I tell personal stories in many of my essays and blog posts. Yet, there is something about telling a story to an audience that appeals to me. People pay attention when you say the words “let me tell you a story.” After I told my last story before an audience on February 10, my wife asked me why I did it. I told her I like to connect with and entertain an audience.
There is another reason. I teach state-management, self-leadership, creativity and innovation. Being able to tell stories before an audience helps me hone my training skills. Let me explain. In 2018, I took a training to maintain my NLP/Neuro-Semantics trainer’s certification. During this training, I had to meet seven presentation benchmarks. I got passing scores in all the benchmarks. I also got feedback on what I could improve. Learning how to tell stories helps me refine skills in these benchmarks:
Telling a story during a training helps engage the audience. So does the self-disclosure that happens when you tell a personal story. You know an audience is not engaged when they are checking their phones or looking around the room.
Effective Use of Voice
Audience attention perks up when you have a dialogue. This is especially true when using distinct voices. Sometime you might stretch out words to emphasize a point. For example, listen to my car-buying story (see below) for an example of this when I say, “We are NOT normal people.”
Space & Movement
This is about how you gesture and move. It is about giving meaning to the space around you as you talk. For my car-buying story, I spoke from the left of the microphone when it was me. And I spoke to the right of it when I spoke as someone else.
Story District, Washington, DC
For the two reasons I mentioned, I started learning the art of telling personal stories. I took my first storytelling class from Story District. I found the skills I learned so valuable that I took a more advanced version this January. This essay describes that recent experience. So in the words of Shel Silverstein:
If you are a dreamer come in
If you are a dreamer a wisher a liar
A hoper a pray-er a magic-bean-buyer
If you’re a pretender come sit by my fire
For we have some flax golden tales to spin
A Class Act
Storytelling offers the opportunity to talk with your audience, not at them. ― Laura Holloway
Storytelling 201 ran for five weeks with each session lasting three hours. During the first session, we recalled experiences that would lead to good stories. To do this, we used several exercises that came from Long Story Short by Margot Leitman. Homework after this session was to create two rough stories. The instructors said that rehearsing the stories once in the shower was good enough. These stories were for exercises that stretched emotion skills and helped develop characters. We spent one session developing scenes. Then, we had to pick a story we could tell to our family and friends on the performance day.
I chose a story that begins with: “During one of the coldest Januaries on record, I noticed something strange each time my wife came home from work.”
Now would be a good time to listen to the entire story before I reveal more information about it.
We spent the fourth session rehearsing our story. We gave it first before another person, and then before the entire group. We used a microphone and no notes. On the last session (February 10, 2020), we told our story to a friend and family audience of about 40 people. A summary of my story:
My wife Claire needed a new car because the slush and fumes came up from holes by her feet. Therefore, we conducted research. And then developed a plan to deal with Slippery Sam, the car dealer and his manager Hard-nosed Harry. Using the plan and special skills, we played good-cop, bad-cop and bought the car at a reasonable price. Our plan had one unexpected flaw…
After you have listened to the story, look at the interactive mind-map I used to develop and rehearse it. In storytelling, the beginning and ending sentences are important. They start and close a loop. Here is the ending to my story: “So, that’s how Claire’s strange wet sleeve led us to the first car we bought together.”
Here is a sample of some exercises we did during the class.
Contracting. Tell your 7 minute story in 2 minutes, in 1 minute, in 30 seconds and in 15 seconds. You will get to the essence of the story. My description above is the 30 second version.
Step Into Your Character. Tell your story as if you were one of its characters. This helps build your characters. Stepping into “Hard-nosed Harry’s” life, I realized he felt stressed. Perhaps they had not sold their quota of cars that month.
Color. While telling your story to someone else, they will ask you to “color” a piece. That means you will need to fill in more detail about that piece. By doing this, you may remember things that enliven to your story. Also, you may notice connections you make in your mind but are not clear to an audience.
Your story is only as strong as its truths. – Margot Leitman.
It is important to keep the true details you remember. An audience can sense dishonesty. Except for the name of the car dealer and his manager, the summary I gave of my story is 100% accurate. I also looked up weather reports to see how cold it was in January 1985.
But you have some leeway. If you can’t recall what happened, use the might-have rule. What might you have said? My story occurred 35 years ago, so I made up all the dialog between my characters. This included their gestures and voice qualities. For my story, Claire and I bought a book to help plan our approach. I could not remember its exact name so I called it How to Deal with Slippery Sam the Car-Dealer. That name illustrated the intent of the book.
When we bought the car, we agreed on a price with the salesman. He had to get his manager’s approval. They had a loud argument and intended us to overhear it. We read about this practice. When I reenacted the dialog in my story, I called the manager “Hard-nosed Harry.”
You could also condense the time line. I might have dealt with the car dealer during five different occasions and told it in my story as if it were one trip. Saying, “I left and went home” four times may bore the audience. So, you have some leeway on the truth.
I don’t think it is possible for me to sound like my wife. Yet, I needed to develop a persona when taking her role. When men speak in a woman’s voice, they may first try using a high voice. Instead, I did some research and listened to an audio of a romance novel where a man speaks the role of a woman. I ended up speaking softer and slower. At my son Daniel’s suggestion, I also changed my posture and gestures when I spoke like her. I ended up moving to the right of the microphone when I took Claire’s role.
Beyond this Tale
The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon. ― Brandon Sanderson
In this essay, I wrote about another step in becoming an effective and entertaining storyteller. Knowing how to tell stories can engage your audience. Learning how to tell them can help you practice skills that go beyond telling stories.
Thanks to all the participants of Storytelling 201. We gave each other feedback during all stages of our stories. Special thanks to Stephanie Garibaldi and Joseph Price who worked as a team to teach both my classes. They provided topic discussions and exercises to keep us engrossed each night. The feedback exercises were effective and the improvisation exercises were fun. I want to thank my friend the playwright Martin Blank, who first told me about Story District. Each year, Story District produces many shows in the Washington DC area, including a monthly series and annual events.
Thanks to my chief editor (and wife) Claire Kurs. Thanks my son Daniel for showing me how to record the story using Audacity. He also gave me feedback on the story and the recording. Also, thanks to Joe Brodnicki. He gave me feedback on the early version of this essay I sent to all the Neuro-Semantic trainers.
The photo of the car in the audio player was taken by Casey Horner. It is from Unsplash.
Upcoming Self-Actualization Workshops
Joe Brodnicki, Jason Schneider, and I will deliver two trainings this April. If you register for the Creativity & Innovation training by March 24, 2020, you can take the Unleashing Leadership training for free.
We have the capacity for about 10 students. With a large trainer to student ratio, there will be a lot of personalized attention and feedback. Click on each title to learn more. Please send me questions (firstname.lastname@example.org).