This is a guest post on telling your story effectively by Peter Merrick of Steamjam
In Hollywood’s Golden Age, a screenwriter finding himself in an elevator with a big shot executive and a great idea for a new show would ‘pitch’ it at the guy, hoping to land a deal. The word ‘pitch’ is rich in baseball symbolism – but the idea that you are going to pitch your new startup idea in an elevator is a fantasy.
Think about it – how many elevators do you ride? Or remember from the last networking event you were at? Everybody is drinking and eating and making small talk above the sound of pumping techno-music.
But you do need to tell your story one way or another; maybe sitting together over coffee or standing on stage at a tech convention. So how long should your story be? People do not necessarily have a short attention span. They stop paying attention if what you are saying does not interest them. The objective is to engage the audience, tell them the story and then to shut up. You don’t want to get their attention and then lose it; you need to know when the job is done and then sit down. An old actor’s adage is to leave the audience wanting more, and you can judge the success of what you do by the response.
The success of your storytelling is a combination of the quality of the story, how well you tell the story, and who is in your audience. If you’re talking to one person over coffee or 200 people from the stage, the way you tell the story is obviously going to change. You might be tempted to talk fast. Maybe you’re nervous or maybe you think the other person is busy and he won’t listen unless you speak quickly, but it has the opposite effect. People start listening to the way you tell the story and not the content. Kind of game over.
Having a great story, told well, is not going to necessarily mean the other person is going to listen though. Maybe it’s not the right time, or the right person, or there’s something interesting on their phone; whatever it is, read the signs. Read the body language. If you don’t have the person’s permission to tell your story and their attention as they do it, just stop.
Maybe you’re afraid of being boring. What to do about it? That’s easy – just check in with yourself. Are you bored? It might be a ‘great’ story, and you’ve told it many times; maybe too many times. So stop telling it. Other people are going to find interesting what you find interesting. If you don’t find it interesting, then nobody else will either.
So what is a story? A story has a beginning, a middle and an end. It’s got some conflict in it and there is a resolution. A story is not a summary and it’s not an analysis. A story doesn’t tell us how you feel. It’s not emotional. Not the best ones, anyway. In creative writing, the author doesn’t tell you ‘it was hot’, he tells you the sun was beating down and his shirt was sticking to his body. Remember – the story has to be appropriate to the situation. It’s got to be part of the flow. In a natural way, you wait until the time is right to tell your story. That’s your chance.
How do you know if it went well? In a one-on-one situation, you tell your story, you get to the end and you pause. If the other guy starts telling you one of his stories – bingo. You’ve connected. The objective of a one-on-one is to make a connection and establish trust with the other person.
If somebody else starts to tell you their story, all you have to do is be a good listener. It’s not enough to be a good storyteller. You have to be a good story listener too.
If you’re standing up on stage telling a story and you get to the end – you can feel if it went well. Laughter is a good sign. But never try to be funny, just let it arrive. People laugh for all kinds of reasons, some good and some not so good. You don’t want them to laugh because they are embarrassed for you, but they might laugh because they recognise something about your story that reminds them of something in their own life. This is very powerful – because then the audience is connecting to your story on an emotional level. The way we humans work, is that first we have to like you, or trust you, before we’re going to listen to your clever idea. We want to see you’re human before we trust you enough to fully engage with what you’re saying.
Peter Merrick PhD is a storyteller, writer and explainer video maker. He runs workshops on public speaking, story crafting and whiteboard explainer video making. You can see an example of a presentation made by Scolibri at Betahaus here.