Josh Irby

Live from Sarajevo

5 Mistakes in Storytelling

We’ve all suffered through bad stories.

At a regional meeting, a voice drones from stage. You look down at your watch. Seats creak under fidgeting limbs. There’s a near audible cry—When will this story end! Why did they give him the microphone? You curse the person in your mind. Then someone calls your name. As you walk to the front, you hope your story doesn’t illicit the same groans and curses.

5 mistakes in storytelling

Storytelling is part of all our lives. We do it for work—giving reports to a boss or a investor, motivating a staff team, expressing the mission of our organization. We tell stories in life—to friends, to family, to strangers. We use stories to express who we are and what we value. But sometimes our stories fall flat. We see eyes glaze over. Sometimes we just don’t communicate what we want.

I recently had the privilege of coaching storytellers for an international conference. We had over 20 people from more than 10 countries telling 3-4 minute stories in multiple languages. As I worked with them, I realized there are a few principles of storytelling that transcend nationality, language, and culture. What follows are five mistakes that can derail your story.

1) No Coherent Point

A storyteller’s job is to lead the listener on a narrative journey. Have you ever been on a road trip and realized the driver doesn’t know where he’s going? How does it feel? You stomach flips. Your palms sweat. You repress the urge to grab the wheel from the driver. Kind of the same way you feel when you aren’t sure a storyteller knows where she is leading you in her story.

Dianna Booher, a communication expert, says, “If you can’t write your message in a sentence, you can’t say it in an hour.” In the case of storytelling,  you have only a few minutes to make your point. So perhaps the quote should be: “If you can’t write your message in a sentence you may talk for an hour!”

Before you tell a story, make sure you know what the story is about. Try to write your whole story in one sentence. Read back through the sentence. Does it sound like a story you would like to hear?

Once you are clear on the point, make sure you refer to it in the first 15 seconds of your story. Don’t make your audience wonder if you know where you are going. Give them the confidence to stay with you until the end of the story.

Some might say, “But I don’t want to give away the surprise at the end. What about suspense?” Of course, don’t tell them everything. (e.g. “I am going to tell you a story about the time I broke my leg but met my future wife in the emergency room.”) You want to set up your story, not give it away. You can give the listener confidence you know where you are going without ruining the plot twist. For example, “The great irony of life is the best things often come in the midst of and because of the worst things. Let me tell you how I learned this lesson.” With this one sentence you set up the story and let the listener know you are a responsible driver who has mapped out a course to a destination they want to go.

2) No Captivating Character

You story is not only about something, it is about someone. There are two cliffs to fall off here: two many characters and no characters. In the first case, the story is not focused enough. Like an Avengers movie, you have 14 main characters and the audience is left with action sequence after fight scene after explosion in order to cover the truth there is no character development. In a 5 minutes story, you only have time to focus on one main character and her transformative arc.

The opposite problem is to tell a factual story about no one. This is not a story, it’s a technical report. There are times when a report is appropriate, but reports don’t move the heart like stories do. Maybe you sold 1.5 million widgets last quarter, but whose life was changed? Characters pull us into the story.

In Ivo Andrić’s Nobel Prize winning novel, The Bridge Over the Drina, his main character is an Ottoman era bridge spanning the gap between east and west. His character may be inanimate, but it is a character you grow to care about. The story rotates around this stone bridge as Andrić covers hundreds of years of Balkan history. And guess when he first mentions the bridge to the reader—page one! He had a captivating character and he couldn’t wait to make the introduction.

Before you tell a story, make sure you are clear WHO it is about and let your audience know.

3) No Compelling Conflict

You can do a good job at the two ideas above and still tell a boring story. Without a compelling conflict a story falls flat. Think about your favorite movie. Got it. What obstacles did the main character face in the story?

He was enslaved and forced to fight for his life as a gladiator.
She was separated from her true love for years, but when he returned she was engaged to marry another.
He was forced to choose between staying with his children or heading into space to save the human race.

We are drawn to these stories because of the conflict. And yet, how many times do you hear a story that has no real conflict in it? No one wants to hear a story about the A student who got another A. Or the failing student who failed out of school. We want to hear about the failing student who, with the help of a nurturing teacher and in spite of his surroundings, graduated from high school with honors. Conflict sets up the delivery—the resolution—at the end.

Before you tell a story, make sure you have compelling conflict. The more conflict the better. Conflict is what keeps us interested.

4) No Character Change

If conflict is the catalyst of a story, change is the result. Screenwriting expert Blake Snyder says a character in a movie must change in at least six ways during the course of a film. Why? Because if your character does not change, the conflict was not life-altering. It was not a significant event. And if it is not significant, why are you taking five minutes of my time (or $10 and two hours of my time) to tell me about it?

The best stories are about change. The selfish loner learns to love others. The reluctant hero steps up to save the day. The noncommittal bachelor finds life-long love in his best friend.

How does your character change in your story? If you can’t think of at least two ways, then don’t tell the story. Once you clarify the areas of change, you can set them up at the beginning of your story. Make sure the audience understands your character before the conflict so they can appreciate the change at the end.

5) No Crisp Conclusion

[tweet_quote hashtags=”#story” ]The worst kind of story is the one that should have ended 10 minutes ago.[/tweet_quote] Why do people babble aimlessly towards the end of their story? Either they keep thinking of things they forgot to mention or they just aren’t sure how to stop the train. Whatever the cause, the ending of a story is what people remember when you walk away. If you take an hour to write out your story, spend at least half of that on the ending.

Sometimes I find out I have to tell a story only 15 minutes before I need to stand up and deliver it. In this case, I scribble at least two things on a scrap piece of paper: the main point of the story and the exact words of my last sentence. If I know the main idea then I can fill in the gaps. But if I don’t know how I am going to end, the train might blow throw the station at runaway speed.

A strong ending is like an emotional knockout punch. Everything preceding it—the main idea, the character development, the conflict, the change—sets it up (jab, jab, jab). Then, with swift, succinct, power, the blow is delivered (uppercut). A powerful ending ties back to the beginning and repeats the main idea, but in a new way. It is the message you want echoing in people’s ears when you sit down. And if you deliver it well, they might not forget it for years.

I recently had the privilege to talk with the president of a global non-profit organization about storytelling. I have heard him speak many times, and I’ve never heard him tell a bad story. And 90% of his talks are stories. In a 45 minute presentation, he will tell 10-14 stories. He is constantly traveling and gives probably 300+ talks a year. Quick math: that means he is telling 3000-5000 stories a year. So I was surprised when he told me his secret for storytelling.

He spend hours on each story, honing it down to its core. He cuts the content down to the bare essentials of information. Then, he practices it over and over again. Here is a man who has been telling stories from stage for 40 years and he continues to practice, refine, and develop his storytelling skills.

Telling a powerful story is not magical. It is a skill we can all develop and refine. And if you put in the time, you won’t have to talk to the top of people’s heads over the sound of gentle snores. You will find wide-eyes and wonder as you connect with people’s hearts.


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