7 Habits of Highly Engaging Storytellers
The capacity for true storytelling in front of an audience is within you. Sari Botton and Eva Tenuto from the TMI Project share their tips on this ancestral tradition.
In the digital age, when we tend to communicate via the abbreviated shorthand of texting and social media posts, it’s easy to lose touch with the instinct that had our ancestors spinning yarns around the campfire and passing down oral histories.
Ironically, this is probably one of the reasons oral true storytelling has been gaining in popularity in recent years. Because you already know quite a bit about true storytelling—it’s innate for all humans and so you yearn for it.
Here are some keys to effective, engaging, true storytelling:
- Your story should have a beginning, middle, and end. That might sound obvious, but often we get caught up in one part of a story and don’t zoom out and see that one part in perspective. You might not go into what happened before, to bring about that part of the story you’re so focused on. You might not consider the impact that part of the story has had on your life or the lives of others.
- To ensure that you have a beginning, middle, and end, focus on a turning point, or change. In the beginning, things are one way. By the end, they are another way. And, well, something must have happened in the middle to get us from point A to point B.
- Know the difference between autobiography and memoir. An autobiography covers a person’s entire life or career. A memoir covers just one aspect of it. When you’re telling a specific 10-minute story, only provide the information that supports that story and moves it along—not everything that happened before and after the story took place.
- Tell your story in the present tense. This helps bring the story to life by placing listeners right into the action. As a storyteller, you will be more connected to the story if you’re telling it as if it’s unfolding right then. This might seem like an awkward thing to do—to tell a story about something in the past, using the present tense. But the truth is, that’s how most of us tell stories anyway. When talking to a friend, you might say, “So, I’m at the farmer’s market, and who comes up to me, but my best friend from first grade. She says, ‘I can’t believe it’s you!’ And I say, ‘I can’t believe it’s you, either!’” That’s how most of us naturally tell stories.
- Include the “TMI” parts of the story—the parts you usually leave out because you feel embarrassed or ashamed about them. TMI stands for “too much information,” and what happens again and again is that those pieces you're inclined to bury and keep hidden away are the ones listeners most want to hear—and the ones everyone truly longs to share. That’s because we all have those experiences, and want to know we’re not alone in them. That’s where the greatest connections happen between listeners and storytellers—over the TMI parts. And that’s how you release the shame and bust the stigmas around those experiences.
- Choose material from which you have some distance, so that you are more able to share the TMI parts, and also so that you have the ability to gain new perspective on it. New perspectives are among the most important byproducts of our workshops, and it helps to have first processed the experience you’re writing about enough to be able to let go a little and open your mind so you can see it from a slightly different angle.
- Focus on you—and take responsibility for your part in the way your story played out. While it’s virtually impossible to tell a story without including the presence and actions of people besides you, a TMI story centers on you as the main character and on something that happened that led you to a new revelation or understanding. Often you might worry that if you tell the truth about behaving certain ways you'll be judged, and listeners won’t find you “likeable.” But listeners are much more sympathetic toward storytellers who admit to human flaws, fallibilities, and shortcomings. Nobody likes a know-it-all or someone who tries to seem perfect.
Keep these seven points in mind when preparing to tell your own true story. They’ll help you to release shame, bust stigma, be truly heard—and free your listeners to do the same.