A week or so ago (time marker), I spent the day in London (place marker) with Shawn Callahan from Anecdote, an innovative storytelling group from Australia, in a full day learning session called “Storytelling for business leaders”.
Let’s say I wanted to tell you about my day. I could write down a list of things I learned, but that wouldn’t be a story. I could give you my opinion of the day, but that wouldn’t be a story either. If I was going to tell you a story about that day, I would need to start with a time, date or place marker, add an unanticipated event, and even more importantly, I would have to have a point – the reason for the story. (This might sound obvious, but if you think about it, how many so-called stories do you hear where the point is far from clear? )
Why do we need a point? In our workshop we talked about this. Stories aren’t just for entertainment; they give us a repertoire of captured patterns. And matching patterns (e.g. our past experience, with a new situation) can help us with decision-making (see Gary Klein on naturalistic decision-making). Having a strong point, not only helps your listener tag your story, but helps you do it too, so that it is easier to remember and therefore more meaningful, which makes it easier to use the information and learning in the future.
This point was made for me experientially by a sequence of activities that followed in the afternoon of our workshop. We were asked to craft and tell a story to a partner who would then reflect back to the storyteller what their story told them about that person. We told the first iteration of our stories. Then we were given some tips for improving our story – making it human, keeping it simple, using the unexpected, making it concrete and credible – and we saw some amazing YouTube video examples of storytelling, from Geena Davis at the Golden Globes to Obama “Fired up and ready to go” on the electoral trail. Then we were asked to work on and tell the same story again, better this time.
I worked on my story, based on a recent experience about learning from mistakes, tried to make it more concrete, and brought in some of the real life drama and emotion of the situation. Then I retold it. And in the feedback discussion the same thing happened – my partner told me as my previous partner had, that he enjoyed it, gave me plenty of reasons for liking it, and then asked me gently – what was my point?
Slightly crushed, I asked myself – what was my point? It’s not enough to be an impressionistic storyteller – I had a general feeling of where I was going. But how do you get there? Do you need a point first and then find a story – or do you have a great story and massage it to make a point? Either way, I was clearly missing it. Even with an entertaining narrative. This is the real art of storytelling.
I need to go back and rework it; that story has potential, and must always remember to ask myself before I start to tell a story – what’s my point? I said that many storytellers we hear are rather unclear as to the purpose of their stories. I might have been one of those perpetrators in the past – are you? If so, help people learn more from you, and you from yourself, by upping your game in storytelling.