How to be a great storyteller

Reading time: Less than 3 minutes

Do you know how important stories are to writing? Learn how to be a great storyteller…

Our dishwasher broke last week. It was an expensive model — a Bosch — and only three years old so I was plenty peeved.

Making matters worse, our triplets were celebrating their birthday and the repair guy couldn’t arrive until the Big Day, for which we had planned a celebratory dinner. 

Following COVID protocol, we planned to have our dinner outside, in the back garden. And we’d invited only three people from outside our household — my son, his fiancée, and my brother-in-law. We sat at well-distanced tables and all of us were wearing toques and long underwear because we wanted to feel like real Canadians. (Nah, the issue was it’s been a particularly chilly spring in Vancouver this year.)

But while I had — reluctantly — envisioned a party with lots of dishes all having to be washed by hand at 10 pm, I was wrong. The repair guy arrived on the birthday morning and against all odds he was able to fix the problem in less than 20 minutes.

How did he achieve this miracle  — when we’d been warned that parts might be necessary and could take weeks for them to arrive? He did it by removing a quarter-inch piece of crab shell that had become lodged in the outflow drain. I took back all my swear words about appliance repair people in general and about Bosch in particular and understood immediately that the problem had been our fault. Not the machine’s. 

I tell you this story to illustrate the value of stories and to explain how to be a great storyteller. 

Many of us make assumptions about story-telling. We think,

  • it should be reserved for fiction writing
  • that facts are more important and useful than stories
  • stories are self-indulgent 

Or, we question our own ability to tell stories. We say,

  • I can’t think of good stories about my topic
  • I always ramble 
  • I’m never sure about how much detail to use

But if you’ve ever watched a TED talk, you’ll have noticed that almost every speaker starts by describing some first-hand, real-life experience relating to the information in their talk. Why do they do that? 

Story-telling is king because we retain stories far longer than data, and we learn far more from them. If you’ve ever heard a really good speech or read a really good book, review it again and count how many stories it contained. Stories help create cultures for families, companies, organizations, and entire countries. People learn what to do by hearing the stories of others.

So, how do you tell a good story?

First, you want to begin with a hook — an attention-getter. In this post, my hook is a broken dishwasher. Most people have dishwashers and many have had the experience of one breaking down at the most inopportune time. But the real hook is implied: what do dishwashers have to do with writing? That’s a mystery. And mysteries keep readers engaged.

After the hook, you tell the story. Be sure to use casual, everyday words (no jargon or mumbo jumbo!) and watch your pacing. You need a clear beginning, middle and end. Of course, you’ll want to tell your story in chronological order. But be sure to seed it with interest and emotion. For example, I describe the logistics of our COVID “dinner party,” because just about everyone in the world can relate to the struggle of how to celebrate birthdays during a pandemic. That’s going to help make my story resonate. I also told a joke about Canadians because who doesn’t love to make fun of us?

Finally, after telling the story  — and this can be the tricky bit — be sure to relate it to your purpose. Why is this story relevant? What’s the moral or point? No one wants to hear a story that isn’t the least bit relevant to them. (More on this, in a moment.)

When I started writing this blog post, I knew I had to begin with a story. Immediately, I cast my mind back over the last two weeks. “What are some of the interesting things that happened to me?” I asked myself. I didn’t begin by asking, “What’s a story about writing?” Instead, I immediately gravitated towards the concept of finding something that was interesting. Having a story-finding frame of mind is useful to anyone who wants to become a great story-teller. 

When the dishwasher story popped into my head, I wondered whether I was going to be able to tie a broken dishwasher back to writing. But I knew I had a workable story when I figured my wrong assumption that there was a problem with a machine, could relate back to the kinds of inaccurate assumptions writers make about story-telling. 

In terms of length and pacing, the story itself is 241 words (roughly 30% of the total) and I edited it aggressively to make it as lively as possible.

I made a mistake with my dishwasher, but I hope you never make the mistake of failing to tell enough stories. It’s one of the best, most helpful tools you can employ to make your writing more interesting and relevant to readers. Learn how to be a great storyteller.

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Need some help developing a sustainable writing routine? Learn more about my Get It Done program. The group is now full but there is turn-over each month, and priority will go to those who have applied first. You can go directly to the application form and you’ll hear back from me within 24 hours. 

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Do you know how to be a great storyteller? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section, below. And congratulations to Jennifer Meilink McNeeley, the winner of this month’s book prize, for a March 22/21 comment on my blog. (Please send me your email address, Jennifer!) Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by April 30/21 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. To leave your own comment, please, scroll down to the section, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!

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