A few weeks ago, This American Life (TAL) broadcast an episode entitled “How I Got Into College”, which included a story told by a man in his 30’s about his early life. In the story, a 13 year-old boy escapes from war-torn Bosnia, only to face violence and isolation at an inner city high school. One day, the boy’s high school English teacher brings him to an exclusive private school and introduces him to an administrator. The boy impresses the administrator, is accepted into the private high school, graduates from Harvard and later becomes a professor at the University of Chicago.
Moving story, right? The only problem: the story isn’t entirely true.
To be fair, everyone is guilty of a little exaggeration for dramatic effect. That bully who beat you up in middle school probably wasn’t 6’7″ tall (unless the bully was Lebron James). But This American Life’s “too good to be true” story got me thinking: How do you tell a story that’s both honest and heartfelt at the same time?
The answer is actually pretty simple: ground your story in emotion.
To help you tell true tales that will move an audience, here are “3 Tips for Telling Emotional Stories.” You’ll be amazed what happens.
1. Map Your Emotions. The first step in telling a good, true tale is to identify how your emotions changed as the events in the story played out. Did you start out feeling combative and end up feeling collaborative? Were you initially confused before you wound up feeling confident? One trick is to make an emotional flow chart to show your progression. Your emotional journey will eventually be the journey you’re going to take your audience on, so be as specific as possible.
2. Show Emotion Through Action. Stories often fail because the emotional content doesn’t match the physical actions, so once you know the emotions at play, ground your story in what happened. For example, instead of saying, “I was really sad,” tell us, “I got a text message in midtown and cried until snot was dripping onto the floor of the D train as it pulled into the Broadway-Lafayette station.” More interesting, right? The more specific you are about what happened, the more emotional the experience becomes for the audience.
3. Offer a Moment of Transformation. Stories aren’t just a series of events – they’re journeys of personal transformation. To leave your audience moved, all you need is to provide a final moment that shows how far you’ve come. As I discussed in an earlier post on resolutions, the easiest way to do this is to return to the opening scene. Maybe you were evicted from your apartment of thirty years after a long fight, only to find an apartment directly across the street? Bring us full circle and we’ll see the impact directly.
Pretty moving, right?