The Art of Telling A Good Story

[This article is a follow-up article to Theory of Mind: How To Understand Others Better. You can read that article by clicking here.]

A couple weeks ago I was in bed ready to fall asleep, it was around 11:30pm. As I'm drifting off I hear a weird buzzing noise. My girlfriend hears it too. It kind of sounds like a pair of hair clippers was turned on and laid on the floor in the apartment above us.

I have to be up at 4:30am and I'm not feeling this, not one bit. Irritated and assuming it's my neighbor, I ask Katrina to grab the broom from the kitchen and bang on the ceiling as the official, "shut the hell up," signal of apartment living. (You know what I'm talking about.) Once she opens the bedroom door the buzzing noise gets louder.

"That can't be our neighbor," I think to myself.

Now we hear shuffling outside our door, and Katrina is becoming visibly uneasy. I'm acquired the ability to stay pretty calm in stressful situations; sometimes too cool for Katrina's comfort. She's starting to feel anxious and doesn't understand why I'm so calm. We both know, intuitively, what's happening. This belief is confirmed when I open the apartment door to the blaring of our building's fire alarm and other residents making their way outside.

Now I'm thinking:

Katrina and I make our way outside to the front of the building. Once I get there I look around to see if there is any visible sign of a fire coming from the building: smoke, flames, anything. I see nothing.

Now I go into investigation mode. Against Katrina's (much better) judgement, I go inside and walk to each apartment door to see if I can feel heat, smell burning, or see smoke emerging from underneath the door. I find nothing. My next step is to go down to the basement where the parking garage is located.

As I descend the stairs, down the narrow hallway, and arrive at the door that leads to the garage, I stop and carefully check the door. I'm not taking any chances. I've seen Backdraft.

As I open the garage door I hear a loud "roaring" sound emerging from the other side. Now I'm thinking, "Shit, car fire!" Once I get the door open I realize it's just one of my neighbors moving his mustang out from the garage, with it's loud engine flare.

If any of you, dear readers, think I was being ridiculous, you'd be right. Just keep in mind, on the scale of ridiculousness, that my neighbor was moving his car for fear of the building collapsing.

After about 15-minutes the fire department finally shows up. Why did it take so long you ask? Good question. The fire station is legitimately less than a 1/2 mile away from my apartment complex. My neighbors enjoy the joke I make about us all being screwed if this were real. It might've been the well-timed use of expletives, or simply nervous laughter and them wondering why I'm talking. Who knows, but they laughed. It counts.

Telling A Good Story

Telling a good story is essential to be an interesting person. Telling stories helps create shared experiences with people who didn't actually share the experience with you. It's a great bonding tool and can strengthen your relationship with others.

However, telling great stories isn't as simple as it may seem. You could of had the most wild experience imaginable, but you could easily cloud the excitement with bad storytelling skills.

For example, I have a friend that routinely likes to travel to Japan. After his most recent visit he was telling me a story about how some elderly Japanese woman, whom he'd just met, offered to give him a small plot of land on an obscure mountainside.

As he shared it:

"I was biking through town one day, and, well I don't actually remember how I met this woman. I remember she invited me back to her house for dinner. I think she was lonely. She taught English and I began to help her. Eventually I shared my interest in moving to Japan, and my love of farming, and she said she had a small plot of land her family left her. I think she was tired of the burden of having it and wanted to get rid of it."

Yes, you heard that right. This stranger offered to give my friend land in Japan once he obtains his dual citizenship. This has all the makings of an incredible story. The problem is that when he told me this story the details were jumbled and didn't make sense. It was a struggle to follow along with the plot of how this happened. (And if you're wondering, he didn't make it up.) An incredible story severely downplayed by poor storytelling skills.

Alternatively, you could of had a rather mundane experience (like your fire alarm going off in the middle of the night for no reason), but tell it in such a way that captivates your listeners. To say you were captivated by my story might be an exaggeration, but I have to assume you found it at least a little bit entertaining, right?

Most people, like my friend, fail to tell good stories because they overlook one of the essential components of theory of mind: the recognition that seeing is knowing. Your listeners have to be able to envision the events in their head. Even though you can recollect all the mundane details in your head, your listeners weren't there. They don't know what happened. So while you may want to gloss over these seemingly unimportant details to get to the juicy stuff, your story won't make any sense unless you guide your listener through the whole journey.

In fact, have you ever tried to follow the story of a three-year-old? There are usually gaps in information and jumps in the story, so much so that it's hard to follow along coherently. This happens because a three-year-old hasn't developed the ability to recognize that the information in their head might not also be in your head. (This skill usually develops around the age of four.)

In adulthood these incoherent stories play out to be on of those, "had to be there," moments. Those are the stories where there is a gap in information, the storyteller hasn't shared enough detail for the listener to logically make it from point A to B. To justify this anticlimactic moment we say they "had to be there," because then they'd have all the missing information and think our story was actually funny.

The key to a good story is in sharing just enough detail that the story makes sense, without being bogged down by an overload of useless information. This takes practice. It's a skill like anything else. My fire alarm story earlier wasn't without information gaps, however. Some gaps are OK, our brains are wired well enough to fill these in. (Gaps like not explicitly describing the layout of my apartment building.) You still need enough detail so your audience can immerse themselves in the action. 

Here are my top tips for improving your storytelling skills:

1) Tell lots of stories.

Practice, practice, practice.

2) Challenge yourself to make a boring story an exciting one for your listeners.

If you can make a boring story exciting, you can sure as hell make a juicy story exciting.

3) Practice writing.

Writing forces you to craft coherent stories. Information gaps become incredibly noticeable in written word.

4) Participate in interesting experiences.

Telling a good story starts with good material. Participate in things that are obscure, different, or out of the realm of everyday experience.

Sharing experiences with others is fundamental in creating positive, long-lasting relationships with people. Telling great stories is a good skill for improving your ability to connect with others, because it allows you to create shared experiences where none previously existed. It gives you the ability to draw others into your experiences that they weren't present for. This is an extremely powerful tool for building great relationships, and for being an interesting person.

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