The Art of Storytelling

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What Is a Story? And Why Do We Tell Stories?

To be human is to connect with one another, and one of the ways we do this is through the use of visual, written, and oral storytelling. We teach, explain, and share not just through words and images, but through performance. We are all born storytellers, and we all have many stories to tell. We tell people who we are, what our businesses do, and what has happened to us; everyone tells stories in everyday life. Yet storytelling is a uniquely human endeavor — we do it to connect with each other, to effect change, to teach, and to transmit our culture over time and pass along the wisdom from previous generations.

Structures

Different story frames exist — from the Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell to Nancy Duarte’s book Resonate, which depicts the emotional pull between the world as it exists and the world that could be — there are common structures that are useful to understand how to create and frame a great story. JJ Abrams talks about the elements of “wonder and mystery,” and gives a delightful overview of ‘The Mystery Box,” as it drives stories forward. Another great talk is Andrew Stanton’s work in film making and his explanations for why Finding Nemo and WALL-E are such powerful movies.

Body, Language, and Sound

How does your body work in the art of story and performance? Often, we must become the story tellers, using our body, language, breath, posture, rhythm, and sounds to play the performance out in space for other people. Because of this, it’s important to understand how each of these components work. Some of the exercises we looked at were the use of repetition in language; using no words but still communicating a story with sounds; and striking a pose with our bodies based on particular words. Think about it: what does a “yes” body posture look like? How about “no” or “scared”? Many emotions can be communicated simply through the body, without language or sound.

Layering in language — tonality, repetition, cadence, rhythm, breath — is another art in and of itself; we touched on the qualities of sound and wordless performances, but the art of performance and mastery is a skill to be built over time. For resources, check out this list.

Visualization

Everyone sees the world differently, and miscommunications often occur even when two people read the same words, hear the same thing, or listen to the same track. People’s minds will visualize different colors, textures, shapes, scales, ideas, and even visual perspectives differently. Visualizations can be used both to develop your power of imagery and visualization and in understanding how people see things differently from you.

Everyone is a born storyteller. We all have things to say and share, and we all want to connect with others. From the first time we ever had a dream, to the time when we made up an excuse to get out of not finishing something as a five-year-old, we became storytellers, weaving together fact and fiction into a way of understanding the world.

Take Aways

  • Know your audience. Before you begin, remember to think about who are you telling your story to. Are you trying to win a favor? Get a job? Enact change? Win sympathy? Learn something new? Teach something? Depending on your audience, your story might change. Another way of framing this is asking the question: “What do you want your audience to do?”
  • Editing. You probably have thousands of stories. Each year, each event, each project — these are stories that help explain who you are and let you connect to others. Which one do you tell? Which one do you start with?
  • Connect with or meet new people. If the purpose of your story or three sentence introduction is to connect with new people, think of your story as a means of introduction to spark further conversation — not as the composite of all that you’ve ever done summed up in a few sentences. You can keep it simple. Make it short, sweet, and easy to understand. “I work in writing and I love running” can be enough of an introduction. You can get into the details later. Make people say, “Me too!” or “Tell me more!”
  • Which story gets the best answers? A good way to test whether your story is working is to ask yourself, “Which story gets the best answers?” If your audience responds with blank stares, maybe you need to slow down or simplify your story a bit. If your audience is raving, you’ve won. Listen to the feedback from the story to make the story better.

What’s YOUR Story?

We closed the workshop with a visualization exercise that I love that asks you to picture yourself on the cover of a magazine. What story do you want to be known for? Who’s reading your story? Who is telling it? And what magazine is it?

The Question

I’m working on a research project that looks at what questions you can ask other people that isn’t “What Do You Do?” I think the question is outdated, but not necessarily irrelevant. Still, we need to find better ways to connect with others and learn more about them. If you have a favorite question to ask someone, I’d love to know what works for you. How do you connect quickly with another person? What questions do you ask? Of course, I’m a fan of this one:

Tell me your story.

Written by Sarah Peck, a writer, designer, and storyteller who is the brain behind the blog “it starts with.”

Photos by Cloe Shasha.

2 Comments

  • Sarah Kathleen Peck July 28, 2012 at 3:39 PM Reply

    Thanks so much for having me! You guys are a brilliant group of people, and I learned so much by working with each of you. Can’t wait to see you all rock the world and shake things up in marvelous ways.

  • Aviva Jaye August 31, 2012 at 5:56 PM Reply

    Excellent post. I am glad to hear about your research project about what questions to ask other than "What Do You Do?". I love the visualization exercise as well. Thanks for sharing!

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