Communication skills exercises, part IV: Storytelling

July 30, 2011 by Joshua
in Blog, Education, Freedom, Tips

[This post is part of a series on Communication Skills Exercises for Business and Life. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]

Storytelling is a fundamental element of human communication. Tell someone what you did the other day and they may end up bored. Tell them a story well and they’ll hang on your every word.

What makes the difference?

This exercise teaches the structure of a story — how to generate interest to hook the listener, then how to generate tension to hold them. Storytelling is an art. I’m not a master storyteller, but I’ve improved by learning structure. This exercise compiles exercises from several books on storytelling and practice with friends.

The principles

Most people consider the core of a story the plot, which they consider a chronological account of what happened. The principles of storytelling suggest otherwise.

The core of storytelling are four elements, with the first one by far the most important. From the books I’ve read and my experience, when I think of telling a story, I think of CCSG:

C – Characters
C – Conflict
S – Struggle
G – Goal

The characters of a story draw people in more than anything. You almost never go wrong starting by describing the main characters of the story.

Usually the main character is the protagonist — the person driving the action — often yourself. Usually the protagonist encounters and antagonist — someone or something that forces the protagonist to overcome a challenge. Often the antagonist is the more interesting character even if the antagonist is the one acting more.

Do you think because you’re describing a story about yourself to a friend who knows you you can skimp describing yourself? Don’t. Tell the relevant parts — the details about yourself that are relevant to the story.

Whoever the characters are, make sure to include details — elements unique to that person: their background, physical characteristics, dreams, etc. Details make a story vivid to the listener.

Describing the characters often reveals the conflict. It’s often a dream or goal of the protagonist thwarted by the antagonist. The protagonist wants to climb the mountain and the mountain or nature makes it difficult. The protagonist lost their cell phone in the taxi the night before and the challenges of finding the phone make it challenging.

When you have believable, detailed characters with a conflict, people want to hear how the protagonist resolves the conflict — that is, the struggle and the goal. If you have vivid characters and a believable conflict, even a poor job recounting the struggle and of attaining the goal will keep people hooked.

The exercise

Tell the story of how you got something you have that required extra thought to buy — an article of clothing, an accessory, a cell phone or mp3 player, etc — using the CCSG structure. No matter how you’ve told the story before, start by describing the characters. You will generally be the protagonist. The antagonist could be an empty bank account, an unhelpful store employee, etc. Make clear the conflict between your interest for what you wanted and the antagonist’s interest.

Option: if you can’t think of a possession whose attainment involved conflict, retell any story you’ve told recently with the CCSG structure.

Follow up

Besides the structure and detail, a few other key elements make stories compelling. One of the best qualities a story can have is humor. Two of the best places to get humor are in characters’ speech and in their reactions.

For example, when a character says something, saying it in that character’s style of voice often makes people laugh. Even if you can’t do a Scottish accent, if the character is Scottish, do your best. The character may be female, male, young, old, foreign, regional, a turtle, an animal, smart, dumb, … whatever. Say it in their voice.

Then when someone reacts, give attention to the reaction. Is it a “Kapow!”, a “What you talking ’bout, Willis?”, a blank stare, or what? Make it real and vivid.

You, right here, right now

I made this exercise work for me by meeting with friends, taking turns telling stories and criticizing each other. You don’t need others. You can call someone up now and tell a story.

Don’t worry if you can’t think of the perfect story to tell. You’ll be surprised how even boring stories can take on new life with new structure.

EDIT: follow-up posts: more ways to improve your storytelling skills and my first experience storytelling in public in front of hundreds of people.

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