On Storytelling

I was engaged very briefly by an audience member yesterday after my short and somewhat shaky presentation @ Great Wide Open and she shared with me that she had enjoyed how I had brought and “woven” some of the ideas and facts around the topic into a workable story.

I thanked her, generously, for that remark as I had been finalizing the slide deck literally within the last hour before stepping on stage and couldn’t remember completely what I had actually shared and if it had the intended affect. I was certainly happy that someone had gotten something out of the 20-30 minute keynote!

I have not always fashioned myself as one who knows what is and what is not a so-called “great” story. I do not follow any particular script nor do I have any particular background or pedigree that would have helped me achieve some storytelling greatness (like people who work at Pixar). What I have concluded is that I’m pretty decent at just telling people what is and what happened.

Isn’t that what storytelling is? Just sharing your experiences plainly? I suppose that is the science of it, generally-speaking, but I also know that there is an art form surrounding storytelling where one is capable of taking said information and presenting it in an engaging, compelling, and entertaining way. I think we can all do the former with some ease but struggle with the latter.

Great storytelling needs both (art and science), obviously, to function well but what separates the speakers and the stories that are remembered and the ones that are quickly forgotten is one’s ability to draw upon and solicit an emotional response, a reaction, a galvanization of their gut. I do not suppose that I have mastered or even know how this works but I observe it plainly when I hear speakers share their story.

And I most importantly remember how it made me feel when I listen to them. I believe it was Maya Angelou who once said:

People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

I think of that often when I think of great stories and great storytellers. And that’s where I think I derive some (not much) of my success and ability to do a half-way decent job at storytelling because when I do it well I get a bit emotional on stage. I remember, in that very brief moment, how the story that I am telling made me feel and I conjure it back up as if it was happening once again.

When people see or sense or are implored to experience that experience with you I think it closes the gap between you and the audience and you can achieve your intended goal; one is able to inspire.

Is that more of the art or the science of public communication and storytelling? I’m not confident that I can answer that question but what I do know is that when I see it I know it and it works wonders.

I am challenged by it and I want to do something with what I’ve just heard. Perhaps that’s another interesting thing that is done and accomplished by great storytellers as well: They compel their audience to action; I like that, a lot, and I try to do that all the time.

Ah… now that I think about it plainly… perhaps that’s my angle, perhaps that is my “secret sauce” if you will. Perhaps that is how I storytell.