My friend Cannonball and I had a long and fascinating talk about story telling the other night. She has caught the story telling bug via exposure to the art at open mic nights, and in a new community she has recently joined. After posting a comment about how she is going to pursue this “story telling impulse”, I immediately invited her out to dinner.

Maybe even more than story telling itself, I love the process of crafting stories and all the thinking that goes in to them.

So we met at a local Irish pub that has good cider on tap, and got into a deep discussion about the craft of story telling.

Somewhere along the line we unearthed some interesting thoughts we shared about stories and the act of telling them. Actors memorize and read a prepared script. In the case of Shakespeare the words you say are critically important to the structure of the phrasing itself. Shakespeare without iambic pentameter is just wrong!

But story telling, on the other hand, is not about remembering a pre-written script. A good story is crafted on the spot from a little leather bag full of facts or elements. Each time the story teller embarks on a story, it is a new story. Even if the facts are the same, the story may be a different shape this time.

Guiding the Story

This is the art and craft of story telling, and one of the things that I loved so much about being a tour guide. The stories I told were all created from a batch of facts. I would find a good way to tell the story, and tell it that way for a while. But eventually it would feel stale, or some part of the story that I thought was just a detail would emerge to be a more significant fact.

Eventually I got good enough that I would intentionally mess with myself to see if I can dig my way out of the hole I had created! I would play with the stories and see how good of a story teller I could be. For example, I would take the big revelation – the big astounding fact at the end that made the story amazing – and would start the story there! Then I would have to re-craft the story, on the spot, so it would still work for the audience. (And – with rare exceptions – it worked.)

This also provided the audience with a great experience because they were hearing the story fresh, and I was clearly excited about what I was telling them. So they would get more involved with it, too.

If I told the same story for too long, it became obvious that the story had become rote to me, and I wasn’t putting any fire into it.

But playing these games with myself I honed my story telling skills, and also gave the audience a good show.

The Venn Diagram

In my head I see a Venn Diagram that has three intersecting circles: Acting, Improv, and Story Telling. Each of these are a performance. Each involve a core set of facts or keystone ideas. But while acting is memorization of lines and performing them, and Improv is making up content on the spot, Story Telling occupies an interesting bit of territory between the two. It is a performance, and there are facts or keystone elements to the story, but the form of the story is largely undefined until it comes out of the story teller’s mouth.

The problem with my diagram was that the elements of a good performance for an actor or an improv artist are fairly well established. Lines, dialogue, marks, lighting, vocal dynamics, interaction with other performers, etc, are all well known and defined.

But what do you call the elements that a story teller juggles? Facts? Elements? Keystones? Lines? Concepts? There are clearly acting skills involved in telling a good story – voice, physical presence, vocal dynamics, eye contact, etc – but the lines are unwritten. The story may morph and change depending on how the crowd reacts to it. Tell the same story three times in a row and each instance may contain the same facts, but arranged or presented differently to suit the audience, location, time, mood, etc.

With Class

In the business story telling classes that I teach I help people get a grip on this fluid nature of stories. I may help them with a turn of phrase or a specific word, but once they internalize the idea of my phrasing, I encourage them to then reword it in their own voice.

If the speaker doesn’t connect with the words and intent of a story, it is apparent to the listener, and walls go up. Skepticism creeps in. So it is important for each individual to find their own voice and their own connection to any story.

These kinds of skills can be taught. In fact, I think everyone has the ability to tell a good story.

They just need to find the keys to their own voice.