15 Fundamentals of Storytelling

Excerpt from pp. 133-138 of “The Old School Advantage: Timeless Tools for Every Generation” by J.N. Whiddon (Brown Books Publishing Group, 2016).

1. Listen first. Good storytelling is about listening and then telling. A good listener not only learns stories to repeat, but also builds rapport and gains additional insights, which naturally results in better storytelling. Avoid “bottom lining” someone—or asking for the same. Although this seems more efficient, ironically, it actually can delay decisions because the full story is

never told. And often, when people are indecisive, it is simply a result of needing more information in order to move forward. So even though it might take a bit longer to hear or tell the whole story, in the long run, it leads to faster and better decisions.

2. Try starting with a compelling question. “Good orators often will pose compelling questions at the beginning of their presentations to get the audience thinking about a subject, switching them from content absorption mode to content consideration mode. These orators make listeners participants in the speech, not observers. Similarly, good parents often phrase their parental instructions in the form of questions: ‘If everyone else was jumping off a bridge, would you?’”

3. There are always three conversations at once. Anytime a communication takes place, there are three conversations going on: 1) the actual discourse (or presentation), 2) the conversation the speaker has in her own mind (“Are they listening? What should I say next?”), and 3) the conversation in the mind of the listener (“What is she saying? I can’t wait to respond.”).

Stephen Denning explains why this is significant:

You proceed on the basis that the relationship between you and your listeners is symmetrical. You talk as if the listeners could take the next turn in the conversation.

For each member of the audience, there are two listeners: the physical person you see in front of you and a second listener known as “the little voice in the head.” And if you’re asking yourself, “What on Earth do you mean by ‘the little voice in the head’?” that is exactly the little voice I mean! The little voice may be distracting the listener from paying real attention to what you’re saying.

The conventional view of communication is to ignore the little voice in the head and hope the message will somehow get through. Unfortunately, the little voice often doesn’t stay quiet. Often, the listener is getting a new and possibly unwelcome perspective on what the speaker is talking about.

So you do something different. You don’t ignore the little voice in the head. Instead you work in harmony with it. You engage it by giving it something to do. You tell a story in a way that elicits a second story from the little voice in the head. When this occurs, the little voice is already racing ahead to figure out how to implement the change idea. And because the listeners have created the idea, they like it. It’s their own wonderful idea! The result is personalized coherence across large numbers of people.

4. It’s not just oral. People are not strictly evaluating what you say. Your appearance and movements are all part of “your story.” In fact, you are telling this story even when you are silent. We might not want to judge a book by its cover, but we do. “Even when you tell a story about who you are, people filter your story through their interpretations of what they see and hear as you speak.”

Body language speeds up a story even more. Annette Simmons warns that we should not place too much emphasis on conventional interpretations of body language. “Don’t buy someone else’s theory about what body language says. Crossed arms don’t always mean the same thing. Presentation courses that preach a cookie-cutter posture only churn out people who are trying to look like something they are not.”

Even a subtle gesture can be very persuasive. “A modest use of gestures can add meaning to your story, intensify your message, and create a stage upon which your story is played. You can use your hands to create props, to draw scenery, to increase the intensity of an emotion, to intentionally send an incongruent message, or just to have a bit of fun.”

5. Facial expressions transcend borders and cultures. We all understand how to communicate emotional content without using words. A smile equals happiness, and a frown means anger or disagreement. “Actors don’t study the anatomy of which muscles paint joy on their face. They study how to conjure up joy in their mind and body because they know that when they feel joy, it

will show on their face.” One expression can replace multiple sentences and speed up your story.

6. Timing, pauses, and silence. These add variety to your story—often bringing more power than the words can. Pauses give listeners the opportunity to participate in and process the story. Have you ever noticed how well comedians do this? They provide pauses, giving you ample time to “get it” and also laugh. They don’t want the next punch line lost in residual laughter. (They also use facial expressions and body language masterfully during these “time outs.”) On the contrary, if you listen to an audio book, how often must you pause the recording so you can grasp the thought just articulated? This exemplifies how frustrated your listener can get if you do not use pauses wisely. Silence also can provide you with the opportunity to command more

attention just when you need it.

7. Tone is the most important oral communication tool. It ultimately can override every other aspect of your communication. But the trick is not to work on your tone; work on your feelings. As with the actors’ expressions, the right tone will follow if the feeling is right. Faking it will result in severely weakening your message. We have all seen people try too hard and fall flat on their storytelling face. They come across as needy—even desperate. This is why authenticity in storytelling is vital.

8. Lose the notes. Without using your notes, your story might not include every detail you wanted to include. But telling an imperfect story while looking directly into their eyes is much better than including every detail and looking at the podium. And guess what helps you do this easily? Your memory palace!

9. Avoid your curriculum vitae. You can’t tell an audience that you are honest and trustworthy or what your GPA was in college. They must come to the conclusion on their own that you are a credible and reliable person. The best way to accomplish this is to share a story from your life that relates this clearly. You are a one-of-a-kind person. No one has had the experiences you have had. No one has met the people you have met or read the books you have read. Telling them about the turning points in your life lets them live inside of you for a short time. This is the power of story and personal testimony.

10. Get the audience’s attention with their problems. Start with the issues you know are keeping your audience awake at night, and present them more starkly than your audience has ever heard them articulated. Needless to say, this captures their attention quickly. Once they are riveted (and they will be), go into your springboard story. A softer way of doing this can be a

more indirect story of how you or someone else is dealing with a situation you know the audience also is dealing with. Other ways of getting attention include questions, an arresting metaphor, admitting vulnerability, or an unexpected exercise. The key thing to remember is to get the emotional connection before the reasons are presented, so they will reinforce the decision

the audience needs to make.

11. Don’t name the value in your story. For example, avoid stating, “Here is a story about courage . . .” Your audience might see a sermon coming and turn you off before you get started. You also run the risk of telegraphing the punch line or the moral of the story. Also, don’t end with “And that is what I have learned . . .” or “That is why I made this decision.” Remember: Storytelling is intended to allow people to come to the conclusion they should come to—on their own. Don’t make it for them.

12. Bad news first. Even though they don’t elicit action, sometimes you have to deliver negative messages. Never tell a negative story without a positive follow-up. That is why the bad news always must come first. When you take this approach to storytelling (and life in general), then you actually can live a life where there is “no bad news.” In other words, always having a follow-up of positive news indicates the solution is always already on its way. Yes, something bad might have occurred, but we always must go back to one of our earlier important concepts: “Challenges are opportunities in disguise.” This is a good way to communicate. It’s the best way to live.

13. Avoid hypotheticals. First of all, real stories are more interesting. They also add credibility. But scientifically, hypotheticals only speak to a small part of the brain, while real stories are “whole brain” (think “healthier”). And, no disrespect to college professors, but by and large, they live in the world of hypotheticals. And they can be pretty boring.

14. Use direct quotes rather than summary. When your story involves other people (most do), bring them in the room with you. Hear the difference:

A. He said, “I don’t think I am going to make it, man.”

B. He didn’t think he was going to make it.

This is a subtle yet significant difference in tone and urgency. The fact that direct dialogue in storytelling (as in example A) is not often used today presents another excellent opportunity for you to wax old school.

15. Practice daily. It’s easy. Once you take an interest in becoming a master storyteller, a daily dose will come naturally. Athletes practice their craft every day. You should, too. Stories are everywhere, so become a story scavenger hunter. Reading articles or books and watching movies will take on a new level of enjoyment for you.

Excerpt from pp. 133-138 of “The Old School Advantage: Timeless Tools for Every Generation” by J.N. Whiddon (Brown Books Publishing Group, 2016).

For 30 years, J.N. “Jim” Whiddon spent his career in the financial services industry, where as a business owner, wealth advisor, and national thought leader, he authored two books: “Wealth Without Worry” and “The Investing Revolutionaries.” Impassioned with a new mission, he published “The Old School Advantage: Timeless Tools for Every Generation” in 2016 and plans to spend the next 30 years teaching people how to invest in social capital. For more information, check out this video link: https://mediazilla.com/onz4czyi7.

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