Second That Emotion: 3 Tips for Telling Emotional Stories

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Second That Emotion

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?

Set Up for Success: 3 Ways to Create Rich Beginnings

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When I was a senior in high school, I gathered a bunch of my friends at my house to watch the noir thriller American Psycho, which had just been released on VHS.  We were a rowdy bunch who generally preferred making jokes and yelling over each other to watching a screen for two uninterrupted hours.  But as soon as the movie started, we were drawn into the story. 

Here’s the opening scene, as directed by Mary Harron:

Fascinating, right?  But how does Harron draw you into Patrick Bateman’s twisted world so quickly?

As with all stories, it all starts with a great setup.

To help you eliminate confusion and cliche in your stories, here are “3 Ways to Create Rich Beginnings”.  Follow these steps and you’ll be able to draw in even the most distracted crowd.

1. Ground the story in a specific place.   The first job of a storyteller is to  paint a picture of the environment so the audience will understand the choices that the central character makes as the narrative unfolds.  Does the story take place in a single engine plane flying over the California desert or in a brightly lit, modern apartment on the eleventh floor of the American Gardens Building? What sorts of hair products does the character use?  The more detailed you are about location (sights, smells, tastes, sounds, and feel) the less work you’ll have to do later on.  Be bold!  

2.  Show us external forces at play.  To buy into a story, the audience needs to understand the external influences, or circumstances, affecting the central character.  If the story takes place in the South Bronx in the 1980s, for example, it’s reasonable for an audience to expect high crime, abandonment and racial tension to work their way into the story.  On the other hand, if the story takes place in Wall Street investment banks in the 1980’s, we expect to see expensive suits and fancy cars.  As is the case with backstory (see this earlier post), when you show external forces at play, you can demonstrate character and even foreshadow what will happen in the story. 

3. Establish timing.  When telling a story, it’s important to understand the amount of time the story covers.  Does the story begin when you’re 5 years old and end when you’re 40, or does it begin and end in a single day?  Stories may jump around in time, but the audience needs to understand how you (the narrator) uses time. Timing affects the narrative, so be patient with your setup.

Feeling a little more settled?

 

10 Ways to Use Storytelling to Improve Creativity at Work

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Office stories

It’s Tuesday morning.  Your boss shows up at your desk two minutes after you arrive and says that he needs a “creative solution” to a problem.  You rub your eyes because you were up late catching up on Mad Men and Game of Thrones and now you’re slamming coffee just to stay awake. But just when you think your boss is gone, he pats you on the back, smiles and says, “I need your answer in an hour.

Situation sound familiar? This is where storytelling can help.

Here are “10 Ways to Use Storytelling to Improve Creativity at Work” that will open your creative mind to re-examine everyday issues.  You may even mend your relationship with your boss in the process.

1.  Embrace the problem.  All good stories (and good businesses!) have problems.  Embrace them.  Take a moment to write the problem down in detail.

2.  Understand the stakes.  Write down what your company stands to gain or lose as a result of dealing with the issue at hand.  Be specific.  What would be possible if you address all components of the problem and the client gets more than they bargain for?

3. Ground the problem in your surroundings. Understand the institutional forces at play.  What prevailing attitudes are present that may be contributing to the problem?  What attitudes can you tap into to fix the situation?

4.  Identify sources of tension.  Take a moment and reflect on tension with clients and within the office.  What are the sources of tension for your boss? What about for the company?

5. Look at previous conflicts.  Write down a few other conflicts you’ve had in the office relating to the issue at hand.  See if you notice a pattern developing.

6. Look at previous crisis moments.  Crisis moments offer the biggest breakthroughs for companies.  How did people in the office react during the last crisis?  How does your boss handle a crisis? What about your boss’s boss?

7. Pick apart the themes.  You may notice themes (i.e. accountability, trust, integrity) appearing.   Write them down.  Pick them apart.

8.  Don’t judge yourself.  Judgment is the enemy of story and a hindrance to problem solving.  Make note of your judgments of yourself.  Then quit it.

9.  Don’t judge your boss and/or the company.  It won’t help you.  Seriously.

10.  Embrace the problem again.  The precise solution may not be there, but the problem will seem a lot more manageable.

7 Tips to Become a Better Storyteller

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Seinfeld

Want to become a better storyteller?  Start by becoming a better listener.

A few nights ago, I came across an article by Maria Popova over at Brain Pickings.  I was half-asleep, but I started reading anyway.  In the article, Maria recounts advice on how to become a better appreciator of music through active listening.  I perked up a bit.  According to experts, she says, active listening can help awaken the mind from its “tuned out” state.  Just as I read this, light bulbs started going off: the same rules apply to storytelling!  I raced over to my desk and started writing.

To help you hone your story listening skills, here are 7 tips to becoming a better appreciator of stories.  Have a read then go tune in to stories.

  1. Be aware of the stories around you.  Turn on the radio, pick up a newspaper, or even listen in on a conversation on the subway.  Practice recalling stories you’ve heard throughout the week, either to friends or to yourself.
  2. Pay attention to pacing.  When listening to a story, take note of the presenter’s pacing. Start to become aware when a story slows down and speeds up, and what happens to your attention as a result. Be mindful of how the narrator is shaping your expectations through pacing.
  3. Look for patterns.  There are archetypal stories (i.e. rags to riches, voyage and return, rebirth) that we hear again and again throughout the day.  As a listener, pay close attention to the types of stories you see and hear each day.
  4. Develop a vocabulary for stories.  Character, setting, problem, stakes, crisis, consequences.  The list goes on.  Practice breaking down stories into their component parts.  If you can do this, you’re halfway to becoming a great storyteller.
  5. Use your whole body.  Engage your body and your mind simultaneously.  Pay attention on all elements of a storyteller’s presentation, from the speaker’s words to his/her body language, vocal and tonal shifts.  Words are often the tip of the iceberg; you may miss the real story if you’re not listening with your whole body.
  6. Be objective.  As you listen to a story, distinguish between what happens in the story (the events) and everything else (judgements, feelings and interpretations).  Make sure to clear your listening so you don’t bring your own preconceptions, stereotypes and judgements to bear on another person’s story.
  7. Engage with personal experiences and beliefs.  This may sound like a contradiction to #6, but hear me out.  Humans connect to good stories because they resonate with us on a personal level.   It’s important to be open about how the story moves you based on your past experiences.  Just make sure to avoid projecting your experiences onto someone else’s story.