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Six Easy Ways to Improve Your Storytelling

Last week, during an informal presentation I gave on storytelling, a man asked me a fabulous question:

I can tell that you’re a skilled performer, but how can the rest of us work with storytelling if we’re not that?

The question sent me scurrying into my mental database to pull out the best points I could offer in five minutes. The skill of good storytelling takes time to learn, and is worthy of more than six points. But I think these six, can help anyone improve:

  1. Come from joy. I’ve been watching the film Hallelujah this week about the storyteller-poet-songwriter Leonard Cohen. Many of Leonard’s songs were dark and he never pretended, “life’s going to all turn out right.” Yet, the way he sang radiated his joy in being able to share with an audience.

    If you can approach your storytelling with even some of that joy—you’ll be home free. People will listen. Guaranteed.
  2. Breathe. When you breathe deeply and let your breath spread through your body, you ground yourself. People experience you as calmer and more confident. Your voice improves. When you breathe in a natural, relaxed way, your innate authority surfaces. So take a deep breath, exhale, and begin to speak. Instant improvement.
  3. Pause. The man (above) questioning me noted that I often paused and said that my pauses gave drama to my story. That was probably true. But my pauses also served another purpose: they gave me time to think about what I wanted to say. They offered my audience a moment to breathe with me as well. A win for all.
  4. Care about your story. Tell the stories that have heart and meaning for you. (If you have to tell a story for your organization—find a piece of your heart in it.) As your audience, we want to feel your emotion. Trained actors might be able to persuasively share stories they don’t care about, but I can’t. Plus, if people know that you care, they’ll connect with you and forgive your mistakes.
  5. Share through the world of your senses. As an academic, I was trained to abstract information. In management, I was trained to “get to the point.” Storytelling asks for something very different—it begs us to inhabit the world that we’re talking about as if we were living there now. When we’re there in our imaginations, it’s easier to talk about a scene or story using all of our senses. And the small details you share may be what people remember best.
  6. Stop. Good stories aim somewhere and they have an end. The proverbial “Uncle Bob” at family parties doesn’t know that. He hogs the floor and talks for as long as people will listen. People enjoy his gregariousness and anecdotes for a while, only to wonder, “Where’s he going and when is he going to stop?

    Keep your ending on the horizon as you set sail into your story. That doesn’t mean you have to close with a lesson. Often your story will teach that lesson for you.

Try the above if they sound useful. Then go watch how a master troubadour created “Hallelujah,” one of the most iconic story-songs of the last century,

I hope that an ounce of Cohen’s devotion and joy will infuse you as you prepare to share the wonderful stories living within you.

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