IT DOESN’T TAKE A GENIUS to look around and see that, as a species, we’re completely obsessed with stories. Whether it’s the news, television, books or advertising, we consume stories relentlessly. And the reason why is no mystery.
Stories make us feel.
News makes us outraged. Titanic makes us cry. Twilight makes us gouge our eyes out and advertising makes us feel fat. Behind all the details of stories, there’s a feeling.
And if feeling lies at the heart of charm – it’s no coincidence then, that storytelling is one of the easiest ways to skyrocket your charisma.
In What Is Art, Tolstoy argued that art is when a feeling is transferred from the artist to another person. I believe charisma works in largely the same way; emotion is contagious, and when felt strongly, will often rub off on another person.
The most charismatic people we meet are the ones who make us a feel a certain way. They’re the ones who capture our emotions and take us from a lower state of feeling to an intense one.
If we’re sad they can make us happier, or they can make us a sadder. If we’re angry they can make us laugh; if we’re bored they can make us excited.
And stories are the easiest way to do it.
Why else do we watch television when we’re lonely, scroll through other peoples lives on social media when we’re bored, why else do we go to the movies when our lives lack excitement?
Stories are everything.
But telling them well is a different matter altogether.
In this article, I’m going to break down the steps you need to tick off in order to tell a story well during a conversation. This is not something that is easy to do, but it is something that, with practice, you will learn to maximise your ability at. Below are the 7 techniques you will need to employ, in the listed order, to master any story you have to tell. For good examples of people doing this in practice, watch any stand up comedian worth his salt. It is essentially their job to do this well, and then some.
Here are the techniques:
- Start with the truth
- Embellish it
- Structure it
- Add obstacles
- Find your key elements
- Learn your delivery
- Fail, fail and fail until you’re good
But first, let’s start with the biggest excuse people normally give: I don’t have any good stories.
I DON’T HAVE ANY GOOD STORIES
One of the biggest complaints people have when it comes to telling good stories is that they don’t have any good stories from their life. And if you’re thinking this, then it’s a fairly compelling excuse; an excuse that’s, more often than not, justified with any number of reasons and evidence drawn from your own life.
Maybe you’ve never done anything exciting. Maybe you’ve never experienced much of life. Maybe you’re a complete loser. Maybe you’ve been sat in your parent’s house all your life and have never known what it’s like to leave home.
But hang on, how many people have never left home. How many people know what that’s like? Isn’t that worth sharing? What the hell do you feel every day if you live like that?
I don’t know. I don’t think many people would know. But if you’re in that situation you might.
And that’s it. Nobody has experienced exactly what you’ve experienced and felt. It’s entirely unique to you.
You always have a story.
Now, it might not be as obvious as some of the examples I gave, but as with embellishment, you can take a kernel of truth and expand upon it. Often, you can take two separate, average stories, and blend them into one.
The other day I was on a train heading out of London when I needed to use the toilet. When I got inside, I sat down on the rattling toilet seat and went about my business. The whole place was filthy and cramped and got me thinking about a time I had food poisoning when I was on a bus, traveling. The bus didn’t have a functioning toilet seat, so I had to squat above it. The lock on the door didn’t work so I had to hold that shut as well. It was a nightmare. I remember that the walls were falling apart – all ripped and tattered. That, in turn, reminded me of the time I arrived at my third world hostel dorm only to find an insect nest in the corner of the room.
Eventually, sat there on the train toilet, I began to blend the stories into one. Until it became “I once got food poisoning on third world train. When I got to the toilet there was no seat, no lock on the door, and some kind of insect nest in the corner.”
And from there it basically tells itself.
The idea is that your life contains a variety of stories – some that will work from the outset, some that work better when combined – and all of them, without exception, are unique in emotional content to you. Nobody felt them the way you felt them. And passing that feeling on to others is what brings you together.
START WITH THE TRUTH, THEN EMBELLISH THE SHIT OUT OF IT
A good story starts with a kernel of truth.
Maybe it’s setting off the alarms at the museum, getting food poisoning, or asking a girl on a date. Whatever it is, the element of truth which you, or someone else, has experienced is the basis from which you build a strong story.
In my own life, I once set off the alarms at the Auckland Museum. That seems like a good place to start a story. But this on its own fairly thin, and lacking the necessary elements to heighten engagement.
In the early stages these elements are simple:
Context and embellishment.
Context is the events surrounding or grounding the story. And embellishment is what every story needs. Think of it like an amplifier, you take whatever you have that is true and amplify it. This might sound like lying, but as Mark Twain once said: “never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”
Now, just to be clear, I’m not saying for a second that you should lie. That’s lame. And considering you’d be doing it to impress people, that’s double lame. All you need to do is take a story that is true and exaggerate some of the elements so that they make for a better story. Think of it as giving the truth a facelift.
Taking that to my own story, I would say:
“I once set off the alarms at the British Museum.”
It just sounds better, bigger and grander. The trick is to keep it believable, but just expand the story so it’s more engaging to the listener. Often, they’ll spot that you’re exaggerating but won’t care because they understand you’re just telling a decent story.
Now that’s a fairly simple example, but consider this:
‘In Bolivia, I was attacked by dogs.’
This is true, I was. There were two of them. However:
‘In Bolivia, I was attacked by a pack of wild dogs.’
Sounds much better.
But telling that story from beginning to end lacks context, so I would usually add:
“Before I went traveling, I had to get a bunch of vaccinations. My doctor recommended all of them, but I only got the essentials. I skipped rabies, as, I’d never gotten bitten by animals in my life so why would that change now? Well, In Bolivia…”
This establishes more of context, also adds stakes to the story (other than, y’know, getting eaten). Context is essentially helping the listener orientate themselves to where the story is and who it is about. The more efficiently you can do this the better.
But if you’re looking to tell a story, you need to make things emotionally engaging. This is done two ways.
- Through structure.
- Through how you physically tell it.
First, we’ll deal with structure.
The basics are simple. Every story has a beginning, middle, and end. Which roughly translates as:
Beginning (context and set up), middle (conflict), end (resolution).
The beginning is where you want to give your listener a sense of place and character, as well as any elements necessary for the context of the story. You want to introduce what the story character wants, and how that brings them into conflict with people/things.
The middle is where the meat of your story is and will usually be the longest part. This is where you want all the conflict to occur, all the obstacles that your character has to face here, building up to a final, largest obstacle that they’ll have to overcome before the story is resolved. The more your character loses here the better.
The end is where you resolve your story. You resolve the conflict and you explain how your character got/didn’t get what they want. Any other side stories, elements or jokes that have been set up get resolved here.
On top of this, you have characters who are attempting to achieve some kind of goal. In order to dramatize this, you put obstacles between them and the goal. This naturally makes the story longer, but also increases the chances it’s emotionally engaging.
For every obstacle you introduce, you want to introduce a way around it that either works or doesn’t work out. The best kind of ways around it are ones that result in a ‘Yes, but’ which is something I use to describe a plan that works but incurs negative results as a consequence.
Consider this example, I will put the obstacles in bold.
“In Bolivia, I was attacked by a pack of wild dogs. I had turned down a wrong alleyway a night and stumbled across a pack of them. Their ears pricked up, and they instantly launched at me. I ran around the corner, straight into a fence, which I tried to climb but my keys fell out, so I dropped down to grab them, and the dogs leaped at me, but I got them, and fell over the other side and ran off down the street.”
Essentially you want it to be:
I wanted X, but then this happened so I did this, but then this happened so I did this, but then this happened so I did this, and then I finally got X / didn’t get X.
That’s the most simple structure you can use. Now note that the example follows the structure. It has context (I meet the dogs) and conflict (I’m trying to escape the dogs), but it still needs resolution.
Now, if I was to continue this story (and please bear in mind I’m trying to write this as I would say it to someone, rather than how I would write it), I would do it something like this:
“I thought I’d lost them, but when I reached my hostel, they were there. Two of them were moving towards me. The biggest dog approached me first, some kind of Pitbull. He cornered me into my door and was growling and barking – but the one behind him was even worse – this feral, yapping thing, leaping up at me.
I had no idea what I was doing but I turned to the bigger dog, looked him in the eyes and kept saying “easy”, “easy” in a calm voice and trying to look non-threatening. In mind, this seemed like the right thing to do. It never occurred to me that the dog probably spoke Spanish. I kept doing it and I don’t know what it was, maybe I reminded him of someone who treated him kindly, but he stopped barking and turned to leave. The little one, the beta dog, followed him. I was shaking, but I pulled myself together and opened the door. As soon as I did they both spun, and leaped at me. I slammed the door shut as they hit it and I fell to the floor hearing them barking and bashing against it, trying to get inside.
Laying there, all I remember thinking was “why the fuck I didn’t I get my rabies vaccination?”
The entire of that resolution, is true, incidentally.
Aside from the two basic obstacles of the dog, I also punctuated the general story with ironic or funny observations (the dog speaking Spanish, and my vaccinations). This isn’t as necessary as introducing an obstacle and an inventive way of overcoming it, but as humor is the most pleasant feeling, if you can get someone to laugh or smile, you’ve done a good job.
Now, this might seem like a lot of effort, but the reason I do this is simple. The embellishment and detail helps to build the emotion that I was experiencing at the time; panic and excitement.
But a story on it’s on isn’t enough. Where an experienced writer could take the above, and layer it with atmosphere, reversals, and drama – in conversation, you don’t have that much time, so you have you have to tell it well.
You have to tell it with feeling.
THE TELLING: KEY ELEMENTS AND DELIVERY
The difference between written story and spoken story is the time that you have to tell it. A book is all about deep immersion. I could go into detail about what the dog looked like, what the street looked like, what my relationship with the Bolivian economy is like and how the moon hung in the sky – but face to face that would take ages. It would bore you to death. You’d feel awkward standing there as I blathered on. Try reading a couple of pages of a book out loud. You’ll immediately notice it takes ages and that not a lot happens.
In person you want to be brief, you want to strip any story you have down to the basics, embellish it where necessary, dramatize it so it has feeling, and then you want to tell it. Because it’s in telling it that it comes to life.
The two rules for telling are expression and pauses.
Expression determines the mood/emotion you are trying to convey, and pauses give the expression emphasis.
Take this example. A few years back, I lived in a house filled with strange people. One was an alcoholic, one had pet rats, another was into S&M and another was wildly promiscuous. I usually tell stories about the last two; short ones, that rely almost entirely on the telling.
“My housemates Ex was banging on the door. She was saying she needed to pick up some of her old things. Sure, whatever. He wasn’t in, but I knew he’d placed her stuff in a box near his door. I left her to it, and she set to rummaging around in to box checking it was all there. When she was done, she picked it up and headed out. As she passed I took a look inside. Sat on the top was a strap on dildo. What the – ?”
“My house mate ran into my room one morning in tears. I asked her what was wrong and she said “I brought a guy back last night and he was really awful to me in the morning”, I felt bad for her and asked her what happened and she said “well, he started being really rude, laughing at me, and he turned to his friends -“ “hang on, what were his friends doing there?”
Neither of those work that well when you just say them, they rely entirely on saying the very last element with a look of complete confusion, bewilderment, and eventual figuring it out. This is for two reasons:
- It’s exactly what I felt at the time.
- It’s exactly what the listener is feeling.
The stories are about the realization that my housemate used to get pegged by his girlfriend, and that my other housemate had a gang bang. In both situations, I was none the wiser, and this news was dropped on me in a strange fashion. That was the feeling, so that is the feeling I need to convey.
The general principle of expression is to feel it strongly. Almost exaggerate it. Just as you embellish details, exaggerate expression. It just heightens the effect. Then, with pausing, hold it for longer than you think is necessary. Hell, I often look around bewildered, then wander off at the end.
So for the example of the dogs story. I would typically tell it quite fast paced with a general emotion of fear or worry, slowing down at points of emphasis. Fast paced because I was being chased. Fear because I was scared. And slowing down at moments like “It never occurred to me that the dog probably spoke Spanish” because that only really works if I say it like it’s a moronic realization.
The trick is finding the moments that are the key elements that the story hinges on. These moments are the ones where the feeling exists, and it is these moments, that when targeted, will help the person listening feel the same thing. The same principle applies for punchlines of jokes.
For every story I tell that lands, there’s a dozen where the altimeter gives out and I glide in ignorance straight into a mountain face.
Some people won’t like what you’re selling, no matter how sharp it is, and what’s worse, you won’t be good at selling it till you’ve failed to do so a dozen times.
It’s all well and good to have a great story, but until you’ve taken the risk in conversation to tell it, you’ll never learn if it’s actually any good and if you actually have any ability to tell it. As I’ve argued before, charisma of any kind hinges on you potentially being unlikeable.
Stories epitomise this. There are few things that risk a negative response more than telling a story badly. It is a woeful faux pas. But you have to go through it and you have to risk it.
There is no other way.
LET ME ENTERTAIN YOU
Good stories don’t just entertain, they help people learn who you are, and what you feel.
One of my biggest problems is that I have always been a class clown. The dipshit at school who said stupid things to make people laugh always got sent out of class and was always looking for approval. In many ways, I’m still that guy. I like to entertain people. The only thing that’s changed is I care less about what they think.
The flaw with this is that whilst I make people laugh, I often end up avoiding stories which really open me up (and by extension them) as a person. I make them feel what I want them to feel, rather than feel what I am. In reality, I need to tell better stories like anyone else, not just for charisma’s sake, but to feel closer to the people I’m around. To make me feel less alone.
For you, this will be no different.
You’ll have been through a break up, or you’ll have met someone that inspires you, or failed sometime, or succeeded sometime, you were probably brave once, you were probably a coward once – you’ve lived a life, and because of this, you’ve experienced all the various things that other people have, but in your own unique way.
Learn to share that uniqueness.
Because when we’re trapped within ourselves, and the most we offer socially is entertainment, or even worse, silence, we never actually let people get to know who we are. We never actually escape our own loneliness.
It’s not how I’d want to live.
I remember when I first started dating. Girls would always ask me why I was single, how long my relationships were for and why they failed. Of my biggest relationship, I would always say “it fizzled out”, and move on to some entertaining story or joke. I shared nothing of value about myself.
The truth was that my relationship failed because I was needy, didn’t really have my own life, and I was manipulative and terrified of being alone. My ex-girlfriend contributed in her own way sure, she didn’t really know what she wanted. But my reasons were clear, and my responsibility. I was needy and a bit of a loser. But years later, despite being confident that I was no longer that same person, I never shared that. I always moved on. Scared deep down that those same reasons for being rejected then would be a reason to reject me now.
What happened when I opened up about it was quite the opposite.
They accepted it. And shared some of their own failed relationships and emotional failings. They admired the confidence.
In admitting I wasn’t confident in the past, it turns out I was now.
For years I’d felt like that was a weakness, an ugliness that was unique to me, but in reality, plenty of other people; men and women had been there. Telling that story allowed me to realize I wasn’t alone.
And it allowed them to realize they weren’t either.
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