We all (I hope) know somebody who is a great storyteller. My friend Nick is a great example. He’s shy and somewhat reserved, but when he’s with a group of people and goes into “storytelling mode”, he lights up. He takes center stage and somehow knows just the right way to wind us up, put us in suspense, build the tension and deliver the punch line to make us laugh, cry or feel inspired just about every time.
Storytelling is an art and a superpower. Like I said, my friend Nick is a relatively shy person, but he lights up the room when telling a story. People at dinners and parties always walk away wondering “who was that guy?”
Telling great stories is one of the single greatest hacks to leading a group, connecting with new people, being memorable and becoming a charismatic person.
So, how to be a great storyteller? What is the secret to telling great stories?
In this article, I’m going to assume that you have a basic understanding of storytelling. If you miss this stuff, no hack or twist will be able to make up for it.
“The Story Arc”
The story arc is the path your story leads down.
Does it build up? Does it create tension? Is there a good twist or punchline to end the story?
Generally, building up involves sharing the details. The tension is where things get interesting (i.e. what is the conflict?). The end of the story or the punchline usually has a twist on the tension or releases it.
Basic enough? Good.
Let’s get into some tactics that you can use to amp up your now basic story.
Go into feelings
Say you’re building up a story. Generally, you want to introduce the characters and setting. It’s also very helpful to talk into present tense or what I call “storytelling mode” where you enter your own story and take the people around you with you into your world.
Now that you’re in your world, how do you or the other characters feel?
Remember how your middle school teachers would tell you “show not tell”? They were actually giving you a brilliant storytelling advice. Let’s break down two examples in the build-up to a story.
Ex. 1. “So Johnny and I were going to the store the other day and saw my ex-girlfriend.”
Ex. 2. “So yesterday, Johnny and I are going to the store to get some chips. We’re listening to Bob Marley and it’s a super sunny and beautiful day. I’m feeling pretty good. I’m walking down aisle 9 and BAM! Jessie, my ex, is right there, also looking for chips”
This is already dipping into the “tension” aspect of building up a story, but do you see the difference? Example two is in the present tense. There, the character is showing and not telling.
A simpler way to break this all down is just to say: Paint a picture.
2Hooks to keep people engaged
Before the big punch line or twist ending, it’s good to wet people’s appetite. Whether it’s a funny story and you want to make people laugh or it’s an inspiring story and you want to keep a little tension, there are several different hooks you can use throughout the “tension” phase to keep people engaged.
Act out a character
Even if someone is speaking Finnish and I’m across the café, I can tell if someone is acting out a character.
For some comedians, this is their whole act. If you want to see examples, I highly recommend that you search for “Chris D’elia Germans”.
Acting out a character cues people to pay attention. It lets them know that you are exaggerating someone’s personality. You can even play a character of yourself by voicing your inner monologue at the time! This can play a role in the build-up, too.
Some tips: Go all out. It doesn’t matter if your accent is horrible. Go stand up, move around and use props. If you are acting out a character, you essentially get to make your own rules. Some people may be worried about offending other people, but if you do it with a smile on your face, people will know that you’re not serious.
What I recommend: Don’t overuse this. You can just use this technique if you are building up your story or if there is any part with dialogues you don’t want to summarize.
Ah, the most important part of any story.
Good punch lines can make mediocre stories excellent. Bad ones can ruin stories and make people never want to listen to you again.
To be clear, if you want to know how to be a great storyteller, you should first know the punchline of your story before you even begin.
Here is a simple easy way to pull off a punch line:
You’ve built up the story and there’s some tension already. What unexpected thing can resolve the tension or produce more of it?
Here are some examples from my life:
Happy Ian goes to a grocery store, sees his ex and runs out from the grocery store to avoid being seen.
Nervous Ian sees a pretty girl at a café, waits for half an hour to talk to her. When he finally musters up the courage to talk, her boyfriend comes in.
Ian is in a conversation he wants to leave. He’s looking for a way out but gets invited out to lunch. He says yes because he’s being nice. (Note: this would be said with the understanding that it doesn’t resolve the tension. That’s what’s funny).
Once you see “twists” in everyday life and you are comfortable doing a “build-up”, you will be able to conjure up a story about pretty much anything.
Didn’t think you’d get away just reading this, did you?
I want you to think of and write down the three parts (build-up, tension, punch line) to three different possible stories that happened to you recently.
Now, for each part, write the corresponding hack.
Write down your “feelings (show not tell)” for the build-up. Write down a character you can act out for the tension. And finally, write down the twist that resolves or adds to the tension.
You can do this pretty quickly. Now you should have three pretty solid stories.
The last step? Use one of them today.
That’s right, I want you to find an instance where you can share your story with someone today. Whether it’s with a total stranger or your mom, it doesn’t matter. The idea is to start working on your storytelling muscle.