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.

Preparing for an informal presentation style like story-slams…through critique

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A former colleague asked for critique and feedback for a talk she was to present at a Washington, DC lounge. The informal event’s dynamic was inspired by The Moth’s compelling story-slam style and community.

I was so curious how this really casual venue and audience could impact engagement for my colleague.  So ‘Sure!’ I gladly attended her gig which was hosted at nearby lounge and (sometimes) jazz club. The storyteller lineup, a neighborly group of social advocates, often gather casually for this purpose to share perspective.

It was a lot of fun observing her and the venue’s energizing stimulus (and tech imperfections too!).

My colleague Jan’s presentation & storytelling focus addressed how social tech is creating a counter culture from her point of view. She was pretty new to this group of people, presentation, and public storytelling in general. So it was a pleasure attending to offer support and feedback.

Most of the critique (shared with her directly via email; …she is “the you”) follows below. 

Points incude:

Jan’s content & structure; tenor (and conveyed, unspoken messages from that tenor); her physicality; and a few other factors. The energy of these types of short talks can be so enlivening and community-rich.

  • Boldness: your creative confidence are bold. They were evident from stage despite the strange technical issues with sound.
  • Technical failure (and how you handled it): the inconsistant audio and video tech distracted, in my view, from you achieving consistent audience connection. It seemed you were cognizant of this as well. People in the audience including myself were physically leaning in and sometimes sighing from frustration. Given this audience squirm-like reaction (and the tech issues being beyond your control) – you brought perceived steadiness and (mostly) sense of command. Congrats! This can be so hard to do.
  • Assertion of vocal volume and ideas: Your sense of command came across as flustered at first (briefly, once you realized how off-putting the audience found the poor audio tech to be). But overall, to reiterate, you appeared centered. Audio is paramount as you are aware, and when it fails especially in front of a robust nighttime audience, drawing from pure inner resolve can be the only accessible tool to relate. You raising the volume of your voice and even slowing down more helped the audience better register your concepts (a lot). Very effective.
  • Content structure (with a suggestion): It was clear a lot of big picture consideration went into your ‘five ways tech is creating a counter culture’. I craved however a tight, clear reference to those five things up front — a simple forecast of what was to come from your point of view — before you elaborated on them further in the body of your talk.  As a raw example potentially for next time:
    • “I want to look at inclusion, democratic themes, leveled hierarchy….and how these factors lead to a culture we couldn’t even imagine before our social tech era.”
    • That’s my rough vernacular I realize vs your authentic voice. But given the energetic crowd and you being the last act, I sought knowing what your five things were very early on, again in a brief way, as to fortify my retention rate by the time you explained each one directly. This structural choice gives the memory a chance to identify and better sequence meaning. It helps the audience’s brain recall, connects, and mentally cement core elements i.e.  “Ah yes she’s mentioned this term or phrase before – I’m with her…”
  • Your use of the term ‘counter culture’: It’s a bold and assertive term. At the end of your talk however, I didn’t believe your progression/lead-up to this type of term was clear. It left me curious, and somewhat unresolved about what you meant to communicate.
  • Potential visual distraction (your hair): You brushed your hair from your face at least three times — which is not the end of the universe by any stretch! The hair style certainly is flattering. Given your confident and animated expression however, I wanted to engage with you visually -without- visual interruption from hair and related hand movement to brush it away. Please consider pulling the hair back in future.
  • Word of caution for when your ‘inner voice’ escapes with self-referentials: A few times you expressed self-referential phrases like “Yes I’ve had three kids with this bod”, with a few others yet those didn’t linger in my attention span like this ‘bod’ reference. This phrasing comes across as playful, but also as an unintended escape by your inner voice. As your (friendly but resourceful!) storytelling coach, I want to emphasize that these self-referrals are a verbal distraction from consistent audience connection (and also a deterrent from your content’s overall progression). You may try – before your next talk – an intensive practice run of this specific transition in your talk.  Try repeating this chunk from the one preceding concept to the next for at least 10 times in succession. This repetition exercise gives your brain’s linguistic nerves a specific outlet, and helps to alleviate the pressure off your mental ‘inner voice’ wanting to escape.

 

Photo attribution “Final thesis critique” by adam under Creative Commons license

What helped (and hindered) the first storytelling salon at my home

I hosted a storytelling salon with friends at home recently (first time to host one there). It was eye-opening fun and unforgettable.

This salon experience taught a lot about group dynamics based in a storytelling environment.

These learnings stand out:

1 — Vulnerable and forthright group sharing emerged, more so than what I first expected. The group’s response to the salon’s storytelling theme was more participatory and disclosing than what I anticipated. This was beautiful to engage in and observe; the intimate, sensitive journeys people offered were truly something to honor.

The story salon’s structure involved a pre-set theme called: Home-stories of retreat and reunion. The group dynamic unfolded in two ways: I first welcomed everyone and then opened the discussion by sharing a few stories about family that resonated the theme for me. I stood up to present, as friends listened in circle-seating while munching on breakfast.

This took 25 minutes, longer than what I envisioned.

After this, friends were invited (…not pressured!) to share their stories and perspective with the ‘home’ theme as a guide. Folks could present their insight standing or sitting, whatever felt natural. People began to offer really emotional and personal experience…moments that made a raw, penetrating effect on their home life: the painful bewilderment when parents die; acts of rebellion to family authority; and changed recognition of what home is and what it isn’t.

Changes for next time:

Limit opening facilitation to 15 minutes vs 25. Overall time ran out where each guest had told a story…except for one. Yikes! She was so gracious about it. The salon’s ultimate intent is to create an agile, attentive listening environment for those that want to share. One that embodies ample time for each person (who wants to give voice) to do so. So I definitely want to shorten my intro bit. Also — possibly suggesting folks keep their stories to a certain time frame may help too. …..will ponder what can help inclusiveness more on the time front.

2 — Clarifying at the start how intimate story gatherings can affect the senses provided useful groundwork. Before diving into the story-sharing piece, I offered clarification on how – potentially – this intimate spatial dynamic could impact us consciously or not. Often when a small group sits near one another (our seating arrangement is pictured just below) — the exchange of attentive energy stimulates the senses in certain ways: hair may raise up on arms; faces may blush; deep deep breaths unexpectedly may inhale/exhale; emotional candor often intensifies.

Physical or emotional reactions certainly are not an automatic byproduct; but given this was the first salon for us to host at my home, it seemed wise to be overt about how direct, close-proximity storytelling can engage physicality (and emotional life) sometimes unexpectedly. Tears and shaky voices ended up as apart of people offering their perspective. Random spikes of humor popped out. Lots of gentle accepting silences surrounded our stories too, along with I believe, a sense of okay-ness and affirmation.

Changes for next time:

Starting the salon with this little orientation piece is actually a no-change keeper. Folks offered appreciation for it later on. So if different people attend the next event – I’ll lean on this decision again with hopes of cultivating similar safety when it comes to supporting folks that want to open up.

3 — Recording audio devices were an offered tool for any storyteller, but folks weren’t into that.

I offered anyone to record their stories via a mini handheld audio recorder; tellers could simply speak into it as if it were a mobile mic. I find it useful to review told stories after the fact for growth & education. But no one else sought out the recording option. I’m better realizing that for me, I gain sense of community and also increased joy in the craft when reviewing audio later on. Others though may primarily seek the community, cathartic aspect of this type of gathering (vs viewing it as a more formal source of storytelling practice). This is absolutely natural, now that the differing expectation is clearer to me post-event.

Changes for next time:

Hmm, I’m not 100% sure if this even warrants a change. The salon ended up being a pretty personal, tender arena. Informal. I want those elements to be honored, preserved, and to carry over to future gatherings. But something about making this audio tool resonates, making it at least available to folks if they want to study or reflect on their oral storytelling at a later time. I may mention it again next event so people know it remains a potential tool at anyone’s disposal.

Looking forward (a lot) to pondering the next salon theme (and for it to hurry up -n- get here!).

“Wherever my story takes me, however difficult the theme, there is always some hope and redemption…”   Michael Morpugo

A vital decision when presenting a short talk or story

A colleague-friend years ago scolded me for how I was preparing for a short talk (to be roughly five minutes of stage time). I recall being very concerned that five minutes with the audience ‘just wouldn’t be enough time to make a credible effort…’

During these informal rehearsals, the intro would start with biographical remarks about myself, then progressed to the more relevant meat.

My observing friend looked at me with vivid critical sass after one of the rehearsals and said:

Your audience could care less about you.  They care about the experience you can create for them. They care about your teachable, relevant meaning that can help them.  So stop flaunting your ego with the bio stuff. Stop thinking five minutes is insufficient. Stop abusing your audience’s time and organize your thoughts in 15 to 30 second chunks, and get on with it!

Yikes.

I still recall the humbling crash my ego took from her words that day.  It was a hard realization to experience — that my love for speechmaking had (unintentionally) morphed into a sense of entitlement with time on stage:

Five minutes?! That’s not enough time to sneeze let alone for an audience to pick up on my depth of meaning…

That was my fumbling, fightin’, ego at the time; I shrink at the snobby condescension in my head back then.  But years later (and many short speeches and storytelling since) a fascination grips me as a presenter, storyteller, and devotee of the really short speech format.

It’s a fascination driven by one question:

How can any type of speaker, no matter their level of presentation or storytelling experience, create resonance with their audience in a five minute (or less) speech?

Even seemingly harmless content decisions in short-form stories or presentations can unintentionally distance an audience — vs bring them into your intended meaning.

This one content decision at the start creates stronger resonance: When making really short talks, all content decisions must ideally bridge this experiential distance or ‘separateness gap’ to make a more resonant impact — quickly, from the start. How to do this? Prevent that separateness from ever developing from the beginning.

Solution: Provide listeners with a specific, relevant scene in the first 15 seconds of your talk.

This decision will better convert your audience from a mental observation mode – to a more interactive & mentally more resonant participation mode.

Imagine Ms. Sara Sample Speaker as a hypothetical.

She’s about to give a five minute talk about holiday cuisine.  Her audience before she even takes the stage is in a mental observation mode consciously or not. Sure they know they are here in their seats about to watch Ms. Sara Sample. But their senses and train of thought are very much in observational on-the-outside-of-any-journey-of-meaning mode.

Keep in mind, as this Sarah takes the stage, she ultimately wants to get the audience to mentally journey with her, to mentally be involved in her content’s sense of progression. She wants listeners to be in full-on cognitive participation…not just observers merely consuming the sound of her voice and detached from specific meaning.

So she takes the stage and says:

“I love holiday flavors more than anything.  And each October, I remember as a kid how pumpkin pie would rule our house long before Halloween night arrived.  Dad even polished our special pie trays at the start of fall, and well before buying any Halloween candy for the trick-o-treaters.”

Our speaker Sarah, with this immediate scenic content decision at her beginning, has mentally transported the audience from observation mode — to a scenic experience which their imaginations can experientially identify with i.e. pumpkin pie and Dad fussing about. The simple scene progresses the audience to along with the speaker (again in the first 15 seconds).  Speaker and audience alike have now shared in live-time this family’s experiential delight for pumpkin and holiday anticipation.

This first 15 seconds of scenic storytelling (simple, non-complex!) easily starts off her short talk with topical relevance and unifies herself with audience expectation.

Ok, so why care?!

Why shouldn’t Ms. Sara Sample’s short talk begin instead with something like…: “I’m Sarah, a chef for 10 years and head of catering at Chicago’s Ritz Carlton. Before that I ran catering for special events, weddings, and holidays at different hotels in Miami Beach and New England. So today, I want to talk about holiday food with you all.”

That’s a passable way to start.

But this type of opener greets Sarah’s audience with a topical distance.

Or another way to describe the concern is this: Sarah is creating for her audience a sense of separateness by giving her mini bio at the start. As in, it’s highly likely that no one else in her audience can relate to being a seasoned chef at fancy hotels. Also her listeners hear her bio as being repetitive, since they’ve (highly likely) already seen it on the event agenda; the conference’s promo; and in a zillion twitter conversations before the date of Sarah’s stage moment even arrived.

But what does the audience have in common with Sarah-the-hypothetical speaker? Her talk’s topic aka holiday cuisine. That’s what they came for…not an oral re-enactment of her resume.

Other samples of scenic decisions at the very start of short talks:

Drew Dudley’s short talk: Everyday Leadership

“How many of you are completely comfortable calling yourself a leader? See I’ve asked that question across the country and I always find there’s a huge number of people in the audience that don’t raise their hand.”

The scenic moment:  The audience moves from their observer ‘seat’ to being apart of audiences across the country who have grappled with the speaker’s question.

Susan B. Anthony’s speech before court: On Women’s Right to Vote

“Friends and fellow citizens, I stand before you tonight under indictment for the alleged crime of having voted at the last presidential election, ….without having a lawful right to vote.”

The scenic moment:  The audience moves from their observer ‘seat’ to being involved with the speaker’s current legal threat with the right to vote as common ground between speaker and audience.

I so love the structure and possibilities in short-form presentation! Hope you enjoy and find this useful (comments welcome all the time). More thoughts to come about crafting short-form stories and presentation.

Photo attribution …a short fall by Eury licensed under Creative Commons

A trust issue: why speakers should not strive so hard to entertain audiences

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What cultivates trust with listeners when we express ourselves as public speakers or storytellers (or both)?

It’s common for answering this question in context of ‘to entertain is better’ vs ‘to offer teachable perspective is better’.  At least this was a common way to frame said debate when I was a coach to storytellers way back when!

I believe authentic clear perspective as speakers moves trust forward with audiences much more so than a dominant focus to only entertain. The “I only have to entertain” mindset is a common misconception that often creates big psychological barriers when folks including myself prepare to publicly speak. This outlook when preparing can cause many presenters (and even seasoned storytellers) to think they are inadequate since they are not sure how to entertain in the first place.

A myopic striving to only entertain an audience can so often lead speakers to indulging their ego — to be that ‘hilarious charming speaker’ — vs to be that timely source that satisfies an audience’s need for real perspective. Our audience needs and deserves the latter.

Here’s what I see about an exclusive desire to entertain audiences. It stifles many-a-speaker when preparing. It happens a lot. Their expectations to be entertaining dynamos like Meryl Streep (…sprinkled with a Sheryl Sandberg or Gary Vanerchuck quality) often inhibit their ability to establish an accessible point of view. Their clarity of mind usually suffocates under the self-imposed pressure to be funny enough, riveting, fascinating, provocative, etc.

So when preparing content and point of view, I suggest looking first at the teachable truth in your fund of knowledge.

Decide a few topics and then consider:

  1. How are these topics teachable from your point of view?
  2. How do these topics relate to and benefit different segments of people?
  3. What three problems can you solve?

Is it human to want our audiences to crack-up from welcomed laughter at our stories and overall presentations?!

Sure, it’s understandable. But I invite us to ask one question first when assessing a speech’s entertainment value: Does the content entertain while supporting a core idea?

Any wit, story, or piece of content needs to explicate a usable idea or perspective.

Our teachable experience is what we have in common with our audiences. As in, they want it and we’ve got it. No perfectionism or entertainment hoo-ha… just some usable, human truth and clear point of view.

Another tip: conquering leery self-confidence

Should you ever suffer from low reservoirs of self-confidence (ah we all do one time or another) – this mental exercise below may liberate you when preparing to engage audiences.

1. Mentally embrace the fact you have insight, which could help at least one person on this planet.

2. Then consider two people, then a room full of people, then maybe a whole department.

3. Believe that something useful and teachable exists in you, even if it is not clear to your self-confidence right this very minute. Assert this possibility in your mind as a meditative exercise for a good 10 minutes. Just sit with it.

Photo attribution entertain us  by fedee P licensed under Creative Commons

How to strengthen your unique point of view ‘voice’ as a storyteller and speaker

I thank 2018 a lot for new chances to launch storytelling projects so far (in-person engagements and podcasting too).

These recent efforts have triggered memories for how to build confidence and skill as a speaker (…from way back when I was a coach to storytellers).

Ideas that may help others now coming to mind…:

A favorite 20 minute exercise goes like this.

  1. Set a timer for 20 minutes.
  2. Then answer this question:  What five beliefs do you hold true about your business and your industry?

Reflect upon core assertions that drive you professionally. Permit the flow of ideas without judgment. Then write, write, write. Write the phrase “I believe” in front of your assertions if that helps to stimulate thought. As a raw example on my end: “I believe public speaking is a self-assertion game and a clarity game; it takes time to achieve at both.”

This exercise is a no-criticism zone.

Just write for as long as your timer ticks for at least 20 minutes. The time-constraint factor consciously or not puts the brain in production mode. The main purpose is to get out of your head, and recognize more clearly your points of view as a voice.

Also to ensure you are leading the audience to your most relevant, useful ideas when preparing content, consider this hypothetical question when organizing thoughts:

If your stage time was limited unexpectedly to 90 seconds, what would you say?

More on strengthening point of view and confidence:

Women (and certainly men too) but often women in particular lack confidence in themselves to speak in public. From my experience as a former storyteller/speaker coach — if you are unsure which stories could help explain a core idea, or if you want to emerge more trust in yourself as a public voice, these tactics could help.

There are tons of ways to test one’s voice and stories, including these favorites:

  1. joining a Toastmasters club, or
  2. starting a vlog.
  3. My really favorite option is to shape your own platform (and community) as a speaker and storyteller.

Create your own stage and assert it like there’s no tomorrow. As example, gain experience and storytelling confidence through hosting your own meet-ups.

With this meet-up idea, you can build your speaking strength from your own trusted network. Consider inviting a small trusted group at first, 15 people to a coffee shop or your office. Then lead a conversation central to your professional beliefs.

Test your point of view in a brief lightning talk, like a 10 minute presentation. Solicit feedback to improve. Learn what resonates. And even get testimonials from positive commenters (and publish them online!). Try this every four to six weeks to build skill and momentum. Then evaluate your stories and ideas: what worked most?

How to befriend (and channel) the tummy butterflies before giving a talk:

Be alone and quiet. Breathe deeply a few times. Then stand in your most confident, shoulders-back stance and punch the air, like a boxer. Breathe, box, breathe, box. And finally, close your eyes; envision standing on stage and saying your first lines to the audience. In that mental moment, look ‘em in the eyes. Give and receive this attention in your mind.

Above all extend a sense of authentic good will with those in your audience; savor the moment of sharing time with those kind listeners (time being a true gift from them to you).

Photo attribution The Flame by Clix Renfew licensed under Creative Commons

Ways to organize a storytelling salon at home

One of my “…just do it” goals for this New Year is to enjoy friends more often through casual storytelling and conversation. That goal began brainstorms for a storytelling salon event series at my home. The first storytelling salon for the year happens (gulp!) tomorrow. Adrenaline accelerates with every minute over here with last minute planning!

What the heck is a storytelling salon?

It is a personal, subjective experience to define for sure. But I work with this approach: each story salon occurs on the weekend at my home/apartment building, and includes hospitality for the first hour; then oral storytelling of archived stories that I’ve wanted to share with community for many moons; and casual theme-based group discussion afterward. The overarching interest is good ole community with friends in the context of storytelling and learning each other’s life experience more.

Three thoughts surface now as final details resolve before the big day tomorrow:

1. Deciding the core focus has been useful i.e. to cultivate an intimate story experience & environs for sharing personal perspective.

Once this focus for the salon crystalized more, other party-related or social options faded to irrelevance. The intent is creating a type of ambience where friends would ideally feel comfortable spending time (and opening up more too to the story-sharing aspect). Physical space – how it can affect the flow and disposition of people – has been an interesting consideration. The party room on the third floor of my home’s condo building turned out to be a better space conducive to intimacy (vs our specific home unit). There’s a slightly higher ceiling that some say can cause people to associate ideas more freely (…getting a kick out of that tidbit). Restrooms and a roof deck are feet away when folks need alone time.

The main element with this salon idea is to create an agile, non-demanding dynamic for friends that sometimes complex hospitality environs can distract from. A non-existent white glove treatment is the point. Think lots of cushy sofas and puffy-fluffy chairs organized in circle-seating; soft natural window light; a few candles; low overhead lighting; and the U2 playlist playing at a lower hum.

2. Choosing a potluck-brunch approach to hospitality has helped achieve simplicity and pre-salon collaboration. 

At first when planning loosely began last December, I leaned toward a full menu to provide buddies. But then I frankly felt the stressful stomach knots form. So a friend suggested a potluck option which has been fun and a creative collaboration for the group.

When sending the save-the-date notice out a while ago, I tossed out a link to potential brunch food ideas (cinnamon rolls or bagels or french toast for starters or other options). The group approach has helped keep the planning spirit light, and attention more on the storytelling piece.

3. Setting a story theme and an unconditional tenor toward participation has added needed, unobtrusive structure. 

The story theme is:  Home – running away and reunions.

In the spirit of facilitating greater focus and ease for guests — I suggested a theme for them to (casually) reflect upon before salon day.

The theme’s purpose is to provide perimeters regarding topic. Often in a public dynamic like this, a non-topic driven gathering can overwhelm concentration or prevent precise memory recall from kicking in.

In hopes of generating more ease and willing participation, the salon will start with a story from me about home in Oklahoma growing up…roughly a 7 minute story. Then afterward, I’ll welcome other people’s perception of their home experience with an opening question.

Guests can share their reflections as they’re open to it. If everyone is shy and isn’t down for sharing, no sweat! We’ll simply continue to snarf down cinnamon rolls and kibitz.

It continues to be a blast to plan and anticipate.

Looking forward to learning about friends more tomorrow, their stories from home, and tons of photos to relive the joy.

Photo attribution “Storytelling” by Renu Parkhi licensed under Creative Commons

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.