Stories With a Splash: 3 Tips for Surprising Your Audiences

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Stories With a Splash: 3 Tips for Surprising Your Audiences

As most of my friends know, I’ve been following the Golden State Warriors, a professional basketball team, as they’ve moved closer to securing an NBA Title.  By all accounts, the team is outstanding: creative ball-handling, precision shooting and solid defense earned them the best regular season record in NBA history.  But what makes the Warriors so popular among sports fans and the general public alike?

The answer is obvious to anyone who watches the team play: the element of surprise.

The Warriors win games with surprise offensive bursts (i.e. Steph Curry’s 17-point overtime performance) that leave their opponents flat footed and their fans in awe.  To help you tell stories that take shock and amaze, here are “3 Tips for Surprising Your Audience”.  Follow these guidelines and you’ll have your audience cheering you on in no time.

1. Unpack Expectations.  The first step in creating a huge surprise is to unpack any expectations surrounding the surprise in question.  What did you anticipate would happen in the situation?  What actually happened?  Surprises exist in the space between expectation and reality, so take time to unpack both elements.

2. Build Suspense.  Once you’ve laid out all of the events and expectations, begin to reconstruct the surprising moment with the goal of highlighting the discrepancy between what you were lead to believe and what actually happened.  At every turn, ask yourself: “If I were an audience member, what would I be thinking?”.  If you (the storyteller) can “figure out” the surprise, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to pull one over on your audience.  Allow the suspense to build organically by slowly ratcheting up the stakes.

3. Offer A Final Surprise.  After you’ve paid off your audience with the surprise you promised, the last step is to provide a surprise after your audience believes the moment is over.  The final surprise turns the initial expectations on their head and leaves the audience wanting more.

Pretty surprising, huh?

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Listen Up! 5 Tips to Becoming a Better Listener

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Listen Up!  5 Tips to Becoming a Better ListenerAs many of you know, I’ve written a lot about the importance of active listening in the storytelling process.  Active listening is useful in a myriad of ways: improved verbal comprehension, increased sensitivity to friends and coworkers, and enhanced creativity and problem solving abilities.  But how exactly do you become a better listener?  What steps or processes can you implement to glean more information from conversations and feel better connected to the people around you?

The answer is very straightforward: listen for stories.

To help you uncover stories and become a better conversationalist, networker and public speaker in the process, here are “5 Tips to Becoming a Better Listener”.  Follow these guidelines and people will be lining up to talk to you before you know it.

1.  Check In With Your Thoughts.  The first step to becoming a better listener is to do a quick check of your mental state.  Are you feeling happy or sad? Angry or excited? Are you dwelling on a past conversation or mulling over something you need to do in the future?  Ask yourself: What’s preventing you from being present in the moment? If you take a moment to do a quick self-diagnostic before entering into a conversation or telling a story, you’ll become more present and connected immediately.

2.  Check In With Your Body.  After you’ve cultivated an awareness of your thoughts, take a moment to connect with your body and the impact it’s having on your listening.  Are you feeling tension or pain in any area?  Is your breathing heavy and strained or easy and light?  How’s your posture?  If you’re struggling to connect with your thoughts (step 1), reverse the order and check in with your body first.  As you become aware of any areas of tightness or pain, take a series of slow, deep abdominal breaths (”in through your nose and out through your mouth”).  Your abdomen should expand as you inhale and contract as you exhale. Concentrate on your breathing as you go through the process; this will ease your mind by removing any distracting thoughts while simultaneously dissipating any physical discomfort you may be experiencing.  You’ll instantly feel more relaxed.

3.  Check In With Your Conversation Partner.  Once you’re fully present with your mind and body, cultivate an awareness of your conversation partner oraudience.  How is the person standing or sitting?  Is the person making consistent eye contact or the person avoiding your gaze? If the person is speaking, what sort of tone is the person using?  Is there any variation in the tone? By shifting your attention onto your conversation partner, you’ll be able to get out of your head while simultaneously discovering how the person is reacting to you in the moment.

4.  Listen for Judgments, Explanations, and Analysis.  As your conversation partner is speaking, listen for the judgments, explanations, and conclusions the person is drawing.  Judgments often take the form of “positive” adjectives (i.e. good, bad, smart, stupid, etc), but can also take the form of comparative(better, worse, smarter, etc…) or superlative (best, worst, smartest, etc) statements.  As the person talks, take note of when s/he uses these statements.  Often judgments come with explanations, justifications, or rationalizations attached to them (i.e. “She was the best boss because she always inspired confidence”; “The reason he’s a terrible employee is because he doesn’t follow directions”).  Explanations are often followed by conclusions (”The conclusion is…” or “The moral of the story is…”) that offer a logical basis for the judgments and explanations.   If you listen for these rhetorical tics, you’ll have a better sense of what’s happening cognitively, psychologically, andemotionally with your conversation partner.  It will ground you in the present, which in turn will reconnect you with your conversation partner.

5. Clarify Confusing Points and Ask Questions to Elicit Stories. The final step to improving your listening is to request clarification and ask follow-up questions to illuminate stories.  Whenever you hear judgments, explanations and analysis, you have the opportunity to ask follow-up questions to unpack your conversation partner’s experience.  The goal here is to get additional information about a situation (i.e. what happened), NOT to illicit further judgments, explanations and analysis.  I strongly recommend avoiding “Why?” questions, since answers to “why” questions often start off with “Because…”  Instead, rephrase “why” questions as: “In what way is…” or “Is there a reasonfor…?”  Instead of getting a simple justification or explanation, your conversation partner is more likely to respond with a story.  And then you’re in a more interesting, engaging and fun conversation.

Not a bad conversation starter, right?

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.