How to Tell a Good Story...the Right Way

Kelly Swanson

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Just because you can’t write a good story, doesn’t mean you can tell a good story. There’s a difference – a big one. Telling a story requires an extra set of skills and an ability to enter into a relationship with your listener where you are required to get their attention and keep it for the entire length of your story. But how?

Know Your Audience
Make sure the story you are telling is one that our audience can relate to. A story about the trials of having a two-year-old is the wrong story for a group of college students. Ask questions about your group – the issues they face – the challenges and the shared experiences. Finding the right story is the first step to touching their hearts in all the right places.

Understand That Attention Spans Are Short
And they are getting shorter. Do everything you can to keep your story from plodding along at the same pace and pitch. Vary serious with funny, dialogue with thought, high energy with no movement, etc. Eventually you will start to sense when your audience and/or your story is ready for a change.

Believe In the Story You Are Telling
If the story doesn’t mean anything to you personally, don’t tell it. It won’t come across as genuine and your audience will know it. That’s why it’s so important to use your own material rather than taking someone else’s story. A story should fit you like a pair of soft faded jeans.

Don’t just tell it, SELL IT
Comedians are taught to sell their jokes – to assume that the joke is funny and the audience will like it. Don’t tell the story as if you’re not sure they’re going to like it. Bring emotion into it. Act like you’re hearing and telling it for the first time. You’re not just telling them a story, you are taking them there. Force them to listen. Force them to be involved.

Stay In the Moment
You can’t be thinking about what you need at the grocery store or how much that lady on the third row looks like your Great Aunt Ethel with the glass eye. You must focus. You must be standing in the middle of that story. When you don’t stay in the moment, you lose your place, your audience picks up on the fact that you have checked out, you lost out on the wonderful impromptu things that happen in the middle of a story that later become new additions to the piece.

Be Sure You’ve Learned It
There’s nothing quite as pathetic as someone who is telling a story and forgets how it goes. And don’t think you’ve got it good enough because good enough turns into frightful moments on stage where your nerves rob you of what little you did commit to memory and you start wandering around your story like my Aunt Bitsy when she’s had too much Egg Nog on Christmas Eve. It ain’t pretty!

See the Story in Scenes
It’s hard to memorize a story word for word (even though that’s what I do) so it helps to see it in scenes first. Break up your story into blocks of time. If you are a visual person, draw sketches of each scene. It will help you remember the story. I often write an outline of my story with single words to trigger the next scene, and then I memorize the outline.

Talk As If You Are Speaking To a Friend
You are not a news commentator. It’s okay to be human. Try writing your story as if it were a letter to your best friend. Speak comfortably and simply. Speak slowly enough for them to understand. Lean in, nod your head, converse for gosh sakes, it’s not rocket science. We do it every day of our lives. So why get on stage and act like we’re made of stone? If you’re uncomfortable, so are they. You can bet on it.

It’s Okay To Break From Your Script
If you are comfortable and know what you’re doing. There’s nothing wrong with making a comment or little side joke. Address a distraction in the room. Answer someone’s question or respond to a heckler. Don’t be so frigid with your story that you can’t step out of it. Perform for children and you will learn this on your first time out. Practice your story in pieces – even out of order – so that you are familiar with breaking in different places. And if you have learned the scenes to your story, you can always find your way back.

What They See Versus What They Hear – the Body Language
When you speak, the words are less than 15% of what they “hear” – the rest they are getting from your body language. Whether you like it or not, your body is speaking for you.

 Face / Smile - I’ve seen someone tell a story where I knew her mind was telling the story, only somebody forgot to tell her face. Have you ever seen anyone tell a story with no expression on their face? How can we feel your passion and joy when you look like you’re standing there with your fingers in a meat grinder? Show what your character is thinking. Show the different range in emotions – surprise, fear, joy, anger, laughter, etc. It’s okay to show your character’s anger, or use anger as an example. But never show your own. Keep your cool. Never let them see you nervous, distracted, haughty, or mean. Likeability is everything. If they don’t like you, they won’t like anything you have to say.

 Your energy and pace – Be alive and vibrant. Energy is everything. Don’t hold back and don’t be afraid to come out of your comfort zone. Use energy and pace to move the story along when it’s getting stale.
 Posture – Stand tall and stand proud. Exude confidence and control. Don’t slump or slouch. Don’t fidget or grab the mike stand and shake it around. Use changes in postures to show changes in characters. Try standing left to represent one school of thought and moving right when you present the opposing school of thought.

 Gestures – It’s not as important what gestures you use as it is that they are intentional. Less is more. Use gestures that are natural to you and not distracting. Game film helps. Take advantage of the fact that a properly placed gesture can take the place of an entire paragraph.

 Eye Movements – Look at them. All of them. See them. Talk to them. Even if the lights are bright and you can’t see them. You need to pretend as if you can. And give equal attention to all sides of the room – but make sure that change your focus naturally. You never want them to see you “counting your steps. ”

 Tone – I think of tone as the pitch of your voice. Change the pitch of your voice for no other reason than to give your story a little variety and keep it from staying on the same flat level.

First Impressions
People are making assumptions about you from the moment they get on to your website, book you on the phone, see you walk into the room, or watch you walk on stage. Some things we can’t change, but we do have control over others. Take a look at your appearance and see if it is casting the right impression. If you have any interesting personality traits, go ahead and address them right away because your audience is thinking about it to the point of distraction. I have a southern accent that is so thick I feel the need to call attention to it in the first fifteen minutes of my show. I know a speaker who is very tall and she addresses that right away as well.

Like most everything in life, timing is everything. In storytelling, it applies to the manner in which you handle the pauses and breaks in your story – those moments that allow the audience to breathe, to understand what you just said, to laugh, etc. This is a good time for you to be thinking about what comes next. Don’t step on your laughs or you will train your audience to stop laughing because they want to hear what you have to say next. Relax and relish the mystical power found in the silent moments of your story where things happen that you never planned. Part of good timing is knowing when to quit. Get out when you’re hot, not when you’ve started to overstay your welcome.

Kelly Swanson
It's all fun and games ‘til the hair gets messed up


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