What is the value of context in storytelling?

Anyone who wants to create a strong storytelling experience for their audience must build a talk on relatable scenes anchored in context.

Immediacy comes into play too for stimulating as much resonance as possible. The speaker or storyteller -no matter what speaking skill they believe they do or don’t possess- must assert a relatable scene ideally in the first 10 to 20 seconds of their talk.

That’s not ‘a hook’ or ‘a message’ although in some cases those terms may equate to eachother.

How is a ‘strong storytelling experience’ defined?

These core factors feed my working definition:

1. Cohesion of thought and scenes — Strength comes from a cohesive and teachable line of thought — a structured, distinctly accessible journey of scenic meaning created by storyteller for audience.

2. Asserted point(s) of view — It means making an unmistakable assertion for the audience in a very short amount of time right from the start — from which all other assertions and storytelling scenes relate (and build from). The storytelling experience becomes stronger (more accessible and thus progressively resonant) when speakers lead remarks well beyond random soundbites.

3. Context — Strength in storytelling increases if the storyteller provides ample context especially at the beginning. The listening environment for the audience becomes more naturally participatory.

Do other decisions by the speaker affect the strength and resonance of their presentation?

Certainly.

Do passionate conviction and calibre of message make a difference to the audience? Don’t they matter in your talk too?!

Sure.

What about having some good ole FUN?

You bet YES!

But if you’ve got to run out the door now before finishing this blog post – then this is what I want to start (and leave) you with:

It’s an issue of conversion (and mental orientation).

The speaker especially one giving a shorter talk with 30 minutes or less of stage time, needs to convert their audience from being observers – to being – mental participants.

Content example:

Let’s say you’re about to give a reasonably short talk. You take the stage, and then say:

“Have you ever been enchanted by a historical place or landmark?”

Stop.

Now consider:

With that sentence, your audience is no longer an observer intellectually separated from you as the speaker. Instead, your audience is now involved – with you – in a specific scene which you constructed in the simple form of a scenic question.

That one-line question achieved a specific purpose:

It defined a scenic moment – a micro story – and delivered the audience to a framed context immediately. It oriented your audience to a specific starting point about historical landmarks (not baby pandas, not politics, not Asian chefs). Historical landmarks.

After that first ‘Have you ever be enchanted’ question, you next say:

“I have! And I want to take us to the day I first fell in love with my favorite landmark in Washington, DC.”

Stop.

Now consider:

These next two sentences progress the audience to a different yet still relatable scene.

The audience continues to be included in a defined storytelling experience with simple, relatable moments. These scenic moments — offered early on and in layered ways — are key to a resonant storytelling experience.

Retention, and clarifying the unconditional vs conditional speaking dynamic:

To build better trust with an audience with a teachable line of thought i.e. a thesis, perspective, persuasion, or a teachable insight should be offered by the speaker for the pure sake of telling it clearly…of being understood.

That’s building an unconditional dynamic…an offer of ‘non-transaction.’

Which differs from a conditional dynamic like a sales pitch.

It is reasonable to assume a sales pitch is transactional: “I pitch and you the audience consider to be my backer or customer.” This transactional expectation is a natural component for a pitch. But creating a strong storytelling experience involves more than transactional standards or simply good wording or floating sound bites.

Good writing and a good message will be lost if storytelling content lacks a cohesive trajectory of thought. A good message becomes an irrelevant message if the audience’s attention span isn’t provided enough context. If ‘a sound message bite’ is surrounded by a jumbled pool of random thoughts that do not relate or naturally progress – then disorientation (not retention) awaits your listeners.

Storytelling, and three basics of this critically generous craft

Storytelling, especially short-form storytelling, remains ever on the mind these days. I’m getting excited about preparations for a new community-wide open mic night starting in DC’s Dupont Circle neighborhood this spring (more to follow as logistics solidify).
In the interim, these preparatory efforts cause reflection for how storytelling often takes such a hold on people’s attention and emotional terrain.
There are so many horizons of answers and resources to that question depending on the types of listeners a storyteller wants to engage. But what stands out to me about telling stories (and listening to them too) is how inherently generous the experience can be.
Storytelling at its most fundamental root is an unconditional act of hospitality; and there are three structural pieces to story creation that really flesh this premise out.
Whether you plan to tell a story in an in-person dynamic, or via audio or video, this crafting approach can really strengthen the vitality, and inclusive, giving nature, of what you create for (and with) your audience.
Step 1:
Creating story context, and unconditional comfort at the start
Perceive the beginning few seconds of your story as a gift of invitation to your audience; this gift will come packaged in the form of basic context for your story. A simple yet distinct few sentences constructs a mental starting point for your listeners.
This starting point, consciously or not, orients the brains of your listeners to the mental journal that you will take them on. This orientation is structurally comforting (again this usually transpires on an unconscious level of experience for your listeners). But this structural comfort is very much an act of welcome to the audience. It makes the listening brain more willing to be vulnerable, and to travel the unknown territory of your story.
This step forms a relatable foundation from which to launch your journey of meaning (and overall sense of progression) as storyteller.
Without this initial structural decision, audience attention can easily get disoriented (and not stay in tune with your unfolding progression).
Samples of context:
A — You could assert an emotion or mention an action or location that is apart of the specific scene that you want to ultimately share – sample:
“I love playing piano at choir practice….”
B — Or you could start with asserting a mindset or personal value – sample as:
“It means everything to feel accepted and to be myself in the community…”
C — Another option is to express a simple curiosity on your mind that leads-up to your particular, meaningful scene – sample as:
“I was leery to admit I was headed to the protest march, but decided to share with my friend on the bus just to see what would happen.…”
Setting this context can involve just a few sentences.
A tip for this initial step:
Consider how you would start sharing a story with a friend at a coffee shop…. conversational, intentional, with a desire to simply take your friend mentally along with you on a storytelling journey.
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Step 2:
Taking your audience to a specific scene of action
Perceive this next component of your story as a chance to shape for your listeners a new but relevant environment.
Your mindset in crafting this next piece is still one based in unconditional sense of welcome.  As in, your listeners can bring any and all unique skills of imagining detail and interpretation — even with not having lived through your personal experience (and your personal visions of it). Do not fret about imparting every single visual element about this scene to your audience. This scene simply needs get them to the next level of action which your brief context opened the door to.
In this structural organizing of your story — take your audience mentally to a particular arena where you can both evolve visual placement for them, but also evolve meaning too. They don’t need to receive and consider every single detail that you have the ability to offer them. The goal with this scene is to directly make the story relatable and useful in your journey of perspective that you’re taking folks on.
You are placing your audience — together with your unique perspective — in a well-articulated scene (but one that’s not suffocated with excessive trivia). Begin to get clear to yourself as storyteller why this scene has unique meaning for you.
A sample scene:
Remember your starting point of context that you are building from:
“I love playing piano at choir practice” — per the above first-step sample.
Then progress to your core action i.e. your specific scenic moment:
“One night we began to rehearse a hymn about healing. I remember when we finished singing, a lady new to choir asked for prayers to shrink her just-diagnosed brain tumor. The choir was caught a little off guard; but we then prayed together with as much love as we could muster, and sang in hopes the tumor would be less threatening. Weeks later, she reported that the tumor shrank!”
Step 3:
Progressing your audience to an arrival point of meaning
Perceive this concluding step as the chance to create new perspective for the audience; this is the chance for you to thread your entire storytelling journey together by making clear what your previous scenic moment or moments mean to you.
Consider this ending structural piece like it was an Easter morning sunrise just for your audience: your story’s fresh arrival point to a new and generous truth, meaning, or insight.
Reflect on what potentially affected you or surprised you or what you were grateful for or relieved by from the scene you just walked your listening guests through.
A sample arrival point of meaning:
Let us continue with the sample story-building exercise from the previous steps.
First, your context i.e. remember your starting point:
“I love playing piano at our choir practice.”
Then progress to the next step of citing core action i.e. your specific scenic moment:
“One night we began to rehearse a hymn about healing. I remember when we finished singing, a lady new to choir asked for prayers to shrink her just-diagnosed brain tumor. The choir was caught a little off guard; but we prayed together with as much love as we could muster, and sang in hopes the tumor would be less threatening. Weeks later, she reported that the tumor shrank!”
Then make your unique perspective known — your ‘why’ of this storytelling journey – and progress to your third, final step. Reveal as storyteller your slice of meaning, your teachable insight:
“When I learned the tumor was smaller, the academic side of me was doubtful that our prayers were completely responsible. But then I realized that knowing that ‘for certain’ was not the main point for me from this whole experience. It was really how this community came together through an intimate and pretty vulnerable connection for a new friend. It was how we all bonded to a very healing, unexpected invitation to relate to God and extend authentic care.”
Photo, top, “Sunrise-Easter 2006” by Matt and Polly Freer licensed under Creative Commons.
Photo, right-middle, Easter Morning Fog by Jason Mrachina licensed under Creative Commons.