have to remember the punchline. Other stories are no different. You have to know where you want to end up – whether it’s “and they lived happily ever after” or “this is why my art is worth your money”. If you don’t have an ending, you’re just rambling. Whether your goal is to make the audience laugh, cry or sign the dotted line, you have to know ahead of time. Every element in your story should help you get closer to that ending.

2. Timing Keeps People Interested

Timing is the vehicle that gets you to the ending. It drives the story and keeps the audience interested. Just as you are ready to put the book down, a cliffhanger ending makes you think “okay, I’ll read one more chapter tonight”. Before you know it, it’s three in the morning. Just when you’re sure you know who the killer is, the movie throws a twist at you and keeps you guessing. When the offer on TV couldn’t get any better, they throw in two for the price of one.

Timing is knowing when to work in the boring details without losing your audience’s interest. Timing is knowing when to surprise, pause or even stroke your audience’s ego. Timing is a skill that anyone can learn.

3. Talk Directly To Your Audience

Who are you telling your story to? Who is actually listening? Are they the same?

Don’t try to tell a story that appeals to everyone. At best, you will end up with a mediocre result that is only tolerable, not remarkable. Tell the same story differently to different audiences, or seek out an audience that likes your particular voice or style. The memorable quotes and funny comments that appeal to a group of bankers will not necessarily work for the medical marijuana proponents.

My grandmother would never appreciate how the movie “Memento” is told backwards, whereas I love it for that very reason. The gruff, twisted style of Tom Waits makes him one of my favorite musicians, but I’ve met many people who can’t stand him because of those same qualities.

Realize that the story is only yours until you tell it. From that moment on, it belongs to those who were paying attention to it. Don’t let those people down.

No matter how trivial your story, you can make it interesting if you know how it ends, how to pace it right and who you are telling it to. Research is good. Practice is good. Being willing to risk making a fool of yourself is crucial.

4. Make a Fool of Yourself

You may make fun of Vince the ShamWow guy (I do), but his manic movements and silly headset work for him. He knows his audience likes it because they buy his product. Whether they like the product, they won’t even know until they get it. But they liked Vince enough to take that chance. Does he look like a fool to a bunch of people? Absolutely. Does he make money on it? Absolutely.

When a musician misses a chord change mid-song they don’t stop and start over. They suck it up and move along. Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham once said that when he made a mistake, he would immediately try to replicate it. That way it would sound planned, like part of the music.

Remember the best story someone ever told you. How did they do it? Did they change their voice for different characters? Did they use body language? How did they mix fact and fluff? Humor and suspense?

Making a fool of yourself is not the same as failure. It simply means standing up for what you believe in, in spite of what others think. It’s taking a chance and sticking your neck out. It’s overcoming the fear of failure and owning your mistakes.

Stories are at the core of everything we love and hate. They are the basis of our culture, of civilization, maybe even humanity itself. From the caveman painting images of his life on the wall to the endless streams of twitter updates, the world is full of stories. It’s all about how you tell them.

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Kelly June 29, 2010 at 2:55 pm

“Realize that the story is only yours until you tell it. From that moment on, it belongs to those who were paying attention to it. Don’t let those people down.”
Beautifully put. Great article!

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Rasmus Rasmussen June 29, 2010 at 2:57 pm

Thank you, Kelly. It was inspired by some of the conversations we’ve had about not being afraid to act like a fool, keeping it real and so on. So I guess it’s a double-thanks. :)

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Joel Bagby June 29, 2010 at 5:14 pm

Rasmus,
So well done, stories are how we know who we are. Our work tells a story whether we intend it or not.
I love the bit about mistakes, as an artisan, I make them regularly, it is part of the process, being “foolish” enough to roll with it sometimes vastly improves the story.
Thank you for the inspiration to continue training the “voice”.
Joel

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Loren June 29, 2010 at 5:29 pm

Good points all around, especially about keeping it light. I’ve found some of the greatest stories would not have been so had they not kept their sense of humor. Even looking back on some of my favorite and darkest stories, I can pick out moments that really made me chuckle. Fight Club anyone?

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Rob Dalton June 30, 2010 at 7:58 am

well wrought! what is astonishing to me is how hungry the world is for Good Stories, and how ill-equipped the media seems to be when it comes to delivering said stories.

(and speaking of “making a fool”: http://www.funnyordie.com/robertbevandalton/playlists/309638)

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