The art of storytelling is in the telling

My wife and I made a point to see Oscar-nominated films before the Oscars. That was before we had kids. Now, we’re pretty much limited to the Best Animated Feature category. But we did manage to see “Up In The Air.”

As you probably know, George Clooney plays a character who’s a consultant traveling around the nation to lay people off. He incorporates this brief pep talk into his repertoire:

Later, his protégée delivers the same line, but this time, it’s robotic and pointless.

The art of storytelling is in the telling. Maybe you’ve got a great story. A customer testimonial that will knock a prospect’s socks off. But if you don’t tell it well, who cares?

This is something I’ve been working at since I got married – my mother-in-law helped me realize it. My problem is that I tell a story once, and that’s it. I lose my gusto after that. I start skipping the details and deliver the punch line way too soon. But my mother-in-law… she can tell the same story 9, 13, or 27 times, and it loses nothing! If anything, she gains momentum each time. When she tells stories, she nails the behavioral skills around eye communication and energy – facial expression, vocal variety, and gestures (note an unfair advantage: she is Italian).

Whether it’s the first time or the tenth, deliver the story well. On the content side, don’t skimp on the details: describe the pain, celebrate the success. Then bring the content together with the behavior. Show and tell how the lead character (whether it’s you or someone else) felt at that moment.

6 comments on “The art of storytelling is in the telling

  1. Hi Ben,

    Couldn’t agree more.

    I just did an analysis of 11 great speeches (TED>com top 10 plus Steve Jobs Stanford 05) to see how they started their talks.

    Storytelling came out very prominently and there was a nice contrast between the 9 speeches that started with a story and the 2 that didn’t.

    The full story’s at the site.

    • Thanks Brian! TED is an amazing resource that we use all the time when exemplifying good communication skills. As you may know, Steve Jobs regularly makes our Top 10 Best Communicators of the year.

      Glad to know we’re on the same page! Please keep the comments coming and share your posts/analyses with us.

  2. It’s the personal stories that make the difference, isn’t it!

    If we talk about persistance and use Thomas Edison’s 10,000 trials to invent the light bulb – it’s a great story, but it’s not personal.

    Besides, most people have heard that story. (I once heard it twice one day. Two speakers back-to-back used the same Edison persistance story!)

    Use your own personal stories.

    NO ONE ELSE can tell your story!

    Fred E. Miller

    • Wow, too bad those speakers didn’t compare notes beforehand!

      One way to avoid a situation like that is exactly what you said, tell something personal. It could be a client success anecdote, a personal triumph, etc. Whether you use a famous story or one of our own, make sure your story ties in to your point of view! No use it taking up several minutes unless the story emphasizes your point and makes it sticky.

      Thanks Fred, great your input so please keep it coming.

  3. Well written, Ben. As a daughter of one of the world’s best storytellers, the art of storytelling really resonates with me. My dad is Scottish, not Italian. What he lacks in arm gestures, he more than makes up for in vocal projection, vocal variety and humor. Each round is more embellished than the last. Sounds like my dad and Kelly’s mom would eat Anna Kendrick’s character for lunch in a ‘storytell-off’ :)